Self-discovery is a bright spot in a very dark year for students. But then, finding the silver lining in a campus experience disrupted by the pandemic. It was the year of college without the college experience.

It is not likely, if given the choice, that many college students would opt for the last year of distance, separation and perpetual wariness. Still, perhaps surprisingly for many students, there was much that  was gained, as well as much that was lost, in their unwanted suspension of campus life during the coronavirus.

Student Madison Alvarado, is grateful for an invaluable lesson in dealing with how unpredictable life can be.

''I was the person with a plan,'' she said. ''A lot of people are following a preset track - pre-med, financial analyst, Ph.D. The pandemic put that in stop mode. It's made me realize that not knowing the next-step doesn't mean my world is going to crumble. I think it made me less scared to face the unknown.''

At the end of the most unusual of academic years, students interviewed at colleges around the country said they would not miss the regimen of virus testing and quarantining, the classes on Zoom, the zero tolerance for straying from prescribed rules, the distance they felt from one another.

Students often created elaborate rules for themselves. Jacqueline Andrews, who just graduated from the University of Southern California, agreed with her seven roommates that significant others had to test negative for the coronavirus within ''a couple of days'' of entering the premises.

Friends could visit, but only if they sat around the fire pit in the back of the house. The housemates were not allowed to ride in cars with people outside the bubble.

Because of those rules. Ms. Andrews's campus social circle has shrunk dramatically. As an art student, she used to know everyone in her major, because they would meet during the studio time.

But she is delighted to have made  non-college friends while roller skating in her neighborhood, known locally as the EL Salvador Corridor, meeting people she might not have been as open to if not for the pandemic.

She makes roller skating dates, via instagram with a couple of teenage girls who live nearby.

Student Xanthe Soter, a junior at Temple University in Philadelphia, said she ''thrived'' academically this year, because there were so few distractions, and because she was able to manage her time more efficiently.

''I had my best semester,'' she said. ''I didn't have to worry about the little tidbits of getting up, getting dressed, going in person - it was very draining.''

Student Ms. Soter rented an apartment with three classmates in the city, and said they all had regrets about missing out on the wild side of college life but felt they all gained a lot, too. ''I don't want to say we are adults now, but we definitely have grown up,'' she said. ''No more young, dumb and fun type of lifestyles.''

Student Dominic Lanza, a computer science major at Temple, said he and the five men he roamed with began holding ''family dinner night'' every week with with an intimate circle of friends.

''You can't go out and have fun anymore, but in another way we all have become a lot stronger friends,'' he said. '' We all, I think, have been very introspective and reflective on what made college fun, and honestly, now when i get to see my friends - we're moving into a postpandemic world - I'm more grateful for those experiences.

When my friends come over, I'm going to cherish this a lot more than I would in a prepandemic world.''

For some the loneliness was almost unbearable.

Biling Chen, a chemistry major at Hunter College in New York City, chafed at not being able to meet her professor, and said many of them gave online lectures in which they were ''talking to themselves, nonstop.''  

As an international student living alone, she has felt painfully isolated. ''It's like I live on an island,'' she said.

Almost everyone said they had changed their outlook on careers and the future. Getting ahead no longer seemed as urgent, the path less clear.

Julia Petitteau, Ms. Soter's roommate and a marketing major at Temple, said she knew students who had lost internships during the summer and taken jobs at supermarkets or Home Depot just to fill the gap.

Now jobs are opening up, she said, ''but its tough to put an internship that got canceled on your resume.''

The World Students Society thanks author Anemona Hartocollis and Sheelagh McNeill.


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