Fresh Perspective | Why does junior year feel so different?

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

By Julia Smeltzer, Staff Writer

Another summer has come to an end as old and new Panthers return to campus for yet another exciting school year. We are trading in our beach vacations, bonfires and pool floats for textbooks, 9 a.m classes and endless nights in Hillman Library. I have made that transition back to school twice now, so why does it feel so different this time?

My first year seemed like a fever dream. COVID-19 kept me and my friends in our dorm rooms learning statistics and biology over Zoom. Market Central was a ghost town as we would pack as much food as we could into our to-go containers and find somewhere to eat. Acrisure Stadium, which once was Heinz Field, was vacant as we huddled around our small TVs to cheer on Kenny Pickett and the rest of the team every Saturday. What sounds like an isolating and lonely first year of college was the opposite. My friends and I made the most of it and made unforgettable memories that we still reminisce on as juniors. It was my first time away from my family for an extended period of time, and as much as I missed them, it was my first taste of real independence, and that was exciting.

Then came my sophomore year. No longer the small fish in a big pond. I moved into an off-campus house with three of my best friends and everything felt so real. The dreamy daze that my freshman year gave me was washing away and it finally felt like I was a real college student. Even with the pandemic still circling, I had my first in-person college class and went to my first Pitt football game as a student. My sophomore year came with a lot of new things that I didn’t get to experience my first year, and with that came some fun memories, but also some hard lessons I learned along the way.

Who knows where the past two years have gone, because now I am in my third year of college. And for some reason, things feel so different this year, coming back to Oakland as a junior. I didn’t get the anticipation or excitement of moving into a new place, since I’m in the same house as I was last year. I didn’t decorate a dorm room or a house this year — I simply packed up some of the clothes I took home this past summer and drove back to school by myself. Since I brought my car to school this year, I can get around easier and not rely on the Port Authority (which was a crucial part of my first two years of college). Things just don’t feel as exciting.

Don’t get me wrong — I couldn’t be more excited to have all of my best friends back in the same place again and be able to see them every day. Everything just seems so serious this time around. Instead of sitting in the dining hall with my friends talking for hours over our food on Taco Tuesday, I’m going grocery shopping and meal prepping in my kitchen. Instead of wondering what clubs or activities we are going to join, we are talking about our internships and how work is going. Classes are getting more serious, and instead of thinking about how we have four years left, we are talking about how graduation is right around the corner. And instead of telling people I’m a freshman, I’m telling first-year students I meet how much fun I had my first year living in the dorms and giving them advice.

Maybe the youthful and dreamy glow I had my first year has gone away, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I came into college as an 18-year-old with bright pink hair who didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. Now, I’m 20 years old with an internship in marketing and working for The Pitt News, and taking classes I’m loving. Even though I have a long way to go, I’m figuring out who I am.

It has only been a couple of weeks since I moved back to Oakland, and class just recently started, so there is so much time to make new memories and learn new lessons. I can take what I have learned from my first two years at Pitt and apply them to my life now as a junior. I know not to eat Market sushi unless I want my stomach to hurt. I know that you can probably find any textbook you need for class online for free or for cheaper than what you will find at the University bookstore. And I know how to handle taking classes while working multiple jobs. I am only set up for success this year after learning from my own experiences over the past two years.

Yes, maybe that youthful glow went away. But that is replaced with knowledge and experience that has helped me discover myself, not only as a college student but as a person in general. And I do know that I am not the only one feeling like this. I am just growing up, and there are so many new and exciting things to discover. The unknown is scary, and we don’t know what this next year holds, but that is an opportunity to make the most out of everything. And who knows, maybe growing up isn’t so scary after all.

Julia Smeltzer writes primarily about mental health and college experiences. You can reach her at [email protected].