It’s Dec. 19, 2019, 11 p.m. Indian Standard Time, and the early action decisions for the University of Michigan undergraduate class of 2024 aren’t out yet. I’m not superstitious, but the last few times I stayed up to wait for an application result, I received a rejection. All of them stated how “large this year’s applicant pool was” and how they “couldn’t accept all of the talented people who applied.” I also have school the next day, so I call it a night. A few hours later, I wake to the sound of my parents bursting in to tell me that the result came out. I got in!
March rolls around, and with it comes an almost overwhelming bout of senioritis. I spend hours reading about campus life — about the different residence halls in the cardinal-direction quadrangles, the apparently cockroach-infested Mary Markley Residence Hall (mental note: avoid Markley at all costs!), the libraries with nicknames like the “UGLi” and the “Dude” and outdoor spaces like “the Arb.” These daydreams sadly coincide with my high school’s final exams. After a quick search and panic about rescinding offers, my focus returns to my studies.
Then, this novel virus that had seemed too distant to cause any trouble hits home. India goes into a nationwide lockdown two days before my last exam. Just like that, we enter a state of limbo, learning more with each passing day. As someone who only vaguely remembers the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, I watch in horror as stories of overwhelmed hospitals and mass graves spread online. Masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing are all part of the new normal. Amid this chaos, the University still has in-person course listings for the fall. A nagging voice tells me that surely we wouldn’t be in person come August.
Orientation rolls around. The guides emphatically proclaim that “college is what you make of it!” Nonetheless, rumor has it that instruction might be mostly, if not completely, virtual. I have to create a schedule that will be doable regardless of whether I’m in Ann Arbor or Bangalore. I settle for a course load that won’t be too early for an in-person semester or too late if I stayed home.
A few days later, the courses are updated to reflect their new, virtual status. Reality truly sinks in when I cancel my housing contract, knowing then that there is no turning back. A few months later, freshman year starts at my desk while awkwardly engaging in Zoom icebreakers.
Now, on the other side of my virtual freshman year, I’m still thinking about a few questions that I, like many others, have wrestled with since starting class: What can I make of college without being in college? What does it mean to be a Wolverine?
Is it in academics? I had newfound freedom in crafting my course schedule this year. My classes challenged me in a way that I had never experienced before. I was exposed to new ideas, new pedagogical methods and incredible peers. At the same time, I experienced these things at either 3 a.m. or via sets of pre-recorded videos.
Maybe it lies in the many student organizations and clubs. I heard of events like Festifall and Winterfest, featuring hundreds of clubs. Typically, they would be ripe examples of how each student individualizes their experience. However, they held virtual meetings at times inaccessible to me. Then again, I applied on a whim to The Michigan Daily and now find myself in the middle of another column.
I am an avid sports fan. Perhaps sports are the secret ingredient? I remember hearing about the magic atmosphere on campus during game days, be it in tailgating or joining thousands of fans in the Big House. COVID-19 ensured that none of that happened.
The pandemic couldn’t, however, stop me from following Michigan basketball. I was delighted when we beat the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. I was exasperated with the University of Illinois over their efforts to undermine our regular-season championship. I was gutted when Isaiah Livers became injured just before March Madness. All for a sport, mind you, I had never watched regularly before this year. Yet I borrowed time between commitments to see the University of Michigan batter opponents. Paradoxically, a time of historic sporting disruptions gave me perhaps the most concrete example of how I could make a unique experience of my own.
Cliched as it may sound, this year has been both excruciatingly slow and incredibly fast at the same time. While none of my pre-pandemic daydreams panned out, I still think that I “made” an interesting first year of college. Would I have liked for things to be different? Sure, there are a lot of asterisks associated with any facet of the traditional college experience. But I’m not too dissatisfied with how things ended up. That said, one unorthodox year was enough — let’s get vaccinated and cautiously proceed back to the old normal in due time.
Siddharth Parmar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.