Columns From Quarantine: With four-year timeline gone, maybe a shortened college experience can be enough

As a third-year student, Rachel Sarrafzadeh felt a sense of sadness over the loss of her spring quarter. More than anything, though, the uncertain future looms larger than ever. (Courtesy of Rachel Sarrafzadeh)

By Rachel Sarrafzadeh

May 12, 2020 at 6:34 p.m.

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically upended life in the most unforeseeable of ways. At UCLA, our community is remarkably united by similar feelings of loss, confusion and concern, but also by light, hope and perspective that the pandemic has brought to the forefront. In “Columns From Quarantine,” Daily Bruin staffers and community submissions highlight the personal stories that mark this unprecedented moment. If you have a quarantine story to tell, you can submit it here or email [email protected].

(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)
(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)

Quarantine is a rollercoaster, to say the least.

Some days you are baking banana bread, watching TikToks and spending unprecedented amounts of time with your dog, and it all feels manageable.

Other days, not so much.

Searching what universities are considering for the fall last week, I discovered that many are planning for virtual semesters – and quickly panicked that UCLA might do the same.

My mom tried to reconcile my anxious feelings. Her words, although well-intentioned, upset me.

“You had two and a half great years and if you don’t get the end you wanted, maybe that can be enough,” she said.

With threatening tears, I sharply turned to her: I worked so hard for a four-year college experience. Not three. Or two and three quarters.

I’m a current junior, and while that has its unmistakable merits compared to current seniors, I still worry about how my final year will unfold.

Regardless of current class standing or when you came to UCLA, we’re all on the same page – we worked hard to get here. And when we got here, we came with a narrative that we were ready to shape and a known amount of time to do so.

Although nothing but the virus is to blame, it’s still a hard pill to swallow. The reality is that even a quarter short of the full college experience feels like a raw deal.

I don’t mean to cross purposes; an education, even one online, is nothing short of a privilege. But pain – despite its source, degree or relativity – is still pain. And when the news about spring quarter first broke, we all couldn’t help but feel it.

I grieved the loss and looked forward – I still have another year, three more quarters. But my dangerous Google searching bared not only my own vulnerability, but the vulnerability of our collective futures.

No decision for fall has been made, but conversations are buzzing. Even if we have an in-person quarter, its landscape may look completely different, from Rose Bowl bleachers left empty to 300-seat lecture halls filled with 30 masked students. Many of the classic and adored aspects of college life will likely be changed, and their rediscovery depends on a vaccine that has no delivery date.

And given this reality, combined with being a rising senior, my college experience, as I knew it, has never felt so fleeting.

It’s quite eerie that the sentiments of a soon-to-be graduate are felt by a rising senior.

I don’t know the next time I’ll get to walk Bruin Walk, rejecting flyers that give that strip both nuisance and personality. Or the next time I’ll enter a full lecture hall and awkwardly stumble through a row of students to reach the one and only empty seat.

Instead, I struggle to leave all the cage doors open. Maybe life as I knew it will return and I’ll get the senior year I want. Or maybe it won’t.

I try to live in the face of the unknown, but consistently accepting the overarching gloom over my leading year is no easy feat. So, contrary to every cheesy quote, I look to the past.

I look back on what is clear: my freshman year, sophomore year and two-thirds of my junior year. As I sift through my brain’s recollections and my Snapchat memories, my mom’s words linger and I wrestle with their meaning.

Maybe two and half great years can be enough.

The words float like a mysterious algebra problem. I repeat them until I recognize all that hides behind them. I think about the little things.

All the times I treaded up the death stairs, making it back to my freshman dorm room, both laughing and panting at the same time. Or the nights I raced to In-N-Out on the cusp of closing, relishing in my success with every bite.

But I also think about the bigger things.

My attempt at journalism, which despite being completely outside my field of interest, presented me with a new passion and voice. My semester abroad, when I frolicked around Europe, saw my self-doubt dissolve and my independence solidify. My bad days and challenges, which although bringing more tears than I’d like to admit, thickened my skin and changed my aim.

I think about the professors, intimidating and all, who pulled me out of my educational comfort zone and challenged me to work harder. The middle schoolers I mentored, who were never short of questions, sparked my own curiosity. The friends I made, who although hard to get all in the same room, helped me laugh harder and be better.

(Courtesy of Rachel Sarrafzadeh)
(Courtesy of Rachel Sarrafzadeh)

I think about UCLA, its chaos and beauty alike, and how it inspired new depths of achievement – from small to big, silly to serious, passive to active, personal to academic.

It was these memories – the ones that would endure – that made me realize that the worth of my college experience does not depend on the course of an unforeseeable virus. Although I wanted to shape a full narrative in a four-year timeline, the one I already had in two and a half years was, as my mom said, great.

I still hold out hope that my college experience will end with the UCLA that I know and love – that I’ll get to bid a proper farewell without a global pandemic looming over my shoulders.

The hard truth is that I don’t know how the future will unfold. The comfort is that no one else does either.

In the meantime, though, there’s a lot to be grateful for. I have a kitchen to bake my banana bread, a mom who cares enough to listen to my millennial worries and two and a half years’ worth of memories that maybe, just maybe, are enough.

Sarrafzadeh is a third-year psychology student from Los Angeles and is a Blogging contributor for the Daily Bruin.

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