Fountain of Youth
On rising juniors who feel more like first-years.
By Sadia Haque
Two years ago, I was a plucky Barnard first-year with an overflowing blue bin and a bucket list a mile long. Now, I’m returning to campus as a junior, but I feel more like a “sixth-semester freshman,” as Ellie George, BC ’23, put it. One second, I’m on top of the world, taking my first steps into college life; the next, a pandemic’s engulfed the planet and I’ve lost all touch with reality. A year and a half have gone by, and I’ve spent only one full term on the campus I’m supposed to know like the back of my hand.
Being kicked off of campus my second semester of college and frantically transitioning to Zoom classes left me with whiplash. That I would lose my entire sophomore year to the pandemic was an even harder pill to swallow. I didn’t feel like a college student—much less an actual adult—sitting in my childhood bedroom, logging in to classes online, wearing pajamas 24/7, surviving solely on eggs and instant ramen, and leeching off of my parents when I got too lazy to do things on my own. I had a terrible feeling that I would never go back to campus. I was doomed to spend the rest of my college years languishing away in my bedroom.
Enter Pfizer and Moderna. At first, people clogged the pharmacy counter of every drugstore in the country, eager for a coveted dose. By summertime, cities were bribing their citizens to get vaccinated—and I’m not complaining, since I’ve enjoyed free fries from Shake Shack and multiple free Krispy Kreme doughnuts. And soon, many universities were devising plans to conduct the Fall 2021 semester entirely in person. Miss Rona seemed to subside enough—in the United States, anyway—for whoever we pay the big bucks to welcome us back to Morningside.
At first, I felt relieved at the promise of a return to campus and to the autonomy I had lost during the pandemic. But then a new kind of panic set in. The idea of coming back to Columbia sounded fun when it didn’t feel real, but after it entered the horizon of possibility, I had no idea how to cope. I would have to reacclimate myself with the campus, figure out where all my classes are, and rediscover the best spots to study or take a snack break. To say nothing of interacting face to face with other humans my age, humans who would expect me to have a clue what I was doing there. How could I, someone who still thought of myself as a first-year, be a junior in college?
I’m definitely not the only upperclassman who feels this way. “There will be a whole cohort of students who will be looking to juniors and seniors for leadership. And I'll be winging it, quite frankly,” George told me when we spoke over Zoom, for old times’ sake. She told me she’s considering flat-out honesty with any first-years who ask her for advice. She set up a scene for me:
“A first-year comes in and is like, ‘Oh, how do I do this?’”
“‘Oh, I don’t know buddy.’”
The idea that people might look to me for advice sounds laughable. I’ve barely kept it together the last year and a half during my Zoom classes. Every other day for eighteen months I’ve woken and wondered what I’m doing with my life. Sometimes, my insomnia kept me up for days on end. And though I somehow scraped by with a GPA that doesn’t reduce me to tears each time I open SSOL, it gives me little comfort, let alone company.
“When we get back to campus, everything’s real again,” George said, “because, with everything online, there’s kind of this veneer of falsity.” I had asked about going from Zoom to in-person classes. “Even the bad grades I got,” she told me, “I was like, Those aren't real, doesn’t count. But then the good grades I got, I’m like, Was it because of the pandemic, or are they grading easy? I don’t know.”
The only real comfort I have is knowing that Ellie and I aren’t alone in feeling anxious about returning to campus as a sixth-semester freshman. We will all be winding our collective way through the labyrinth of the Schermerhorn extension, navigating which professors actually want us to come to office hours, and figuring out which corners of Butler are the quietest, best-lit, and least drafty.
Even with all her doubts and insecurities, George remains hopeful about her next year at Barnard. “It's going to be a wild ride. I just know it,” George said. “I feel like it’s going to be a good year, deep in my bones.”