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I didn’t expect much from my first year at college. Virtual freshmen orientation was enough of a deterrent, removing the clichéd first day I had spent years picturing in my head. While icebreakers, in general, are painful, something about an online introduction amidst a sea of unhappy faces peering through blurry screens had me quickly begging for reprieve.

It was difficult to feel excitement about starting this new chapter of my life, especially when the previous chapter felt incomplete and overwrought with memories of what my senior year of high school could have been like without the looming threat of COVID-19. While I was lucky to have a socially distanced prom and consolatory graduation, I couldn’t help feeling bereft of all the social interactions that were supposed to prepare me for being on a college campus. It didn’t help that I lost the opportunity to tour the University of California, Riverside (UCR), making me beyond fearful of being in a place so unfamiliar.

A Forbes Health survey found that over 59% of adults had greater difficulties forming meaningful relationships and reported feelings of anxiety when it came to interacting with strangers after the pandemic. Despite social media platforms and virtual learning promoting as much socialization as possible, it’s easy to become accustomed to distant living. I wasn’t sure I could handle chatting with my peers, let alone physically being in a classroom after such a long break. 

My impulsively chosen major and courses were already promising a dreadful year. Even though half of my classes were in person — thanks to hybrid learning — I never found myself on campus. Large lecture halls were daunting, and somehow, I always managed to forget about social distancing. The plans I made to join a club died quickly in the face of my rising discomfort and stubborn adherence to isolation. Even when the campus started becoming more active in the spring, I found that I watched the events and hangouts pass, feeling no need to join.

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Before the mask mandate was lifted in California and subsequently in UCR a month later, wellness checks and COVID-19 policies were taken seriously in the dorms. Students were reprimanded for having more than two people in their rooms and walking the halls without a mask. Whether you were on the way to the shower or actively brushing your teeth, not wearing a mask was a surefire way to get written up. The dorms resembled a lockdown waiting to happen. One positive about closed quarters is that they force you to speak to people and inevitably make friends, whether you want to or not. It was easy to bond with my flatmates about how much we hated our classes, the dining hall and the scorching Riverside heat. 

I learned a lot about myself during my freshman year of college, especially the things that annoyed me. Dealing with multiple new experiences back-to-back can have you reeling with barely enough time to catch your breath. I was so sure that I was falling behind my peers, whether that be in my classes or my relationships. It was easy to get caught up in my head and never take the time to explore Riverside, walk about campus freely or simply speak to my peers. 

Looking back, I realize that if I had accepted the unexpected changes around me, I would have been more open to embracing the kinds of experiences that would make my freshman year worthwhile in the best of ways.