I found the highest and lowest points of my college experience in social isolation.
It's the night before the polar vortex hits. My mom has now sent two large boxes with all the non-perishable food money can buy. My five other roommates and I are preparing for the next three days by making a wine order. The man making the delivery brings it to the door of our second floor walk-up and tells us to stay safe. This is the first time classes have been canceled for a weather event in my time at Northwestern. I can see the frost start to form outside. Earlier in the night, I trekked supplies home from Target as my boots crunched the snow.
Stepping outside can kill you once it begins. In many ways, it reminds me of the hurricanes I grew up with: You hunker down with loved ones and hope winds don’t blow off the roof of your house. Now we worry about the pipes freezing and running out of hot water.
The polar vortex marked one of my favorite moments in college. I spent the next few days throwing boiling water off our deck to watch it turn to snow and making art off of the ice forming on our kitchen window. At night, I cooked an industrial amount of ropa vieja de pollo for seven people as we all squished into the kitchen, drinking wine and listening to music. Later, we’d project Sorry to Bother You in our living room – the only true warm place in our apartment. I spent most of the next few days writing several thousand words for a creative writing class, the soundtrack of Lorde’s Melodrama emanating from my half shut door. It was a moment of creation. I finally felt the power to write for days on end. It was a moment of appreciation. I’d willingly cook several pounds of chicken for these friends on any given night.
The low point goes without saying … Global pandemic, am I right? I closed out my four years 1,400 miles away from school, wondering where I went wrong and made it all fall apart. Inevitably, I am as critical of myself as the work that I create. I wonder what I could’ve done differently: how I could’ve created better employment options for myself after graduation, how I could’ve worked harder toward my dreams.
In his heartfelt closer to his latest album, YHLQMDLG Bad Bunny raps, “Ser diferente se siente cabrón / Pero más cabrón se siente siempre ser de corazón,” which roughly translates to, “It feels great to be different, but it feels even better to always be from the heart.” I first heard this album in February of this year, during an impromptu listening party with some of my best friends. That final conclusion stayed with me. I played it over and over in my bedroom that night.
Exactly two weeks later, I found myself grabbing mismatched clothes, and whatever else I thought I might need, to put in my suitcase to Miami, as I flew home for the spring break that never ended. During my first few weeks of quarantine, the thought of my bedroom in Evanston made me cry. It now sits as a makeshift time capsule with “7 days to spring break” written on my white board, love letters from my anniversary strewn on the desk, a basket of laundry to be folded. I asked myself, What really was the point of doing so much hard work for no payoff? In a week, the promise of Spring Quarter that fueled me through some of my darkest points of the year was gone – hopes for nights on the Lakefill, ice-cream runs with friends, traditions I’d yet to partake in, all vanished. With it went employment and the first (and last) spring break trip I’d ever get to go on, not to mention processing the end of four years of my life amidst a global pandemic. The illusion of control let up, and I watched as all my small slivers of hope dissipated.
A friend shared with me recently that he often thinks about one thing I have told him since my first year of college. It’s my mantra around back-up plans. I don’t believe in them – never have, never will. There is only Plan A, because I refuse to give myself an out. I will always find a way to do what I love.
Sometimes, especially now, it feels silly to have no back-up plan. I should’ve built a viable second career to fall back on in case a virus decimated the job market, no? I should’ve planned on an equally thrilling senior year spent in lockdown in Miami. I wonder about the Plan B’s my friends might’ve had. I wonder if it worked out better for them.
That same statement I’ve been repeating since my first year has also made me proud of all that I did at this school, because I only pursued the projects and activities that brought me joy. I didn’t do anything to fluff my resume; I sought out what made my heart genuinely glow. That is something to be proud of. Instead of touting all my accomplishments, I point to these lyrics and say, "I did that." I was vulnerable and let my emotions guide me.
But recently, those words have taken on a different meaning for me. As I graduated this past weekend, my friends and family had surprises waiting for me throughout the day. Right before they opened the curtains to my backyard to surprise me with a socially distanced dinner on the patio with some of my lifelong friends, they played a video. Twelve straight minutes of my friends validating me, sharing our favorite memories, and “describing me in one word.” I watched as the people I grew with for the past four years built me up. They described me as inspiring, compassionate, a hero, silly and a “visionary.” It feels weird to write out these compliments about myself. But to hear that the people I love have such high opinions of me made me realize that one of the most important, life-changing things I did at Northwestern was create friendships and relationships de corazón. I have always bared everything for the people around me, and this is how they’ve ultimately come to feel about me. The same people have also seen me at my worst, like that time I binge watched two seasons of The Crown in two days because I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed. Yet they still saw me as capable of so much. I earned their pride. And that will always be more valuable to me than the accomplishments I can point to on paper.
Once the three days passed, the polar vortex lockdown was over. You could walk outside again without getting frostbite, and no longer were the days perfect for limitless hours of writing, or nights ideal for huddling in a living room for warmth. But in the months that followed, those friends and I went on to write stories, hold open-mic nights, make magazines, fall in love, produce shows, perform stand-up, dance bachata in Wrigleyville, and travel an hour for gourmet hot chocolate in a blizzard. I couldn’t have created, loved and lived without them. As Bad Bunny says in “<3,” “Lo hice pa’ vosotros.”