Lauren Wong is a senior at the University of Tampa. She was Input Fort Wayne's summer intern in 2019. This piece was originally published in Input's sister publication 83 Degrees.
One day I’m picking out my graduation outfit; the next, I’m stuck in an endless cycle of refreshing the news. Eyes glued to the screen. I, like you, am caught up in scrolling through the most recent stories about how the world is coping—or not—with the outbreak of COVID-19. Lauren Wong
Everything seems surreal. Just two weeks ago, I was packing my bags in Tampa getting ready for my final spring break vacation. It’s senior year for me at the University of Tampa, and my friends and I were going to Vegas, our last hoorah before we were to be walking the stage together finally getting those college degrees. A vacation before that last few weeks that sums up four years of hard work, giving us everything we need to finally dip our toes into the real world, was in our hands.
But then COVID-19 arrived.
It really hit our last day there in Vegas. International flights were canceled. The number of those infected worldwide was skyrocketing. Life as we knew it was changing rapidly. Finally, the email arrived that we’d been anticipating: Classes at UT were canceled and would be available online only until further notice.
I switched my Las Vegas-to-Tampa flight to one from Las Vegas to Chicago that day, and now I sit here at home in Chicago, glancing out into the bitter, gray day. As the entire state of Illinois is on lockdown, everyone is supposed to “shelter in place.” The University of Tampa has now officially moved to online classes for the remainder of the semester, and the traditional graduation ceremony ceases to exist as alternative options are being tossed around.
Yes, graduation means that all the lost hours of sleep we spent studying, all the flashcards that eventually ended up in the trash, and the long, draining classes were all worth it. I’m OK with missing the ceremony—maybe. At least, I understand why. But the factor that pains me the most is the lack of goodbyes.
My college experience has brought me close to people from all over the world. And without warning, without a second thought, some friends and I hopped on a flight thinking that we’d see everyone else again soon. This just isn’t the case.
The unknown has been thrown at us faster than ever. Where will my friends be after graduation? Back home? Scattered across the world? Where will I be? When will I get the chance to celebrate and reminisce about all the memories, all the accomplishments we’ve made the last four years together? When will everyone be back together again? Will that time ever come?
A photo from Lauren's Las Vegas trip right before the COVID-19 shutdown.
No time to say so long
Multiple students at my university have tested positive, as the administration is forcing everyone who can to get off of campus. (See the latest UT updates here
.) All my friends are now back to being scattered across the globe.
All I wish is that I had known that morning before I hopped on the plane to Vegas so I could have hugged my friends a little tighter, and told them, in person, how much they’ve enhanced my college experience, that the times with them are times that I will never forget.
Now we are to practice social distancing, which to me is an interesting contrast to what I had already considered as an isolated generation. It is technology and social media that is going to help us get through these tough times together, however, this concept just makes me think.
I think of all the times together with friends where I was more focused on what else was happening around me than to actually sit and enjoy the company of who I was with. As our phones played a role in our unattached society on an emotional stage, we are now being forced to be unattached in a physical way, only now from a screen to a mask.
There is nothing in recent history we can directly compare this to, nothing in our lifetimes, the past. There is no set date when things will all go back to normal.
Finding comfort in words
In the midst of this epidemic, a particular poem by Iain Thomas, “The Light That Shines When Things End,’’ has managed to capture all of my emotions into a simple poem.
“I hope that in the future they invent a small golden light that follows you everywhere and when something is about to end, it shines brightly so you know it’s about to end.
And if you’re never going to see someone again, it’ll shine brightly and both of you can be polite and say, “It was nice to have you in my life while I did, good luck with everything that happens after now.”
And maybe if you’re never going to eat at the same restaurant again, it’ll shine and you can order your favorite menu items and dishes you’ve never tried. Maybe, if someone’s about to buy your car, the light will shine and you can take it for one last spin. Maybe, if you’re with a group of friends who’ll never be together again, all your lights will shine at the same time and you’ll know, and then you can hold each other and whisper, “This was so good. Oh my God, this was so good.”
We're all just trying our hardest to stay strong as we are left in the dark, alone. I know the time will come when I’ll be able to embrace all my friends once again, say “thank you’’ to those professors who have shaped me into the writer I am, and celebrate all we’ve accomplished together through these years.
And when that time comes, I know our lights will shine brighter than we could have ever imagined.