From the Perspective of a CofC Student
What is the college experience? To some, it may be going out and spending time with friends, to others staying in and studying for an important exam, but for most, it’s about making connections and getting the absolute most out of the time spent at school. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has put an abrupt end to much of the socialization that college students thrive on. Being a college student during the pandemic might be one of the most emotionally straining, frustrating, and difficult things to do. Loose restrictions, feelings of isolation, and being educated through a computer are all factors that make this pandemic tough to navigate for college students, especially Lilly,* a College of Charleston sophomore. She was able to join me for an interview to discuss life during the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected her “college experience.”
In March of 2020, Lilly’s life changed forever. COVID-19 was taking on the world widespread and a trip home for spring break turned into a living nightmare for months to come. Lilly’s classes were all moved online, and she had to pack up all her things and move home for the foreseeable future. She stayed at home with her mom, cat, and dog trying to keep her health intact from the virus that was sweeping the globe.
Unfortunately, her friends ignored the quarantine and continued to hang out with each other. As someone who wanted to remain safe for her own health, and the health of her 60-year-old mother, Lilly declined numerous invites from friends to hang out. Her peers dismissed the virus, convinced it was no worse than the flu and they would not be severely affected even if they were to contract it.
The age and time in her life that Lilly is at severely affects the way the pandemic has affected her. For Lilly, an overwhelming feeling of isolation has come over her during this pandemic. She was forced to abandon friendships with those who were not taking the pandemic seriously, and now at school she explained that it is “nearly impossible to make friends.” With the lack of in person classes, Lilly has found that making friends is not really an option for her this year as she usually is able to connect with her classmates. This problem is something that affects lots of college students during the pandemic and it puts a hindrance on the college experience.
Arthur W. Frank is the author of the book, The Wounded Storyteller, a collection of types and examples of illness narratives. Frank explains three illness narrative categories: restitution, chaos, and quest. Assuming that we can call Lilly’s interview her illness narrative because it is her story of life through a world full of illness, we’re able to categorize it using Frank’s illness narrative definitions. Lilly’s story can fit into all three of these categories when examined under different lenses.
The restitution narrative is described in Frank’s book as “anyone who is sick and wants to be healthy again” (77). Lilly as a college student is muddling through this pandemic with the hope of returning back to normal. In Frank’s book, he describes those who are able to tell restitution narratives as people who are not terminally ill: their illness is temporary. This pandemic, though it may feel never-ending, is temporary. Lilly’s feelings of isolation, fear, and frustration will pass. That is why her illness narrative has the ability to develop into a restitution narrative.
Lilly’s illness narrative also fits some aspects of the chaos narrative, the second category of illness narrative that Frank proposes in his book. The restitution narrative and the chaos narrative are seen as complete and utter opposites. Frank explains that chaos narratives lack narrative order and are told without sequence. This type of narrative is difficult to understand. Told by the person in the midst of chaos, it’s nearly impossible to grasp the actual gravity of the situation because of the lack of distance the person has from their illness. For Lilly her whole world has been turned upside down. Her grades are worse than before the pandemic, she’s been forced to abandon relationships, and her feelings of isolation can overwhelm her at times. She is living in a chaotic world and definitely feeling the effects.
The illness narrative that I feel encapsulates Lilly’s current experience best is the quest narrative. The quest narrative “meets suffering head on” (115). People who experience this narrative go through the process with the fundamental belief that there is something to be gained from the experience. For this narrative to fit, the person who is ill needs to be able to accept their illness and “seek to use it” (115). Even though Lilly’s experience thus far has been far from pleasant, she still is optimistic that a sense of normalcy will be restored. She explained that more of her “friends will hopefully be coming back to Charleston next semester” she feels that her overall experience will be better.
Lilly’s narrative is important because it represents thoughts and feelings of college students everywhere. Online classes and in person classes are not the same. Forced into being holed up in a dorm room for the semester instead of being able to safely socialize and meet new people is a huge downgrade. Lilly’s feeling of being robbed of the college experience is universal. Her narrative emphasizes the fact that college students who are following the rules and being safe during this pandemic ultimately are losing out on precious moments in their lives.
*Name has been changed for anonymity of the interviewee.
Frank, Arthur W. The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. 2nd ed., The University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Lilly*, Interview with Paige Kelley. Dec 1, 2020.