The world did not ask for COVID-19. The world did not ask for virtual classrooms and meetings either. Most of all, the world did not ask to be attending said meetings, during a lockdown, in a suit and tie, at 2 a.m. That is the unique predicament I found myself in in the early weeks of my freshman experience at the University of Michigan.
Don’t get me wrong, in no way am I saying that my struggle was comparable to some of the difficulties people across the world have faced or even my fellow classmates have faced, but it feels weird saying “good morning” on a Zoom call when you can hear the sound of owls chirping in the background. A sophomore now, living on lively Church Street in Ann Arbor, this reality feels very far away. Nevertheless, a little over 12 months ago, I was giddily writing away in my notebook, making plans for what promised to be a roller-coaster of a year.
By the time the first week of school came about, I had already been in four months of a strict, country-wide lockdown, so it wasn’t the staying at home that was difficult. It was the awkwardness of Zoom calls over and above the fact that almost nobody in my virtual classroom would be a familiar face. I get it, everybody has to deal with not having familiar faces around, but that doesn’t make the prospect of interaction any less daunting. What doesn’t help is the fact that I had been in the same tiny school for 15 years and followed the same routine of waking up, taking the 8 a.m. bus to school and taking the 3 p.m. bus back. Going from a 16-year-old, 400-person institution to a 204-year-old, 48,000-person university seemed like an impossible task, so if anything, at least online school meant a phased transition. And that wasn’t the only upside.
My sleep schedule had been upside down ever since high school, and it only got worse when I had nothing else to do except being at home and play FIFA 20 on the PS4. I was almost always up until sunrise, so the transition to a 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. sleep time wasn’t the most difficult. If anything, things lined up pretty well for me: 8 a.m. breakfast with family (dinner for me) and 8 p.m. dinner with family (breakfast for me). It was unnatural according to my parents. “One should sleep and wake up with the sun,” my mother would say (she actually did say that), but they understood that I had no alternative. To make things even better, my friends’ daily soccer time was 6-8 p.m., which meant I got some “early morning” exercise as well, right before “breakfast” and my first class of the day.
Classes were where it got tricky. Zoom classes were difficult regardless of where you were logging in from. You could be in snowy Ann Arbor or sunny Mumbai, everybody was in the same boat, and I think that helped. Were the breakout rooms awkward? Yes. Was it difficult to make friends and get to know people online? Definitely. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about students, having been surrounded by them for 17 years, is that they have each other’s backs. Not only did my classmates sympathize with my situation, but they would also go out of their way to make sure any and every group project or team homework meeting was at a reasonable time. For a long time, I questioned why this was the case. Yes, my friends at my school in Mumbai helped me because they knew me and they had shared some incredible experiences with me, but I cannot say that for anybody in Ann Arbor. Nevertheless, with every passing club meeting, discussion section and EECS project meet-up, I became more and more certain: If this was how it was going to be online, I could not wait to be in person.
As I approach my first month anniversary of being in Ann Arbor, I can safely say that the online experience does not compare one bit to the in-person experience. I know that it’s been a difficult year for everyone so I would not begrudge you for thinking otherwise, but I do think that the online experience was also fantastic and that is down to nobody else but the people I interacted with. Every professor made sure that each of the 14 classes I took virtually during my freshman year was memorable. Yes, at times it didn’t feel like people really meant it when they said, “We know this is a tough time for everyone,” but as I look back now, I only remember the positives: The DoRAK club meetings I was desperate to go to because even online they found a way to make my day better, my English 140 discussion group (shoutout to Rachel, Meera and Jacob) who were just so fun and all the fantasy premier league tournaments organized by the various sports organizations.
The most important thing about my freshman experience is that it’s over and hopefully, the pandemic will follow suit. For me, and for the rest of the world, it is time to look ahead. I can take solace in the fact that I experienced something only a small percentage of people will be able to say they did and I enjoyed it to the fullest. I know that I am lucky and for that I am grateful. I know now to never take school and college life for granted and for that too I am grateful. But most of all, boy oh boy, does it feel good to board a bus at 8 a.m., while the sun is out … even if it is the bus to North Campus. And for that, I am grateful.
Rushabh Shah is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.