I always had very high expectations for my freshman year of college. According to movies, TV shows and my own older siblings, it is supposed to be one of the most memorable parts of your life as you go from the confines of home to the freedom of a university. My sisters met their best friends during their first weeks of freshman year and always told me to expect the same. When I was a restless senior in high school, I anticipated the start of my college experience with a sort of ache: the pain of leaving what I knew behind coupled with the joy of being somewhere new.

My illusion of a perfect freshman year was struck down when the pandemic started and showed no signs of slowing amid the hordes of anti-maskers and virus deniers. As I packed my bags to move into my residence hall on campus, I told myself to lower my expectations as much as possible. I wouldn’t get to have a “normal” college experience like my siblings or friends did, but I could still stay safe and grow. 

In high school, I always thought that I would become a different person once I entered college, that I would go through some sort of magical transformation from a child to an adult. I wasn’t sure how exactly this was supposed to happen, but I’d seen it happen before. My friends who graduated came back from their colleges with a distinct aura about them — one of being put together, of being “grown.” I saw those changes in my siblings too, in the ways they grew into themselves after leaving the house and how confident they became. I was sure this would happen to me too, this seemingly natural maturation. 

Friends and family have always told me that I would “figure myself out” in college. When I told them that I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living or what to major in, they always told me that my life would fall into place by the end of my freshman year. With just a little effort on my end, everything would perfectly align and I would find where I belong in the world. 

But none of that happened this year. I moved into my residence hall last August, packing lightly in fear that the University of Michigan would send on-campus students home after a week or two. During the first couple weeks, I wandered aimlessly through the halls of East Quad Residence Hall, ate lunch outside with large groups of people I wouldn’t have normally spoken to and walked across campus with strangers from my hall. These are the parts of freshman year that were probably the most ordinary, but to me, they felt (and still feel) indescribably strange. Around us, the world was burning. The virus was already spreading through residence hall buildings and there was discontent towards U-M administration, rumors of staff striking and lingering political uncertainties. And yet, all the freshmen around me had the same eager and slightly desperate desire to carve their place early for that freshman year college “experience.”

As weeks passed, I became more and more unsure of what that “experience” was supposed to look like. Where was this promised transformation? The feeling of newfound maturity? I never felt that sense of freedom that so many people had described; instead, it seemed like the school-to-home linearity of high school had been replaced by library-to-residence hall in college. With most buildings on campus closed, I spent most of my time in my room. It was where I had to eat meals, study and live my life for months. It wasn’t a bad experience or an amazing one, and it felt as if I was simply existing in an endless moment, taking things as they came. 

It felt as if nothing at all had changed from when high school ended, and that first semester of college seemed more like a summer camp than something I would spend the next four years of my life doing. It was, for lack of a better term, dull. I would constantly think about the things I could have done during a “normal” year, and about all the people who had stayed home who I might have connected with. I talked to my friends about it too, and they agreed that nothing from our first semester in college seemed real. Even as I write this, looking back feels like a dream. 

Yet I lived in that dream for almost six and a half months. I waded through friendship drama and “normal” freshman year things during that time. However, I never figured out what I might want to major in or undergo a drastic personality change. 

It wasn’t until I moved back home for the spring and met up with my high school friends that I understood that I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t changed. It seemed as if none of us had. I couldn’t see that aura of maturity that had surrounded any of my older friends. Maybe the impression that my siblings and friends had left on me was just a manifestation of my childish naivete. 

I realize now that I had put too much pressure on this past year and my experiences within it, even though I promised myself to enter college with low expectations. I’ve always been slow at warming up to places and people, slow at fully being comfortable somewhere. I had expected that to change when I became a legal adult, but looking back I realize how naive I really was. It might not have been perfect, but I still have plenty of time to find that place where I truly feel comfortable. 

To all incoming freshmen: I don’t know if your experience this fall will be anything like mine, but I hope that with rising vaccination rates, you’ll have something closer to a normal freshman year. It will be unfair to compare your experiences to anyone else’s, so take this year at your own pace.

MiC Columnist Safura Syed can be contacted at safura@umich.edu.