By Michelle Pellegrino
I EXPERIENCED an immense amount of nervousness and excitement coming to Rider, the normal occurrence for every college freshman. I was living on campus and ready for some independence. I made wonderful friends very quickly, and we all looked out for each other.
That’s probably why it was so hard to say goodbye.
I remember sitting at a table in Cranberry’s surrounded by my friends when we received an email saying that our spring break was going to be extended a week because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There had been talk of the school closing because of the virus, and I was dreading an email like this. “It’s just two weeks,” I thought. “And then all of this will be over.” Other people were not so naive, and I remember seeing someone buy an entire pizza in an effort to use their BroncBucks before it was too late. It was like watching the end of the world. Little did I know that it would be the end of the world, or at least the life I had come to know and love.
“We are extending spring break for an additional week through March 27,” said the university wide email sent through University Communications on March 10, 2020. Only three days later, we were sent an additional email from the university telling us that our classes would be moved to remote instruction for the duration of the spring semester, and additional emails were sent the following week that solidified this decision.
I was devastated. I was told that college would be the best four years of my life, and even though it had been living up to my expectations, the pandemic had other plans for me. I felt like I was being robbed of the happiest years of my life, and no matter how much I tried to recreate that freshman-year experience in my later years at Rider, it was never the same. Even in my junior year when most students were vaccinated and we could finally go back to in-person instruction, there were so many activities that still had to be canceled or modified to minimize the spread of COVID. As much as everyone tried to make my college experience the best that it could be and as close to “normal” as possible, it was never the same. And it never could be the same because the pandemic changed so many things, including me.
Three years later, when we have finally reached that conventional idea of a normal school year, one without masks and social distancing, I still find myself impacted by COVID in unexpected ways. I was sitting in the bleachers at a Rider men’s basketball game this past March, shoulder-to-shoulder with people, tucking in my knees to keep them from touching the back of a stranger, when all of a sudden I was hit with a pang of anxiety and a wave of guilt. I was so close to so many people, breathing the same air, and I had no idea if any of us were sick.
This wasn’t the only time I’ve found myself thinking these intrusive thoughts. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m safe, I’m vaccinated and I’m doing everything that I’m supposed to be doing to keep those around me safe while still living my life, but the fear of COVID still haunts me sometimes.
We’ve spent so much time waiting for the world to return to normal that we’ve changed in the process. Sitting in a crowd of people felt normal for me three years ago, but now, not so much. I’ve spent so much time thinking about mitigating the spread of COVID that it’s become hard to stop.
I still feel the effects of the pandemic. Sometimes it’s only in small ways, like how my boyfriend doesn’t enjoy eating outside anymore, claiming that during the pandemic he ate outside enough to last a lifetime, but sometimes the impact is larger, like how working remotely was normalized.
I’ve continued to take a few classes online since the pandemic, and as an English major, I’ve noticed that a lot of jobs in the publishing field have been moved to remote. When I started college, I had this picture in my head of what my career would look like, and regardless of the job, I pictured myself sitting in an office somewhere, but now, working from home is a very real possibility for me and many of my peers.
Other times, it wasn’t COVID itself that changed my life, but the time that it took from me and how it altered significant events in my life.
My grandfather passed away on March 24, 2020, close to the beginning of the shutdown, and while his death wasn’t deemed as being COVID-related, it still felt like the virus took him. There were strict limitations on visitors in the hospital, and even though he had so many friends who wanted to say goodbye, only immediate family could go to his funeral. He deserved so much more.
Within these past few years, my mom was diagnosed with liver disease, making common colds even more threatening because of the limited medications she can take. For her, the masking and the social distancing isn’t over.
While some of these changes were directly caused by the pandemic, some are merely just the product of time passing, but the feeling of loss is only intensified by the time I lost because of lockdowns and remote instruction. I loved my time as a freshman and consider it to be the happiest time of my life, but that time was cut short, and no matter how much I tried to recreate that experience in my junior and senior years at Rider, it was never the same. It’s been three years since I said goodbye to my friends for a spring break that never ended, and so much has changed since then, but I have come to accept that we will never go “back to normal” because what is normal is always changing.