A Postgraduate In Pandemic Land

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I spent my final year of university watching the clock. There was never enough time. I rushed from classes to theatre rehearsals to work, stayed in the library until 2am writing essays the night before they were due. I was racing unwittingly towards the inevitable: the end of life as I knew it. My fear of the end weighed me down like chains around my ankles, caused me to walk slowly out of fear, and held me back whenever I tried to run.

When I’m trapped, I become impulsive, a caged animal in the body of a woman. I got caught up in the fear of all the “what if?”s I’d leave behind. I look back on the first half of 4th year now, and I remember it as a time of love and hope and knowing exactly what mattered to me, even though my life was hectic and exhausting at the time. I hold onto the good parts. The second half of 4th year was a journey through my own personal fear landscape. 2020 started with me getting my heart broken, and never quite finding a way to do damage control. I cryogenically froze the emotions I didn’t have time to feel. By March, the world had turned to a dystopian nightmare, and I spent April and May writing my dissertation from the prison my bedroom had become. The things I value most in the world are my freedom, love, community, travel, creative expression, and my education. Covid came along and said “you’re on your own now, honey”, and all of a sudden I had to figure out who I was and what I wanted from this uncertain future, when everything that defines my human experience had been stolen from me.

I found short-lived hobbies to keep me sane – running, yoga, writing a script for a master’s course application. I got through the worst of the lockdown, and life began to open up again. I got a job in June, and spent three months in what I’m convinced was a simulation, a bizarre place where there was no work to do, and all I could do was read the news on MSN for 8 hours a day.

In the spring, I had applied for a scriptwriting master’s course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I got through the first two rounds of the application process, and in July, after months of waiting for answers, I learned I had not made it through the final round. I told myself this was a sign that I wasn’t meant to return to academia. The truth was, as much as I crave brilliance and want to expand my horizons, I didn’t really want to move to London. I applied for the wrong reasons, and the rejection was a huge relief.

I spent the next month trying to come up with an alternative plan for my life. Who was I now? Who did I want to be? What kind of career could I realistically embark upon in the middle of a pandemic? Every time I felt like I had come up with an answer, I procrastinated rewriting my CV, or taking any step forwards. One day in the middle of August, I was scrolling through Facebook, and a friend had posted a photo of the confirmation of their acceptance into a master’s programme at Glasgow University. For a millisecond, I allowed myself to think the thought I had refused to engage with for so long: maybe I should apply for a master’s after all. I barely had time to consider the notion before I found myself on the University of Glasgow website, clicking “apply now”.

Before I decided to apply to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, I had considered doing a master’s in Glasgow. The problem was, I couldn’t decide what course. I felt like whichever course I chose would define the person I would be for the next year, and I wasn’t ready for that commitment. The front runner was an MSc in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. The wheel of fortune turned, I realised all my friends would be moving away, and staying in Glasgow didn’t seem like my best bet. I didn’t want to live a shell of my former life, so I set my sights on London. During the worst of the pandemic, the thought of moving gave me hope. I needed a fantasy, a distant future to cling onto when everything felt so bleak.

In August, I didn’t need to decide who I wanted to be anymore; I trusted in my choices. I applied for the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies MSc, and I had no doubts. Unfortunately, the admissions office took a long time to get back to me, and doubts of other kinds crept in. Would I spend the foreseeable future stuck at a job that made me miserable? What if I had no future? What if I’d wasted four years of my life in academia only to be stuck in crappy jobs forever? I began to spiral. I had an emotional breakdown at work, and spent the afternoon alternating between crying hysterically, and having panic attacks in the toilets. I, an agnostic, prayed for a miracle. Finally, last Friday, I got an email from the admissions office confirming I’d been accepted into the course. I jumped in the air with happiness; I had received my miracle. Three hours later, I got an email from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, also offering me a place, despite their earlier rejection. I had gone from zero offers to two offers in the space of a few hours.

It was such a relief to be a student again, to slip seamlessly back into my life at the University of Glasgow. I love learning, and after four years of Film and Television, it’s nice to be studying something new. I have spent more time studying this week than I normally would in a month of my undergraduate degree! But this wasn’t a time machine back to my old life. I underestimated how different things would be. I can handle online classes, even if I did have some technical difficulties and couldn’t talk during four hours of zoom classes yesterday. Academically, I am comfortable here. But socially, it’s another story.

My undergrad experience was defined by improv and theatre societies, by the friends I made in rehearsals and classes. Even during my lowest points, I had a support network. After years of being homeschooled, I refused to let myself be alone like that again. I put in the hard work, I grew as a person, developed healthy friendships. I had the community I had craved throughout my childhood and teenage years.

Then the pandemic hit.

