‘I miss being together’

What COVID robbed from the college experience

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Paige Chakouian turned 21 six months ago and is still waiting to celebrate her birthday.

The University of Rhode Island junior always imagined her coming-of-age celebration would involve her not remembering much about the day itself, but did not consider that it would never actually happen. She dreamt the day would be filled with sticky floors, bathroom conversations with overly friendly strangers and lukewarm beer in a retro, plastic pitcher. Instead, she got an at-home celebration with a Walmart birthday cake, surrounded by her four roommates and a hand sanitizer covered coffee table, her face warm from the glow of 21 colorful candles.

The pandemic has made any sort of celebration challenging, regardless of the occasion. COVID-19 has put life both on hold and online. Zoom, social distancing and masks have become a part of the new worldwide vocabulary, especially for college students. As many try to stay safe and keep their “pods” small to avoid contracting the virus, typical life experiences have been put on a nearly yearlong pause.

“I just want to go to the bar,” said Chakouian, a lifelong East Providence resident. “I turned 21, and I never had that 21-year-old experience. I just want that rite of passage. It means more than you would think it would. First thing I’m doing after the pandemic is getting a beer.”

The pandemic has led college students to put their fun, careless sense of youth aside and lead lives they see as boring and unexpectedly disappointing. College students want to feel adventure, to meet new people, to take classes in person and on campus. They long to be together, in groups, living their lives, without a sense of impending doom or illness. College students dream of life outside the pandemic, and it’s clear they’re looking forward to it.

With over 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths nationally in the last year, nearly every public place throughout the country has had to adjust how they operate, including colleges and universities, resulting in major changes to daily life.

URI junior Katherine Blake feels like life after the pandemic is an unimaginable reality after living in quarantine for so long. As a nursing student, she spends much of her time at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence. There, she gives patients medication, helps them get dressed and feeds them dinner. Two years ago, when she decided on that career path, she didn’t expect she’d be faced with the constant fear that one of her patients may be infected with COVID-19. It’s for this stress that she yearns to forget her health-related anxieties and go to the first concert possible in the post-pandemic world.

Whether it be Taylor Swift, The Jonas Brothers, The Weeknd – she doesn’t care. Blake is ready to take whatever tickets she can get. The day she can be outdoors on a warm summer night, wearing her favorite T-shirt, enjoying live music among 5,000 other unmasked faces is the exact moment she will finally exhale a sigh of relief.

“There’s an outside performing arts center near my house in Upstate New York,” Blake said. “I can’t wait to go there because it feels like home, and it reminds me of what we knew before all of this.”

As more essential workers and elderly populations get vaccinated, government and health officials in the country will expand the populations that can receive the vaccine, helping to lower the case count. College students will continue to patiently wait their turn.

James McIntosh, a URI senior from Coventry, is waiting for the day his thrill-seeking side can fully thrive again. An avid Universal Studios, Disney World and Six Flags fanatic, McIntosh hopes to take a trip with his relatives down South to visit the parks again.

“Right now, parks are still half-capacity, and you have to wear masks. I don’t want to do that in 90-to-100-degree heat,” he said. “But I love thrill rides, and I love spending time with friends and family, especially when it’s a week-long kind of thing.”

McIntosh is putting his itch for rides on hold, but hopes to strike some balance and take a smaller trip with his roommates over the summer; likely somewhere less thrilling than the parks, however.

Katie Siegle, a URI junior from New Milford, Connecticut, often thinks about the bash she’s going to throw the very day it's deemed safe.

Siegle has it all planned out in her head: red cups on the floor, a slip-n-slide out back and the distinct smell of smoke from the grill as someone flips burgers. She’s taken the time to imagine this before, and the toothy grin on her face suggests how badly she longs for the future.

“I want to invite my field hockey team because we haven’t been able to bond,” Siegle said. “I want to invite my friends from my classes. I want to invite my friends from home. I want to invite everyone I know. And I just want to have fun and be together. I miss being together.”

Students longing to be with friends is coupled with a longing to receive the vaccine. They hope to be part of the vaccine-eligible demographic this summer so they can return to their pre-COVID-19 lives in the fall semester.

Although subject to change, URI recently announced its plans for the fall semester, which suggests life may be a little more normal by then. The students are eager to restart their lives.

“I can’t wait to finally feel like a college student again,” Chakouian said. “I can’t wait to finally feel like I’m 21.”

Editor’s note: Kate LeBlanc wrote this piece for her features writing class at URI. She said, “I was curious how my classmates felt about missing out on classic college experiences amid the pandemic, so I did a bit of reporting and wrote the story. College life often revolves around having fun and being young. It turns out many students felt the pandemic took this opportunity away from them.”

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