One Year of COVID-19 on Campus: Reflecting on What Really Matters
The most impactful aspects of our time in college are not the items that we list on our resumes.
I cannot help but recognize that COVID-19 has helped me see even more clearly what really matters.
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As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane thanks to vaccine distribution, more and more of my peers can see the light at the end of the tunnel. After a year of restrictions, students are clamoring for Furman to return to normalcy as soon as possible. Study away opportunities for the next academic year have given students hope for reclaiming college experiences that have been compromised by the pandemic. However, just last week, students learned that several study away programs for next fall have been canceled. Many students were understandably frustrated by the announcement.
But what have we learned from COVID-19? Can we or should we try to go back to normal? These are important questions that are too often ignored in our current discourse. Some seem to refrain from asking these questions at all due to an overly pessimistic view that discounts evidence of genuinely good news. Others simply breezes past these questions in a rush to reopen. Reflecting on our experience and learning from it is more difficult than returning to a pre-pandemic normal, but it is precisely what good faith members of our community are called to do in this moment.
One lesson I have learned during COVID-19 as graduation approaches is that our time in college is precious. Of course, time is always precious. But these four years in college strike me as especially unique in their ability to shape our souls as we approach the rest of our adult lives. Administrators and professors know this. It is why many of them chose to work in a college setting, especially one that is as focused on the student experience as Furman. Students, especially seniors, also have a sense for how impactful college can be. It is evident in our own souls and visible in the four-year transformations that we see in our friends and classmates. For better or worse, college changes us.
That transformation will occur regardless of whether we study away or stay on campus. The impact of these four years has much less to do with the number of Furman Advantage “experiences” that we collect than with how we engage in those experiences and interact with those around us. Let me explain the only way I know how, with a story.
Two of the best decisions I made at Furman were to study away my sophomore Fall and to not study away my junior Spring.
After a tumultuous freshman year, I chose to go to Brussels, Belgium for an internship program on the recommendation of the professor who would be leading the trip. I knew the professor well, trusted his judgement, and wanted to learn more from him about politics, religion and life. Our group had a wonderful trip and traveled all across Europe. The truth is, though, we could have enjoyed the trip almost anywhere. The most valuable aspects of that semester were not the beer, the museums, or the opportunity to work in Europe’s capital, but rather the deep chats over beer, the reflection inspired by great art, and the chance to read in the Bois de La Cambre.
My time in Europe helped me become aware of what really matters in life; it taught me to value community and the simple joy of a deep conversation more than experiences and the pleasures of travel.
I spent the rest of my sophomore year and my junior fall pursuing relationships with people rather than seeking more Furman Advantage hands-on experiences. I took on a more prominent role at The Paladin; I built relationships with professors and other people that I admired; I met my girlfriend. In other words, I laid my roots at Furman.
And still, by the time my junior Spring came around, I felt that itch again — that sense of restlessness and feeling of inadequacy induced by a culture that despises commitment and a school that too often seems to measure the success of its students by the number of activities they can balance before becoming completely overwhelmed. I was not quite sure why, but for some reason it seemed like I needed to study abroad, again. It seemed like I needed to leave for the sake of leaving.
But when I asked the people that I loved and respected for their opinions, they almost all said that I should stay. For the second time during my four years at Furman, I listened. With just days to spare, I pulled out of the trip and stayed on campus. And that spring, the relationships and institutions I had been investing time in began to bear even more fruit.
If studying abroad my sophomore Fall was a great decision, deciding to stay on campus my junior Spring was an even better choice. My point is that the most impactful aspects of our time in college are not the experiences that we list on our resumes but the relationships that leave indelible marks on our souls and the conversations that leave warmth in our hearts. Those relationships and conversations can happen anywhere, under almost any circumstances.
Studying away can be a great experience for certain students. But it is not good in and of itself; and we should stop treating it that way. I have learned this lesson again during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been more restricted than ever this year with many of us confined to campus; and still, perhaps because of the dwindling number of distractions, I have had incredible conversations and made great friends.
Of course, I would have preferred not to finish college during a pandemic. But I cannot help but recognize that COVID-19 has helped me see even more clearly what really matters. As students understandably seek a speedy “return to normal,” they would do well to reflect on what they have learned from the past year. Perhaps they will come to a similar conclusion and realize that college is what we make of it. The things that really matter are things that can never be taken away.