Pandemic. A foreign word on everyone’s lips. I wasn’t 18 when it first forced its way into our daily lives; soon I’ll be 20.

Bad timing. I heard that a lot during that time. You have really bad timing, though. Badly timed, writing your high school diploma at a time like this. Badly timed, the first big upheaval. Badly timed, trying to plan life while the whole world is afraid of dying. Badly timed, growing up.

The first few weeks after my 18th birthday were the worst. My father watched the 8 o’clock news. The 6 o’clock news. The 4 o’clock news. I still didn’t know for sure if I was going to write high school diplomas. I barely got out of bed. I felt like I was grieving. For plans, ventures, experiences, the person they would have made me. I felt that mourning was omnipresent during that time.

Physically, I wasn’t really doing anything. Then came acceptance, slowly but surely. My life was no longer what I had thought it was, but it had to go on. I looked for a job. I finally decided to go to college. And I was sure that things would pick up speed there at the latest. Get to know something, someone new, see, experience: The prospect seemed like the best in a long, long time. Inside me, hope and longing for a change met the reality of online study and sobering reports from students I knew. So I scaled down my expectations.

Not far enough. A several-hour introductory session on Zoom was followed without comment by the first week of university. I made an effort to get up at least half an hour before classes started. To put on something other than my pajamas. To eat breakfast and sit down at my desk. The second week. The third. By now I was making myself breakfast during lectures. The fourth. My jeans lay untouched in my closet, too uncomfortable to sit at my desk at home all day. The fifth, the sixth. I got up a few minutes before class started. That was absolutely enough time to arrive at the virtual lecture hall. What was this really all about? I still hadn’t understood. Seventh. I ate breakfast during lectures, cooked, cleaned up, exercised, anything to avoid staring for 90 minutes into the awful emptiness of black tiles full of names with which I connected no face except my own, reflected transparently in the laptop screen. Pale. Eighth. My attention span hovered at the level of a fruit fly. Desperate exercise instructors asked us to please turn on the cameras so they wouldn’t always feel like they were talking to themselves. A silent cry for help? My sympathy was stifled by the sight of myself in the mirror. My camera stayed off. Tenth. Wouldn’t I have to learn something? I had no idea how studying worked. Every now and then, a group chat optimistically titled “study group” would sound the alarm when one of us was completely lost again. The others assured me that they didn’t understand anything either. Reassuring.

Summer brought a sigh of relief. Infection numbers were dropping, even those of college age were slowly getting vaccinations. Meetings were scheduled; I had hopes of solidifying contact with the two or three people I had met briefly at the beginning of the semester. There were even rumors of face-to-face meetings in the second semester.
Then the exams were just around the corner. Mild panic set in. But well, they are also online, I heard. In an emergency, Google helps. Corona free shot. It’s not like you’re studying for your future life. It’s not like you need all the stuff again that you didn’t understand this semester. Written exams. Passed two. Out of five.

On to the second semester. It could only get better. I finally knew some people, and I even liked a few of them. When it became clear that we would finally be allowed to see the inside of the university, my motivation increased noticeably. My attention span slowly stretched back to the usual, lectures were no longer unbearable, and some were even interesting. After that, spontaneous plans emerged. “We were going to the city now, are you coming?” Unbelievable. I fantasized about afternoons in the library, foreign language courses, student parties, university sports. My idea of life as a student, which I had discarded over the last semester as completely romanticized, suddenly didn’t seem so unrealistic anymore. I finally understood better how studying was supposed to work, and my poor grades from the first semester made sense. “It’s no wonder under the circumstances,” an exercise instructor reassured me. “If I’d had to start out like you guys, I probably would have dropped out right away.” For a brief moment, it looked like maybe the world was coming together.
Meanwhile, my father only watched the 8 o’clock news. Sometimes the 6. And so I quickly noticed when the mood tilted again. Too many unvaccinated people. The vaccination rate too low, the infection figures too high. Vaccination breakthrough. Another vaccination breakthrough. The first closures. But not the university, I told myself. Vaccination status was checked, lectures were additionally streamed online, only fully vaccinated young people sat in the lecture halls. Young people who didn’t want to get infected, but also wanted to feel like they were alive. Make friends. Complete their studies.

A little later, the fallout from the grim news: The university remained open, but hardly any faculty still wanted to teach on site. The first emails trickled in. “Due to the current situation…” “due to the occasion…” “online only.” That’s how quickly it was over again. The first and last and long-planned and long-awaited Studi-Party was ironcladly pulled off. I had been looking forward to it for so long. When it took place, I stayed home. I didn’t dare to go. I was depressed. Week 1.1 of online classes was even worse than week 1.0. The department closed, with questions I felt helpless. I felt like perfectly normal performance was required, under circumstances that felt anything but normal. Unnatural. By now, I suppose, a certain jadedness was expected. I tried to keep at it. To my newfound friends and learning methods. In vain. More and more often doubts arose. More and more often I questioned everything.
I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted and whether I had started what I had started simply to be able to start something or really wanted to start it. All I knew was that I wasn’t happy where I was at the moment. But wasn’t that normal, not being happy, in Corona studies? Circling thoughts. Zoom links. The stressful parts of studying, and not even those right. No one can take that, I thought to myself. Somehow we do it anyway.

Studying, especially beginning to study, during the Corona pandemic was, and remains, a challenge. Anyone young and healthy was asked for solidarity from the start, and rightly so. However, between high-risk patients, system relevance, and full intensive care units, students’ problems quickly drifted into irrelevance. Too old to tie their working parents to the house, too young to go into the field themselves for the weakening economy – universities are full of people that nobody really needs. And they feel it.

Many feel left alone. As if their time were passing by untouched by them. The years between 20 and 30 shape the structure of life independent of the nest at home in the long term, and it’s scary to seemingly miss that imprint. Contact, people with opinions, celebration, mutual support, and shared goals may not be systemic. However, they have lost none of their importance to the well-being, development and health of individuals as a result. Experiences want to be made, things want to be tried out.

The old slogan “Well, studying isn’t just for partying” unfortunately hits everything but the nail on the head here. Because most of the students I’ve met don’t need to be told that. The willingness to learn is there. The curiosity, the motivation. The ambition, too. What remains is the feeling of not having the opportunity to live it out.

This is not about citing grievances, denouncing or feeling sorry for myself. I am grateful that at the beginning of the pandemic, I mourned my plans but not my aunt, grandfather or girlfriend. I didn’t lose a vital job, I didn’t work underpaid shifts in intensive care units. This is just an attempt to put into words a confusing, sometimes strangely fascinating, stressful time, and to share the thoughts that a lot of us may have thought we were alone with in many a Zoom meeting.
Judith, 19, took the infamous “Corona Baccalaureate” in the early summer of 2020 and began her studies the following summer semester.

“Badly timed, growing up.”