Home Community JOURNEY TO THE EAST~The COVID-19 Freshman Experience

JOURNEY TO THE EAST~The COVID-19 Freshman Experience

By Benjamin Narkmon, For The North American Post

Starting college is a turning point in one’s life. It is the light at the end of a long tunnel—the finish line after four years of constant competition in high school, Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), community service, and college applications. When we think “college,” we think of becoming slightly more independent, in moving away from friends and family. We think of novel experiences and new connections.

For the UW incoming class of 2020, it has been different. When I think college, I think of Zoom lectures, impending due dates on Canvas (a web-based learning management software). I think of struggling to manage my time to the point where I am living week by week, task to task. While trying to balance school and my part-time job, I suddenly realized it was February 2021.

Many of us students feel disconnected from our classes. When the majority of our waking hours are on our computers, we find that online classes do not provide the same motivation that in-person ones do. When our phones are within an arm’s reach away, or even worse, with a few clicks, we can chat with friends instead of paying attention, it is difficult to stay concentrated. In fact, the line between work and downtime has never been more blurred, as we are stuck in our rooms all day. When we were going to school in-person, it was much easier to switch gears. When teachers put us in breakout rooms, in hopes of getting us to participate, we go silent. Classes do not feel personal, but rather as an obligation to meet constant deadlines.

If I was forced to say, I still feel like a Running Start student, except with heavier financial and academic responsibilities—ones with real-world consequences, such as debt and failing. It is amidst this regrettable time that many of us have begun college.

My mother taught me that there is a reason for everything. That even in the worst situations, there is good. Since the pandemic began, as most of my plans were rendered meaningless, I have struggled to convince myself that there has been anything good about it. My graduation trip to Japan, which I had been saving for since middle school, was canceled. The autumn campus life I had been looking forward to was postponed, with no clear return in sight, and my motivation for learning was at an all-time low.

Nonetheless, after almost a year of quarantine, I can cautiously say that there are some things I have learned, some things that I can take away from this disaster. If I did not stay home and learn how to cook, I would be surviving off of House Foods Golden Curry and instant ramen. The COVID-19 Freshman Experience has taught me that I much prefer smaller classes. It has exacerbated my poor self-management skills and driven home how crucial they are (still working on this one). It has reaffirmed how my motivation for learning Japanese is much more intrinsic than extrinsic. While yes, my classes feel like never-ending deadlines, a lot of the content is interesting, and in retrospect, maybe the extensive readings have been worth it. I have also gained a newfound respect for my professors, who work tirelessly to continue to teach during these times, and meet us students in the middle. Indeed, while the age of COVID-19 is not one of celebration, I hope that, rather than looking back on it and searching for the good, we can keep our heads up in the present.

Staying true to “Journey to the East’s” focus, I would like to close with a poem from one of my favorite literary figures, one that many readers may be familiar with—Miyazawa Kenji. Some of his most famous works include “Night on the Galactic Railroad” and “The Nighthawk Star.” One of his most inspiring works is his poem, “Unbeaten by the Rain.” The poem describes the ideal person he wants to become. A few lines are especially memorable to me.

“Unbeaten by the rain

Unbeaten by the wind

Unbeaten by neither the snow, nor summer’s heat

If there is a sick child in the east, going and nursing them

If there is a dying man to the south, going and telling him that there is nothing to fear”

I asked myself, “Why did things turn out this way?” and “Why couldn’t I have a normal college experience?” At first, I was at a loss. However, realizing that the sacrifices we make—putting others above ourselves—are all to keep each other safe is an empowering feeling—one that helps me persevere during these difficult times.

Is the online COVID-19 Freshman Experience unprecedented, and, quite frankly, not what we were looking forward to? Absolutely. Nonetheless, while we are giving up the rose-colored campus life, I can say with confidence that when we look back, we will be allowed to be proud that each day we sat through Zoom lectures and grappled with assignments, not going outside more than needed, is a day that we spent taking care of one another. I hope that we can be unbeaten by COVID-19.

It is with this mindset of looking for the good and not giving up, that I would like to deliver “Journey to the East” to these pages. I hope that you will join me on my journey through college and towards studying in Japan.

Editor’s notes.
Benjamin Narkmon’s first essay for the NAP was so well-written (“Japan Week brought Japan to Bellevue College,” Oct. 27, 2020, online), we invited him to join us as a student intern to tell us periodically about his college journey (Sansei Journal, “Introducing Journey to the East,” Dec. 20).

Above, in following through with his second column, Ben shares five lines from the Miyazawa poem we last visited in these pages 13 months ago, just as the COVID-19 clouds were gathering (SJ, “Be Strong in the Rain,” Feb. 20, 2020).