Why I’ve (mostly) let go of “the way it should have been”

By Sophia Pargas, Editor-in-Chief

When I first started college amidst a seemingly unrelenting pandemic, there was little in my life which remained untouched by the effects of COVID. For the past three years, I have gracelessly bounced from longing for the life that “should have been” and learning to accept the one that is now— an internal struggle which has followed me all the way to Well, Netherlands at the Kasteel Well study abroad program. 

It took venturing across the world and experiencing the limitations on travel firsthand, but I have finally come to understand that the world I knew before COVID is not going to be back anytime soon. What was once deemed “the new normal” is now just normal; the pandemic is simply a part of the world we are living in. While I used to resent even the tiniest of alterations in the life I knew years ago, I am now learning to embrace the world I’m in for what it can offer, not what it can’t. 

Of course, however, I would be lying if I said that’s always how I felt. 

A few years ago, I could barely picture myself eating at Emerson’s dining hall with more than three people or tackling a fully in-person schedule, let alone attending an abroad program just over a year later. The idea of traveling across a world plagued with a relentless virus and constant chaos seemed to be nothing more than a childish daydream. Nevertheless, here I am. 

When I found out I was accepted to the program in December of 2020, my excitement was overshadowed by a tsunami of distrust: surely, there was no possibility that this pandemic would ever relent, especially enough to travel to a study abroad program across the world. When the time came, would the experience awaiting me be anything like I once imagined? 

All the same, almost two years later, I am writing this article from my room at the top of the Main Castle tower in Well, Netherlands. I just came back from my weekly COVID test (the “real” kind, one which punctured my throat and another that tickled my brain), my desk is cluttered with disposable face masks, my vaccine card is tucked away safely in my wallet— but still, despite every doubt and hesitation in between, I am here. 

There was a time, though, when I would have wholeheartedly believed that “here” wasn’t enough. I would have despised the weekly testing, the constant mask wearing, and the vaccine card wavering. I would have detested the fact that, every time I plan a trip, I have to Google every country’s COVID policies and inevitably learn that something I could’ve, should’ve, or would’ve done is no longer an option to me. I would have resented the pandemic all over again—yearning for a world that is no more and hating that I knew it would never be again. 

Like most, I have had my own selfish struggles and challenges within the pandemic: missing out on the senior year milestones I had worked towards my whole life, spending my last few months in my hometown in isolation from friends and family, and coming to college at a time when opportunities to meet new people were few and far between. 

At every point in my life since the pandemic began, I have found myself wondering, “What would this have been like before covid? What am I missing out on now that I wouldn’t have before?” 

Choosing to attend Kasteel Well was no exception. Right now, it’s no surprise to anyone, anywhere that there’s very little that is untouched by the effects of COVID. Our schools, our jobs, our friends and our families, even our identities will never be what they were before the pandemic. 

In terms of a study abroad program across the world, the effects of the pandemic are felt in seemingly endless ways—the places we can go, the things we can do, and the people we can meet are all limited in some way or another. Our travel plans are not just dictated by where in Europe we wish to see, but also which places wish to see us in return. Every time we book a new trip, thoughts of hotel and transportation come second to sifting through travel blogs which list every attraction which would normally be visited, and a few alternatives since they no longer can be. 

Will we need a covid test to get in the country? What about returning toreturning to the Netherlands? Are there any restrictions once we’re there? Most importantly, what’re the limitations onn nightlife? While this process was once grueling, I am now beginning to understand it as just another part of the experience that is traveling during a pandemic. 

Still, I am in unceasing disbelief that we actually made it here in the first place. I find myself grappling with the fact that, at any moment, COVID could rip this opportunity away from me, too. From getting the program acceptance letter to sitting down on the flight here to writing this with a calendar filled with travel plans to come, I keep waiting for the email: “Due to unforeseen circumstances, a change in COVID protocols has forced us to…” 

By now, we all know how that email ends, and each time we get it, it takes “should have been” one step further. The emails never get any easier, and it sometimes seems as if they will never stop tormenting my inbox. 

I’m still waiting for that email that ends this experience for good. What I’ve come to understand, however, is that it very well could; that’s just the world we’re living in. 

At any moment, we could be told to pack up our things and head back home in light of a new variant, new protocol, or new ban. My hope, if that time were to come, is that I will have a few extra memories and a few fresh stories to cram in my bags and bring back with me. I want my experiences to be packed away in my mind like souvenirs, and for the mark that COVID had on them to be nothing more than a scratch on a magnet or a crease in a postcard. 

Though my time in Kasteel Well will inevitably be different than those who came pre-pandemic, I am experiencing something most people only imagine getting the opportunity to do. Already, in just three weeks, I have been to places I could never have imagined going— I’ve dodged bicycle accidents on the streets of Amsterdam, eaten fresh waffles from the stands in Belgium, and listened to the beloved Billy Joel song in its namesake of Vienna. 

Surreally, I only have more exploring to come. Though this program is undoubtedly tainted by the ripples of the pandemic, what isn’t? Will we ever really be able to say we’ve finally outgrown the time in which COVID affected our lives in some way or another? 

Much to my 17 year old self’s dismay, I now understand that the world we knew before COVID is long gone. As much as I can imagine a life in which the pandemic never happened or a trip in which all possibilities are endless, neither of these things is my current reality. 

Instead of dwelling on what could, would, and should have been, all I can do is embrace what is. I have (most of) Europe at my disposal, (almost) endless possibilities to explore to explore, and (hopefully) three months of unforgettable adventures awaiting me. 

For now, I am more than happy right where I’m at, and am focused on experiencing every moment simply  for what it is, not what it would have, could have, or should have been. 

Or at least I’m constantly trying.