‘Rather uneventful’: Students reflect on turning 21 during COVID-19 pandemic


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A woman blows out a birthday candle while wearing a mask.

By Leanna Chae, Staff Writer

Irene Cho, a senior biological sciences major, planned to hit the bar on her 21st birthday. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her plans changed immediately.

Cho celebrated her 21st birthday in August and said the pandemic and social restrictions during this time were her primary concerns when trying to plan out her special day.

“I feel as though, traditionally, celebrating one’s 21st involves going to a bar, but because of COVID, I didn’t feel safe going to one since my birthday was when mask restrictions were less of a concern,” Cho said. “I did celebrate it, though.”

Cho said even with social distancing, she was still able to have a birthday celebration with her roommates that made her more comfortable during the pandemic.

“My roommates and I went to a restaurant that observed social distancing, so I was able to celebrate in a way that felt safer to me,” Cho said.

Cho is one of many in her class forced to change plans to attend clubs, parties and bars when hitting the age many look forward to during their college years. Many envisioned celebrating their 21st birthdays without the concern of social distancing and other health precautions.

Jack Johnson, a junior English writing major, experienced similar limitations when planning to celebrate his 21st birthday. Johnson said it didn’t feel special when turning 21, as it seemed almost like a normal day, with no big plans to make it notable.

“Celebrating my 21st during the pandemic was rather uneventful. I actually can’t even say I remember it very well,” Johnson said. “It was just like another day, except with some gifts. Not to say it was a bad day, just ordinary.”

Despite it feeling like a typical day, Johnson was still able to spend time with his family. He said he was able to celebrate his birthday with family members the same week, while following safety protocols during the pandemic.

“I stayed home for the day with my mom and my sister,” Johnson said. “My mom wanted me to see my other family to celebrate too, so sometime during the week, we eventually visited my grandparents while wearing masks.”

Despite the pandemic, students such as Aaron Chau, a junior material science engineering major, were able to enjoy their birthday celebration. Chau, who turned 21 this year, spent time with his friends and did not allow the pandemic to hinder his celebrations. He said he was still able to treat himself while celebrating with his friends.

“Celebrating my 21st was really great,” Chau said. “My roommates and I went to an expensive restaurant to celebrate, which is how I usually celebrate my birthdays.”

Chau was still able to follow COVID restrictions while celebrating, ensuring everyone was safe. He said masks were a big part of the safety plan for his birthday celebration.

“When accommodating COVID guidelines, we had to take a Lyft to the restaurant and wore masks the entire ride and up until we made it to our table at the restaurant,” Chau said. “If it weren’t for the pandemic, I would want to celebrate by having a party with friends.”

Many students continue to find the pandemic an obstacle when trying to plan their birthday celebrations while staying safe. Johnson said celebrating with his friends and family would have been ideal for making his birthday feel more special and eventful. He acknowledged that turning 21 is a significant life milestone.

“I would have rather celebrated surrounded by friends and family. Turning 21 feels like a big deal,” Johnson said. “I don’t drink or anything, but it still feels like a big step in my life. Getting birthday texts is nice, but the feeling is different.”

Cho said she envisioned her 21st birthday celebration including hitting the bars with a big group of friends, but instead she was worrying about social distancing and masks.

“If it weren’t for the pandemic, I probably would’ve gone to a bar,” Cho said. “It’s almost like a rite of passage for someone turning 21.”