Before the fall chill tumbled into Austin, I went to study at a coffee shop called Mozart’s three times a week. It sits on a pier, so I would get to watch ducks quack by on the lake as I read my textbooks. I went to listen to the chatter. Since I’ve been at home, I’ve become restless for the hum of other people. The lake ebbs south as other strangers’ lives pass through my awareness, and these lives leave a hastily drawn story arc in their wake: someone’s girlfriend cheated, a friend was drinking again, a boy had the audacity to unfollow his FWB on Instagram. Perhaps the reason I love the gossip is that most of the people around me are college students, studying at the University of Texas just ten minutes down the road. If I can’t experience the petty drama that accompanies being a freshman in college, I can at least overhear it.
Most likely a symptom of it being the city I grew up in than qualities of the place itself, I’ve never liked Austin. Its coolness feels unmoored from history, its shiny yoga studios and brunch spots riddled with the hypocrisy of rich, white liberals. Applying to colleges, I held one core condition: there was no way I was staying in this town.
Needless to say, my freshman experience turned out completely different from how I imagined it. I take my college courses at the same desk I used in sixth grade, and I blush at the thought of people seeing my childhood bedroom. Its infantile sea-green walls and matching dressers undermine any sense of maturity I’ve mustered up that day. Looking at my box on Zoom, I wish that nine year old me had chosen to paint her room beige instead.
What I looked forward to the most about college was the opportunity to change. I would leave the old me sitting idly in the minds of my friends and family. Unrestrained by preconceived perceptions of my character, I could mold myself into the person I wanted to be. Having met new people and had new experiences, I would return to Austin subtly transformed, the kind of change that one only notices once placed starkly against the background of their previous life.
There have been moments throughout fall semester where I grow bitter at this lost opportunity. I go driving whenever I feel especially stuck, and I roam the highways for a sense of agency. Complicating my disappointment, however, is the knowledge of my privilege.
Freshman year is a petty loss within the context of COVID-19— after all, people are losing family members and careers. If I only have to give up the hazy notion of personal growth this year, there’s no reason for me to complain. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of tweets and TikToks ridiculing the outcries of college students who have to stay home for the semester, which seem to confirm the invalidity of my disappointment. However, no matter how many times I rehash my privileges to myself, the frustration persists.
Privilege is often painted as a simple matter of possession: what have you been given, and what have you not been given? However, the matter isn’t this simple. Rather, privilege shapes people’s fundamental expectations in life by answering the question of “what do you think you deserve?” Three meals a day? A car? A high school degree? A college education? Trips to Europe every other Spring? These expectations cannot be torn down and reconstructed through simple acknowledgment, and the emotional reactions people have when such expectations go unfulfilled point to how deeply such expectations burrow.
I have found it is helpful for me, when articulating my response to an online freshman semester, to frame my privilege prioritizing this emotional aspect. I’ve tried guilting myself out of my disappointment, but this method fails to consider how far privilege cuts into people’s world views. Attempting to make one’s negative feelings disappear with the guilt of privilege doesn’t work. It lingers just below the dirt and crawls right back out. Only by accepting my disappointment as valid, rather than bratty, have I been able to reconcile this semester with my expectations.
As I look back at my first semester in college, the word that comes to mind is underwhelming. I’ve met wonderful people, but I haven’t built any real friendships. My courses are interesting, but zoom calls exhaust me. I feel I am idly waiting for my life to start again. The pandemic, however, has put everyone’s life on hold, and despite the unfulfilled expectations, in this liminal space I have much I am grateful for.