Fresh Perspective | Starting college in the middle of a pandemic

Fresh Perspective is a biweekly blog about typical first-year experiences made strange by the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Julia Smeltzer, For the Pitt News

Warning: This edition of Fresh Perspective contains content relating to mental illness, which some readers may not be comfortable with. If you are struggling with mental health problems, consider contacting the University Counseling Center.

It’s 3:43 a.m. on a Tuesday. I lie under my scratchy comforter on my new twin XL bed, looking up at the beige textured ceiling of my dorm room, all alone. I said goodbye to my best friends that morning, followed by the departure of my parents, leaving me by myself for my first night of college, 400 miles away from home. Tossing and turning, I dampen my pillow everytime I turn my head. Anxiety and anguish take control of my mind as I am left alone with my thoughts.

Coming from quarantine at home, where I spent most of the first few pandemic months imprisoning myself in my dark room, wasting my days in an unmade bed as dishes piled up on my bedside, I fell into a heavy three-month-long depressive state. I thought coming to Pitt in the fall was my chance to experience normal again — to feel like my life had some purpose to it.

I’ve been here for a month, and it’s safe to say that not every day has been pretty. For the first week, I spent my days with the people on my floor, getting the questionable food from Market Central and laughing until my stomach hurt with the people I can now call my best friends. Everything was going great, until nighttime rolled around and I would get back to my room. Living alone because of COVID-19 also meant I was alone with my thoughts.

I started scrolling through pictures of my family and best friends who were back home, and sadness would roll over my body. It’s not that I don’t love my friends at Pitt — it’s just different. I went from seeing my best friend everyday since we were 14 to seeing her through a screen. I can’t help but think about my little brother, who is the only child living at home, navigating his first year of high school without me there to help him. What if I come back and he doesn’t depend on me at all?

I spent days and nights missing the smell of the $4 candles from A.C. Moore that my mom filled the house with and the comfort of my dad’s presence when he came home from work. Even though I was constantly surrounded by my friends here, I felt totally alone. That feeling in my gut would cause me to be anxious and on edge all the time. My mind was always somewhere else. Happy FaceTime calls to my best friend quickly turned into 2 a.m. crying sessions. I started counting down the days until I could go home.

Sitting here now, I still miss my home, but I’m growing to love the home I have here. Even though my mind is settling for now, though, the stress of online classes and other priorities is growing as the semester goes on. As the rigor of my classes starts to kick in, I’m starting to experience the stress and doubt that haunted me in high school.

The thing is, I create more work for myself. I’m beginning to find myself walking to the library everyday and being there for more than five hours to get future assignments done. I’m beginning to depend on caffeine to get me through the day, and I find myself not eating, simply because my body is masking the feeling of hunger with unnecessary stress. I cry over my notebooks and stay up until the odd hours of the night hunched over my desk, hoping my desk lamp will give me enough light to finish my homework. Even a couple days ago, I walked all the way to Hillman to only realize once I got there that I had forgotten the one notebook I needed. Instead of finding a new solution, anxiety and panic came over me as I silently cried over my laptop in the library. I walked home a few short minutes later and uncontrollably started crying in my room. It was a breaking point — I needed to develop coping mechanisms.

I started to find ways to cope with the stress, ways to not let my anxiety completely control every aspect of my day. I find comfort in taking time to just lie in my bed and turn off all the lights and just watch a TV show or listen to music. I have found the importance of communication with the people I love the most. Something as little as a five-minute FaceTime with my best friend from home or calling my parents helped me feel like a piece of home was with me. My close friends here have picked up on when I’m feeling anxious and just need space. A lot of the time when my social clock has run out, I don’t feel ashamed to leave where I am to just destress and relax in the comfort of my own room. Sometimes, it can be too much. Between seeing your friends every second of the day to doing school work, it’s important to listen to your mind when you feel like you need a break from it all.

What a lot of people — especially first-years — don’t realize is that there’s no blueprint for college. There is not a designed path that you need to take. Navigating college during these times is a new and unpaved path for everyone, and we need to be a little nicer on ourselves for our own journey through this. The transition to college, especially during a pandemic, hasn’t been easy — it’s actually been a lot harder than I initially anticipated, which has taken a toll on my mental health. Tack on a pandemic to social and academic stress, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster if you aren’t careful. I have to learn when to take a break and let my mind rest — that not everything needs a reaction, and my path is going to be different than anyone else’s.

It’s OK to have days where you lie in bed and do nothing. It’s okay to have days where the only thing you did was take a shower. We are here and trying our best everyday with what we are given. Everyday looks different than the next.