Of my four closest friends from last year, three have moved away and the other has long since grown estranged. I’m so lonely. I have a solid sense of self, I don’t define myself through other people anymore, but humans are social animals. I’ve barely interacted with anyone except my flatmates all week. I drift between the gym and the library and the postgraduate café, as much to feel less alone as to exercise or study or drink coffee. I can’t meet my classmates in real life unless I were to meet them individually, which would probably be very awkward at first; any societies I could join would only meet over zoom. I miss companionship, I miss having other humans to bear witness to my existence. The internet isn’t enough for me, I miss face-to-face friendships.

I don’t know what the point of human existence is if we’re separated from each other. The pandemic is temporary, we won’t be in various states of lockdown forever. But it’s been six months now. Six months of online interactions, with very little hope of making new friends or finding new love or having meaningful conversations with strangers. I can’t bear stagnancy; as soon as I feel stuck in my life, I run away. This year, I couldn’t run away. All I could do was turn around and face myself. I have learnt so many lessons about my relationship with myself, and my relationships with others. I wish I had an opportunity to put those lessons into practice.

I have grown up so much this year, and I’m ready for this new phase of my life, but I wish I had someone to share it with. The friends I do still have in Glasgow are undergraduates, and my friends who graduated with me now study at different universities, and live in new worlds that I’ll never be part of. I have no friends who are on the same path as me, and it’s so lonely to walk it by myself.

For now, I throw myself into my studies. Despite the loneliness, and the uncertainty in light of the recent covid outbreak on campus, this is still my miracle, it is still everything I hoped and prayed for. I love being a student, and my brain seems more suited to social sciences than it was to the arts. I’m growing in ways I didn’t expect to grow, using parts of my mind that are unchartered territory. I’m learning Russian, learning to decipher the intimidating Cyrillic alphabet. My Russian professor says each language has its own music, and Russian is my new favourite song. I only know about ten words, but I mutter to my cat in Russian, and practice the one sentence I know (“Hello, my name is Eliza, I am a student”). Learning Russian is the closest I can get to travel right now; it’s my gateway to a new world. This language will open a whole new world of literature and media and countries I can visit. I am expanding my horizons, and it gives me a spark of hope.

I don’t know what the next year of my life will look like, whether life will return to normal before I graduate. I can’t imagine going through a whole year of university with no close friendships. I’ve spent my life perpetually on the periphery, an introvert by choice as much as by nature. But I am not built for solitary confinement. I need people, even if just to observe them from a distance. As with all things pandemic-related, there is no precedent. There’s no one I can go to for advice on how to get this right, how to make friends when human contact is deemed a deadly weapon. These next few months will be a struggle, but in spite of it all, I am so grateful to be here. I feel more like myself sitting alone in the university library than I did in three months at my job, surrounded by other people. Worst case scenario, I spend all my free time writing the sequel to The Purest Form of Chaos, and deal with loneliness the way I did when I was homeschooled. Writing has gotten me through many years of loneliness, it can help me survive another.

Even as I write about my experience, I know how lucky I am. Hundreds of first year students at Glasgow University are having to self-isolate because of a covid outbreak in student residences – which could have been entirely avoided. With the exception of some science subjects, I believe, all undergraduate classes are online. There is no reason for thousands of students to have moved here from all across the world, except for their value in rent money. Now they’re confined in small rooms, with windows that barely open, isolated from the world, and aren’t allowed to go home to their families. Being at university now is nothing like it was before, but at least I had four years to know what it can be like. I can’t imagine how it must feel for first year students right now.

I still hope the situation will improve over the new few months, that life will return to some semblance of normality by next year, but the more time goes by, the harder it is to have hope. All there is to do right now is live in the moment. I find comfort in going to the library, watching the leaves turn orange on the trees scattered across the university campus, bringing my cat to Zoom class. Happiness feels a long way away right now, but I find peace in the small moments. There are hours or days where life almost feels normal, albeit under a layer of masks and hand sanitizer. I long for the day I can meet with my improv group in person, or have a friend come over to my flat. I want humans to be humans again, instead of potential virus carriers.

Last night, I was tidying my bedroom, and came across some notes I’d written for the script I wrote for my Royal Central School of Speech and Drama master’s application. The script was a romantic drama, about poor timing and incompatible communication styles. But my notes said, “I want to write about ordinary moments of intimacy”. After two months of lockdown, all I had wanted to write about was the thing I missed most: the beauty and frustration of other people, the way relationships change the moment you go from a group setting to being alone with each other. I miss the intricacies of being human. In my four years at Glasgow University, friendship has been the most important thing in my life. Now, those friendships live in memories and writing and Facebook messages. My friends are dots on a map, connected to me virtually but far away in reality. I don’t miss the past; I’ve accepted it’s over. But I can’t wait till the future contains more than an impending sense of doom.

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