The “college experience” is rhetoric made up of social expectations: meet new people, party, join clubs, attend football games, and maybe experiment with drugs here and there. It is not so much an opportunity as a right of passage. Nestled in American movies, music, and literature are narratives that promise college students the best four years of their lives.
However, for students in college right now, the plan has been disturbed. The unforeseeable year of 2020 has left students wondering how they’re supposed to “make the most” out of college in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To many, it seems as if the UW’s Greek-affiliated students are still set on receiving the college experience they were promised.
Parties have continued in a modified way — taking place at apartments and live-outs, rather than in fraternity basements. Instead of flashing your GroupMe or sorority house key to get into parties, a negative COVID-19 test is your ticket in. For the “responsible” party-goers, a 10-day quarantine typically follows a big night out.
Community members outside the university have expressed their frustration toward students in the Greek Community as well. Shannon Hull, a 20-year resident of neighboring community Bryant, was discussing the possibility of organizing a protest of the Greek system with other Bryant residents.
“I thought, ‘Here are a bunch of privileged kids, who don’t seem to care much about the community around them,’” Hull said. “Where they go to get their cold medicine, or where they go to the doctor, this is all part of a larger community that we didn’t feel like they are seeing.”
From the outside looking in, it appears as if COVID-19 has had no effect on the behavior of college students. But from the inside looking out, their whole world has changed.
Thus, I encourage you to think about this: Is the lack of rule-following in the Greek system fueled by the reckless minds of young adults? Or is there also a deeper aspect at play here — perhaps a desperate attempt to seize an opportunity society has convinced students they will never receive again?
Ella Ekstrom, a freshman at the UW, explained that her expectations of college led to a nearly lifelong anticipation of the experience.
“There is an immense amount of pressure to have the time of your life,” Ekstrom said. “Expectations stem out of societal norms, movies, and how people talk about it. There is so much emphasis on the college experience.”
Society has set out a plan for young adults who are able to attend college, one that almost requires a college experience to grow into adulthood.
“If I didn’t get the college experience, that would take a toll on me mentally,” Lauren Hvistendahl, a freshman who joined the Greek system in the fall, said. “I don’t know what I would do with myself.”
When the “plan” is interrupted, it can leave students feeling like they’ve lost any chance of living the life they were always told they were supposed to live.
“It would be super heartbreaking if I didn’t get the college experience,” Ekstrom said. “I probably would never stop mourning that.”
The anticlimactic end to high school definitely doesn’t help students of Ekstrom and Hvistendahl’s age, many of whom spent their last high school semester at socially-distanced family dinner parties ridden with conversations about college. Every high school senior knows these discussions — they begin with questions about their plans for their future and end with adults reminiscing on their own college experience.
The problem is that none of these discourses mention late nights spent studying, eyes droopy and minds hissing with exhausted thoughts. None of these conversations talk about the days spent crying in your dorm room because you miss home. Absolutely none of these narratives embody the struggle of balancing college and a worldwide pandemic.
It’s certain that the UW students of this generation will lose at least one year of their traditional “college experience.” As we approach the one-year anniversary of being sent home last March, things concerning the pandemic are looking better, but not all that different.
It’s really difficult to let go of those expectations. It’s disappointing to anticipate the peak of your life and think that from here on out, life will never be as interesting as it is now. The answer, however, is not to give up on stopping the spread of COVID-19 and start partying again. The answer is not to let people die from this illness simply because we feel bad for ourselves. Maybe, instead, it is all about a shift in perspective.
“The experience is going to be remembering what it was like to come together as a community, to get over something together and fight through adversity,” Hull said. “If we can do what is right, the experience will come to you.”
Maybe there is a different sort of college experience we are gaining, one that is irreplaceable and unique to this year. In 20 years, when we are all sitting around the dinner table with our friends, we’ll have more stories to share than just the ones about partying late into the night. The narratives we’ll feed to our children will be about overcoming setbacks, coming together as a university, and learning about the importance of putting our own interests in the backseat.
“Thank God for young people,” Hull said. “Part of me is thankful that you guys have to live through this experience, because it will make the world better. If living through this hardship creates some positive leadership for young adults in the future ... that is my greatest hope.”
Reach contributing writer Veronica George at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @veronicaggeorge
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