As a first-year, I imagined finding the happiest moments of college within the crowd at Friday night parties, the soles of my Nikes sticking onto the basement floor. Or, when receiving a midterm paper lavished with professional praise, though I had substituted every word with one from Thesaurus.com. I told myself I needed to enjoy college — the “best four years of my life” — but I was pretending.
In my first semester, I counted the days until I would return home for winter break. “Don’t think that way,” my mother said over the phone. “College passes by in a blink of an eye.”
Part of me hated change, though it wasn’t high school I wanted back. I desired the familiarity. As much as I could study for my courses, and prepare myself, I made mistakes and these were the small reminders my life was uncertain.
Despite everything that challenged me that semester, though, I remember the simple moment I realized I would be OK. I was studying with a junior named Angel and working on a paper about W.E.B. DuBois’ theories of race. I struggled to nuance my understanding. How did DuBois conceptualize race? Angel offered to edit my writing. Back then, it felt foreign that someone more knowledgeable and experienced in sociology would extend his help, and without conditions. On Google Docs, he offered comments on every paragraph.
Angel would later introduce me to his friends and together, we discovered small moments of happiness — cutting hair in Lydia’s room over her white rug or making frantic eye contact when our statistics professor flashed Bayesian statistics on the screen — which strengthened my sense of belonging. A community budded. And I was moving forward.
In sophomore year, I no longer used Google Maps to find the engineering building and learned the routine of college: when to register for classes, where to study on campus, and how to ration my meal credits. By spring, I found solace in what to expect. Most of my friends agree that during sophomore spring, we finally felt most settled and opened ourselves to possibilities for our future. I played a pastor in the production of Rimers of Eldritch. I rode a Harley Davidson for a student movie. I volunteered at a startup distributing naloxone across Providence.
Then came the announcement to evacuate campus. My friends gathered on our tiled dormitory floor, our books packed in suitcases, clothes already sent to storage. The emptied space felt like the only reminder that this was real.
We ate chocolate cake with napkins because we forgot utensils. Neighbors from down the hall trickled in, and the room swelled with voices, and I closed my eyes, wanting to preserve that moment of happiness. My parents drove me home to New Jersey the next morning. As we left, I pressed my palm against the glass pane of the Toyota’s rear window — reaching back to a familiar time and place. I hated change, but it always happened. And this time, I was alone.
Life felt like a waiting room the rest of sophomore year — waiting to return to campus, waiting to return. My mother stuck her head in my childhood bedroom during a virtual statistics class, and asked, “Are you going to need a monitor?” I didn’t answer. I didn’t know how permanent the pandemic would be. But over the summer, as we received updates on the remote status of our junior year, I ordered a desktop online and was the most unsure I had ever been about not only the future but the present. I struggled to find meaning within change.
“Why can’t I just tell myself it’ll be OK?” I wrote. The anxieties from classes, racial strife, and our futures layered over the pandemic. College felt confined to the borders of my monitor. But what sustained me throughout were my relationships. During a Zoom interview, my WiFi severed and I ran down Bowen Street in sandals, calling my friend, laptop under my armpit, praying he would pick up. I arrived at his front steps, panting, and he let me into his apartment. I logged back on.
In between classes, I spent hours roaming outside, talking with my friends on speakerphone. We asked each other everything. What did we want out of life? We shared the deepest parts of ourselves. These were the conversations that reminded me of what I had not yet fully grasped — the community college granted me. No matter what happened, no matter the change, others felt the same way I did and shared my hopes and fears. We endured by ourselves, but also with each other.
During senior year, I would wait in line in the mailroom or sit outside a cafe, and notice classmates I hadn’t spoken to in two years, and at the same time, classmates I recognized only from Zoom. I wanted again the ease of sophomore year, but the pandemic remained. COVID-19 cases spiked on campus; classes stayed partially remote. This was considered normal. Still, I felt a constant pressure to compensate for lost time and peripheral relationships.
Along the way, though, I resigned myself to reality. I must have realized all I never expected out of life, all that I expected and continued to fear: these weren’t the inconveniences of life. This was life. And we bravely moved forward.
Today, as I watch U-Hauls line Thayer Street, and sophomores and juniors empty their dorms, I feel my heart suspend. I’m brought back in time. For my friends and me, there’ll be no more moving out to move back in. This is it. We’re leaving.
I’m counting down the days once again, but this time, I’m longing to stay. And at this moment, I remember all the uncertainty I’ve felt before. I remember where I’ve been and the people I’ve known, the glints of happiness we’ve shared — and for the first time, I believe, it’ll all be OK.