By Emma Cole

The whole thing feels sort of like a dream now. What were once freshly laid floor stickers measured exactly six feet apart are now nothing but scraps of sticky residue, the words “STAY APART” no longer legible. Every once in a while, I’ll see a blue surgical mask abandoned on the side of the road, something that was once a safety precaution, ticket inside, and even a political statement is now just there. Toilet paper is no longer a rare find at the supermarket. A few weeks back, my doctor asked how many doses of the vaccine I had received, and I realized I’ve actually forgotten.

As someone who graduated from high school in 2019 and is on track to graduate from university this year, I can’t help but become overwhelmed with a weird sense of guilt when reflecting on my experience with the pandemic. I got to go to prom when Corona was just a brand of beer, and I’ll get to walk across the stage at Convocation without my smile being hidden beneath a mask. When COVID-19 was on the rise, empathy for students was reserved for the class of 2020. This was understandable, as they were robbed of experiencing some of life’s biggest rites of passage. As a student who so narrowly missed this from being my own reality, I became overwhelmed with a sense of guilt for being sad about missing out on university. I thought: “Of all people, how could I complain?” Now that my student experience is ending, I think this is the right time to reflect on an alternative perspective of the pandemic, one that wasn’t heavily discussed in the media.

It feels almost shameful to be airing out my thoughts on how the pandemic impacted me because I am lucky for so many reasons. I never had a positive test result, lost no one due to the virus, and again, no major life events were altered because of it. I am fully aware that in the grand scheme of things, any negative experience I had as a result of the pandemic is nothing compared to the trauma and loss that others faced. But in this personal reflection I can’t speak on anyone else’s experience aside from my own. I’ll admit, simultaneously having my university experience shattered while also being told that “it could be worse” made me feel like I wasn’t allowed to be upset. I soon found out that regardless of how other people felt about it, I couldn’t control my feelings.

I was 18 at the start of the pandemic, now I’m just three months away from turning 22. Even though I live in Ottawa, given the isolation I felt from Carleton, I might as well have been on the other side of the world. Instead of running into friends on campus, I stared at black rectangles on my laptop screen. Everything I did was within the four walls of my room. My classes, first internship, and even cheerleading practice all existed inside my laptop. I clung onto the hope that things would soon return to normal, trying to hide the sadness that I was really feeling. After months went by with no end to isolation in sight, I realized that pretending to wear this “it could be worse” attitude wasn’t making things better.

Over time, I realized that my reality of doing physically okay could coexist with me mourning for the post-secondary experience I never had. The only thing I was working towards was my undergraduate degree, which, considering the entire university was confined to my bedroom, even that started to seem intangible. Without the obvious markers of closure after each term like handing in an exam at the Fieldhouse at Carleton, my university experience started to feel like a blurry stream of time with no obvious beginning or end, one where I forgot what it was like to walk into a store without a mask and couldn’t picture a future without it. Pretending like it was okay didn’t actually result in me being okay, and I had to stop insisting that this was the case. Confiding in my friends who also graduated high school in 2019 turned out to be extremely helpful, as it opened up a space where we could bond over both feeling guilty when reflecting on our emotions towards the pandemic while also acknowledging that it’s normal to feel this way. During this time though, there was no one I needed to be more honest with than myself.

Looking back, the answers to coping with the pandemic were right in front of me. Confined to my home for nearly two years, the only place to look was in the mirror. I had to be honest with the girl staring back at me. Instead of just swallowing my feelings, I digested them. Yes, I got to graduate high school before the nightmare of 2020 hit, but I still lived through 2020. This June, I’ll proudly walk across the stage at Convocation with no precautions in sight, but I spent hours in online classes to get there, relying on nothing but my own motivation to make sure work was completed and handed in on time. I could’ve had it worse, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that it was still hard.

There is no competition to be won where the top prize goes to whichever group of students faced the biggest hardship during the pandemic. The truth is, all of us should be proud of our ability to persevere through our studies despite all the lingering uncertainty about the future weighing us down. So, while we weren’t the group of students who missed out on high school graduation ceremonies and prom dresses, we did miss out on a lot of experiences while working towards our undergraduate degrees. Rather than trying to forget this reality, we should instead be giving ourselves extra credit for facing (and I hope this is the last time anyone has to read these words) the unprecedented times brought forth by COVID-19.

Author’s bio:

Emma Cole has recently graduated from the Communication and Media Studies program with a minor in News Media and Information from Carleton University. Upon graduating, she was awarded the Senate Medal for Outstanding Academic Achievement for being in the top 3% of students in her program.

As one of her final assignments, Emma wanted to reflect on how her undergraduate experience was impacted by the pandemic. Despite the challenges it presented, Emma is leaving Carleton feeling proud of what she’s accomplished and excited for what’s to come as she enters the professional world.