The End of a Dream That Never Began

About three months of attending online classes went by in a blur.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I say that college life isn’t turning out what all of us freshers had expected it to be. We sacrificed our favourite songs at the altar of alarm clocks; we stared at small screens and big screens with our eyes peeled and we dreamt of being in a place most of us had never seen. Then came the end-semester exams and suddenly, our moorings were cut off. We were adrift in an unknown sea, so to speak.

The transition from school-level education to a college-level one is tough, as it is. School exams were predictable – walk the yellow brick road of sample papers, write generic answers to generic questions, and you are good. But college pushed us out of the neat little bubbles that our schools had put us in. In short, unlike school, college made us think.

The experience was wonderful until the university rolled out the examination schedule.

“What is OBE?”
“How will we be marked?”
“What do we study?”
“What do we write?”

These questions flew around our WhatsApp group chats like a flock of untamed birds. The answers came in sporadically; but for every answer we received, there were two additional questions. Everywhere I looked, there was confusion.

Our extracurricular activities came to a grinding halt as the first week of March crept in. I say “crept in” because we could hardly notice its arrival until it messed up our everyday schedule. I feel it’s important to mention here that this schedule has been both a boon and a bane. A boon, because this is the only semblance of college life we have; a bane because the monotony and distance made us more detached. I often found myself asking, “Is college even real? Is this real?”

After years of yearning to study at this university, nothing feels real now that I’m finally here.

But, in the days before the beginning of, and during, the end semester exams, I witnessed something surreal. I saw people of our batch come together in a myriad of ways, frantically making WhatsApp study groups, and discord servers for group study sessions; wishing and hoping that somehow, we wouldn’t have to face the exams alone. These efforts transcended the boundaries of departments and colleges. We found our classmates in the comments sections of meme pages, at the beginning of the semester. We were together in this, despite the geographical differences.

Also read: COVID-19: On Missing the Warmth of Campus Life

When I think of those days, I remember all-night video calls with my friends; trying to keep each other accountable and awake, cracking semi-coherent jokes at 4 am and interrupting the morning birds’ song with our laughter. Sometimes, we cried together, because there are only so many things we could hold back in.

After all, the dam has to break someday, sometime.

I remember us playing songs on a discord server and dancing in our rooms, alone, only to then slide back into our chairs to face the books. I remember staying up till 5 am to prepare notes and falling asleep to a lullaby sung by a friend. I remember panic-calling my friends and receiving their panicked calls where we’d try to console, to help, to save each other. We made and circulated Google forms of  “mental health checkpoints”, shared playlists of ridiculous songs and did everything we could to support each other. Everyone I knew, everyone around me, was trying to say, “I’m here. We’re here, together,” is a hundred different ways.

While some of us could stay connected because of unlimited access to internet – by virtue of our privilege – most of my classmates faced difficulties (and still do) downloading e-books or submitting their answer sheets. Not just my classmates, a large section of the student population were not able to attend classes regularly due to poor internet connection, limited data packs, and lack of essential devices. The online exams only added to their woes. The recommended texts were hard to find and expensive. A lot of people, including me, do not even have proper libraries nearby to borrow books from. So, the laptop and phone screens became our books, our windows, our doors, our everything.

Staring at screens for hours on end was taking a toll on our mental health. I resented the very sight of WhatsApp, but I had to keep checking it every 10 minutes lest I missed out on something. We were puppets to the strings of alarms, calls, messages and reminders.

The fact that we haven’t been able to learn as much as we would have under better circumstances wasn’t unknown. These exams were, for many of us, one of the very few aspects of a college life we had the luxury of having and so we clung to them, we read, we wrote, we prepared like our lives depended on it.

College is, for many of us, a doorway to a better life. We dreamt of it as something that would set us free. But this dream is fading because college itself is getting further away, as the pandemic rages on. So many young people are being denied access to the very tools that could make their lives better.

It was this whirlwind of chaos, confusion and camaraderie that the month of March was caught up in. As I write this today, a few weeks since the exams ended, I can’t help but question the necessity of it all.

Was it really necessary to put us through so much mental stress, especially in the middle of a pandemic that has already robbed us of so much?

Student of History and Political Science at the University of Delhi, Ishika can be found constantly flitting from one interest to another, trying to understand the world around her. You can find her on Instagram @soulciallyawkward.