I left on a plane out of Syracuse on our first warm day of the spring semester on the ninth of March. Crossing the university quad, toting my trumpet case and lugging a small suitcase behind my heels, my friends and I remarked at the movie-esque scenes we passed on our way to the meeting point. A group of students dressed in cut-off shorts and school t-shirts threw a frisbee to our right, which passed over another group lounging on plaid blankets and clustered around a group of textbooks. The sun had finally returned after its multi-month hiatus, as was typical for the Syracuse winters.
We joked about the adventures we’d have in North Carolina for the week. We’d be travelling there as members of the pep band and playing music in the stands to support our men’s basketball team in the first round of March Madness tournaments. Our chatter was loud and hopeful, but indiscernible amidst the yelling and laughter of everyone else enjoying the nice weather.
It seemed almost impossible that we should arrive back to this spot a week later, to a campus devoid of all noise and life, at all. Even the sun had abandoned the spots on campus it had just so recently touched with ideas of warm summer days and our upcoming graduation ceremony. Buildings were shuttered and closed, serving as bleak reminders of the uncertainty our entire world had just entered under the news of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The original adventure I had left for with my friends, hailed as our get-out-of-class-free band sponsored trip to North Carolina, now seemed like an evil splurge that cost me the final moments of my college life. All of the guarantees I had expected for my senior year had been given a hidden expiration date that meant I never foresaw my ‘lasts’ coming. My last goodbyes had merely been “see ya laters” when we boarded our plane to North Carolina. Now, my friends had all fled home to rough out the road ahead with their families. My last in-person class had been a random Tuesday afternoon lecture, where I’d spent the majority of it staring at the clock thanks to a piercing headache. Now, most of my professors weren’t even holding meetings over Zoom. My last college sports game had been an underdog win against North Carolina that sent us into dizzying amounts of hope for our success in the basketball tournament. Now, there were talks that college football wouldn’t even return in the fall.
Within the pain and shock of a lost senior year, also came the immense feeling of guilt. Did I really have the right to feel sorry for myself when these measures were being put in place to save millions of people’s lives? Would experiencing the last spring formal dance, or my graduation, be worth flooding the hospitals with more infected people just for the sake of a social gathering? No, of course not. The wants that I had could not be justified when weighed against the terminal risks of the sudden pandemic.
But what could come next? If there wasn’t a graduation, classes were over, and the economy was as damaged as the news said, what could I possibly do? I found that the best answer was to be grateful for the new blessings of time in a world that had come to a stop. Being stuck at home meant that there was plenty of time (for the first time in a long time) to really evaluate what I wanted in my future. There were no distractions, no commitments, no fears-of-missing-out. It was like a breath of clarity that, I’m now fairly certain, all undergraduates need after completing the whirlwind years of college.
I began to ask myself what skills I wanted to focus on improving, what hobbies I wanted to try, and even what hobbies I missed. I found myself picking up books that I always said I’d “read when I was less busy” and looking at work that interested me, regardless of the company’s location. While the job market seemed to have crumbled out from underneath me, internship opportunities had caught me with a digital safety-net I never would have considered before.
Being accepted to a virtual internship was the change I needed to still feel productive in quarantine when I had previously believed all it was possible to do was binge Netflix and eat. Suddenly, I was building my portfolio and working on creative projects I cared about, all from the comfort of my bedroom. I found routine and motivation in the midst of my self-pity for the changed world. Soon, I began to appreciate the small additions that came with the unexpected changes, rather than curse the changes for the things that it took away.
In navigating life in the middle of the pandemic, there is no clear-cut answer on the best way to spend one’s time. But I believe we each have something to gain in the time we have. What I had lost in a graduation ceremony, I had gained in the celebration of new experiences. I was finally reading again, spending time with my family, and even working with an international company that I never would have considered as a possibility had I been rushed into the job market. And in the uncertainty of the months ahead, I believe it’s important for us to not only understand the importance of the measures put in place to keep people safe, but to learn the value of the things we can do when we have nothing to do, at all.