From the Nation’s Capital to My Hometown: How COVID-19 has Changed the College Student’s Experience

When I was a senior in high school just about to graduate, I took part in this tradition in my AP Calculus class. Many students who take that rigorous course are seniors, and many of them go off to colleges; in my class of 419, I was one of three to go to an out-of-state college. The tradition in this class was to paint license plates of our colleges. As an incoming freshman at the George Washington University, I painted the famous cherry blossoms in DC.

Now, as a junior, I have never seen the cherry blossoms bloom.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is a celebration commemorating the gifted Japanese cherry blossoms, it is a beautiful location to visit and one of the many benefits of going to college in DC. Despite this, my freshman year I was too busy to take a moment to visit the delicate pink trees.

Last year, I was only able to see the small buds about to blossom. March 12 was one of the last “regular” days I had on campus. I woke up early in the morning to walk to the office for my internship. I always walked through Lafayette Square in front of the White House — a regular occurrence for many GW students before COVID-19. Even though I was groggy from getting up early, I always felt a sense of gratitude being able to live, work, and study in the nation’s capital.

After a few hours of work, I walked back to campus for classes. My first one was cancelled as Spring Break was approaching next week. I met up with my boyfriend who was leaving to go back home for the break in just a couple of hours. I remember every detail — I was so warm as I had worn a black turtleneck. Spring was coming quicker than expected.

We took a walk to the National Mall, down to see the unopened cherry blossoms. We sat on the concrete and looked out onto the Tidal Basin, unsure of what would happen next. By then, we’d been told that after the break we would have online classes until April 5th.

We began to walk back to campus, not knowing this would be one of the last times we would be able to do that together. I hugged him goodbye in front of his dorm room, District House, and then walked to the last in-person class I would have in over a year.

Despite the fact this was my favorite class I had ever taken, the feeling in the room on that day was somber. Somehow we all knew things would change, quickly. My professor made sure to give us a warm goodbye, and a hopeful “see you later.”

I walked back to my empty dorm room; my roommate had left earlier to be home with her family.

That night, I got together with some friends to have dinner. The first place we walked to was closed, unsure if it was because of the looming danger of COVID, we simply went to a nearby favorite on campus.

While we all sat together eating, we didn’t realize how uncommon this would be in the next year — to be able to spend time with friends, no masks protecting us, while we just enjoyed each other’s company without the fear that we were causing harm in doing so.

Once we were done with dinner, we decided to go night monumenting — a favorite pastime of GW students.

From our dorm room, the walk was less than 10 minutes. We actually stumbled upon some other friends who were doing the same exact thing and talked about the future — the upcoming spring break, the severity of COVID-19, and how it will affect us. We were so hopeful that things would return to normal just after those two weeks online.

Eventually, we reached the glowing light of the Lincoln Memorial and took the steps all the way up to sit and look out onto the view of the National Mall, in awe of the Washington Monument. We were surrounded by freshmen laughing, a slight breeze, and the happiness that we were able to at least do this.

A couple days later into Spring Break, all students received an email that the rest of the semester will be administered through virtual learning. At the time, I was still in D.C. so I was lucky enough to have packed up my own room rather than other students who had to depend on moving companies to take care of their belongings.

By then, I had booked my flight back home to Georgia since only a certain amount of students were able to live in on campus housing. For the few days I had stayed on campus, it was depressing. Kogan Plaza, the heart of GW, was not riddled with students exchanging conversation on their way to class. In the District House basement, you wouldn’t see students eating between their classes. I suppose the campus was just getting ready for this silence.

It’s been nearly a year since I have been in DC. A lot in the world and my life has changed since then. To go from a city back to my small town in Georgia was a shift I wasn’t prepared for, but I made it.

I miss the moments of walking to class and spotting a friend, having lunch in between classes, the quietness of the library.

After an entire year of virtual classes has made a lot of students feel robbed of their college experience — I certainly feel this way. There have been far more instances where my mental health has been at its worst as I attempt to finish all my assignments. Not being on campus to even have the chance of seeing my friends, or others my age, has definitely been a huge shift. Ultimately, I am going through college without being able to experience all of the things that make it memorable.

It is these moments I hope more people can see — professors, parents, everyone. Every single college student is experiencing a drastically different year than they ever could have expected.

I only hope people can grasp the hardships and the grieving of these moments. It’s often said that college is the best four years of your life, and I will never fully know that experience.

Even though my junior year did not take me on a study abroad program, or with my best friends in DC, I am grateful that I am safe and with my family. For many college students, this year may look drastically different — but it is one that we are leading with grace and perseverance. I simply wish in the future that I will be able to take a moment, and finally be able to see the cherry blossoms bloom.

Jennifer Garcia is a Communications Intern at Believe in Students. She is currently a junior and Cisneros Scholar studying Political Science and English at the George Washington University.

Hope is an action research center focused on supporting #RealCollege. Students, presidents, educators, and more will lend their voices here.

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