Ending with a Bang
Eliza Helmers ’22 reflects on how her abnormal college experience has given her a new perspective as she enters her senior year.
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I thought that I had my life completely planned out – I had chosen my major, my extracurriculars and the career path I wanted to follow. Campus was a wonderfully hectic whirlwind of classes and friends, a Dartmouth bubble that felt cut off from the outside world. But my days were also stressful, dedicated to planning out my future rather than enjoying my present. This tension only increased when, during my sophomore winter, I began to hear news of an epidemic unfolding half a world away. Like many others, I felt an undercurrent of anxiety that started growing as case counts increased and the epidemic morphed into a pandemic. Even so, I was completely unprepared for the massive change in perspective that was coming my way. At the very end of the term, the pandemic reached Dartmouth, and I packed my bags for “five weeks of remote classes.”
As the reality of what was happening around me sank in, it felt as if life came to a halt. There was panic and confusion all around me, ranging from ransacked grocery store aisles to barricaded nursing homes. But as the new term started, I registered for four classes and threw myself into my work, ignoring my discontent — with scarcely a minute to reckon with these “unprecedented times.” The hours were passing strangely, stretching out, each day feeling like a week. But eventually, as spring of 2020 slowly turned into summer, I started to realize that I couldn’t continuously work and plan for the future when I no longer had any idea what the future was going to look like. I needed to focus more on the now.
And, as the pandemic dragged on and I missed my friends more and more, I came to another uncomfortable realization — I didn’t have any more time to spend just getting through things. I spent months pushing through each monotonous day, plugged in and checked out. As I look back on that time now, I feel a sense of loss — there were so many experiences that passed me by because of the lockdown and the pandemic. There were moments when I felt like I blinked and missed a year and a half of my life, and I can’t ever get that time back. My Dartmouth experience has been transformed and dominated by COVID-19, which upended my plans and shattered my expectations. I felt robbed, losing everything from sophomore summer to new friendships while I was stuck in my bedroom at home. Now, as I reflect on these lost experiences, I recognize that life is inherently unpredictable, and I don’t have any more time to waste.
This was a slow realization — one that came over a period of months and which was difficult to translate into actionable steps. I knew that I wanted to live more in the present and that I didn’t want to waste any more time, but how was I actually going to do that? My epiphany didn’t translate into instant contentment with my day-to-day life — it’s taken a lot of work for me to take a step back from being so future-focused and find ways to balance my days into something both sustainable and enjoyable. It’s been an ongoing, conscious process, but one that does eventually yield results, and when I look around now, I like every day on campus better than I did before I left nearly two years ago.
During this past spring, when I was able to live with my friends off campus, I came to the last part of my dawning realization: I’m done planning and preparing for a future that is more focused on safety and stability than on happiness and genuine passion. While this left me feeling afraid, like it was too late to divert myself off the beaten path, I had to shake off that fear — because although I can’t go back, I can go forward. I can stop wasting time, work every day to be happy right now and act intentionally to build myself a fulfilling future. And so, I made a commitment to myself — to try and go through my senior year pursuing things that bring me excitement.
Looking around campus during the first couple days of the term, I see so many opportunities for that. Whether it’s long walks around Occom Pond soaking in the sun (while it lasts), spontaneous game nights spent laughing with my friends or napping on the Green as the leaves change, I need to enjoy the little things that are happening all around me. I have no idea how this term will go: maybe the reopening of campus life will go smoothly, or we may soon be back in quarantine. But either way, what I can do right now is take advantage of all of the good things that senior year has to offer, however long it lasts.
Through all the change, all the uncertainty and all the fear, I have emerged committed to living in the here and now and pursuing the things that make me enjoy my life. And as a senior, when I look back at my time at Dartmouth, I can see that my priorities and plans are so different from what they were before I left campus. And while it’s scary to completely veer from the path I had once imagined for my future, it’s also the most liberated I have ever felt. So, for anyone who might want a piece of advice, I have this: Stick with what you love to do and don’t take a single day for granted. And be open to change, because no matter how much we may want to avoid it, it’s coming. Try and embrace it.