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At Michigan State, graduation haunted by ‘what could have been’ without COVID

Bridgette Bauer
Bridgette Bauer, who graduates from Michigan State University in May, says the pandemic changed her and her classmates in ways she’s only now beginning to understand. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

EAST LANSING — Sometimes late at night, when her mind is racing far too fast for sleep, Bridgette Bauer wonders what could have been.

Did the Michigan State University student not meet the love of her life while stuck in an East Lansing apartment on Zoom classes for a year? Bauer wonders that. So does her mother, who brings it up too often for the daughter’s comfort. Did she stop enjoying big college parties because of two years of quarantines and social distancing? Did she accept a full-time job months before her May graduation because it was the perfect fit, or because her family’s economic upheaval during the pandemic made her jump at financial security?

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Sometimes, she wonders how a 21-year-old could feel so old.

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“Everyone says this is the best four years of your life,” Bauer said. “But I didn’t get that college experience everyone else had.

“I had to grow up a lot faster.”

Just one half of 1 percent of Michigan’s nearly 36,000 COVID-19 deaths are among people ages 10-30, but the pandemic still left scars. College students are less involved in campus activities, and report more mental health issues.

Three out of four students were involved in fewer campus activities now than before the pandemic, and 77 percent had less interaction with other students, according to a survey of college students by the Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership, a nationwide association of higher education leaders focused on student educational needs.

Bauer doesn’t expect sympathy for college students who didn’t get to socialize as much as they’d like, when others suffered far more during the pandemic. Still, COVID altered the timeline of young adults in ways Bauer struggles to quantify.

“It’s really changed me,” Bauer said. “I feel so old.”

The Bauer family plans to gather at MSU’s Wharton Center May 7 for Bridgette’s graduation ceremony. It’s a day she is approaching with anticipation, but also more regret than she’d imagined when she walked onto the campus four years ago.

“I wish I could just be a senior like how it was for people before me,” Bauer said. “But it's like it's not like that.”

Daily boredom, nightly anxiety

The pandemic halted Bauer’s normal college years in March 2020, during her sophomore year. MSU and every other college in Michigan shut down virtually overnight soon after the first COVID cases were detected in the state.

Bauer packed a small bag of clothes, figuring she’d be back in a week. She took posters off her dorm room wall, one with the words “The sky's the limit,” another from the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and stuffed them in her father’s truck. Weeks later, she returned to finish packing up her room when it was announced the campus would be closed for the rest of the semester.

Instead of going to Greece for a study abroad program (canceled because of the virus), Bauer spent the summer of 2020 helping her family make ends meet after COVID caused her father’s job, booking concerts, to evaporate. The family smoked meat in their Ann Arbor backyard and sold it to friends and neighbors. Bauer, who is a social relations and policy major, did the online marketing.

“Everyone says this is the best four years of your life,” Bauer said. “But I didn’t get that college experience everyone else had. I had to grow up a lot faster.”

In the 2020-21 school year, Bauer lived with friends in an East Lansing apartment near campus, a year she describes as a blur of boredom and anxiety.

Classes were online, and most activities were canceled. In September 2020, with COVID-19 cases surging, students were told to quarantine in their dorms and apartments.

“It was so quiet,” she said. “We went from seeing people in class every day to seeing people on screens. Non-class time went from going out all the time to being always here in the house. It was awful.”

Bauer recalled a party she and her roommates were invited to in the fall of 2020, and the long debate they had about whether it was safe to attend, even though it was outside.

“We knew they weren’t taking it as seriously as we were,” she said. “It was a college party and I just wanted to have fun, but I’m like, am I making a bad decision? Am I going to get COVID by being here? It took the fun out of it.”

Bauer said it was difficult to concentrate on classwork. She found herself putting off assignments. She’d always been a good student, but during the pandemic, she didn’t see the point.

“It changed my work ethic,” Bauer said. “Talking to my friends, it changed how we perceive school. Like, why does it matter? Why are we writing this paper in our rooms when there are people in hospitals dying?”

It wasn’t just Bauer. College classroom engagement declined, according to another national survey, with students who appeared exhausted by dealing with the stress of pandemic health concerns and COVID protocols.

Professors from universities around the country who spoke to the Chronicle of Higher Education for an article this month described a “stunning” level of student disengagement in classes even after students returned to classrooms.

From Bauer’s perspective at MSU, that disengagement has continued even as college life has returned to near normal.

“People are like zombies,” Bauer said. “They’re just drained after so much Zoom.”

Bridgette Bauer
Face masks in classrooms are a reminder for Bridgette Bauer of the two years of college the pandemic marred for her. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

In a recent interview in a conference room of the company where she now works part-time between classes and will be employed full-time after graduation, Bauer is all smiles. She loves her job and her friends, and is optimistic about the future. Still, she and her friends sometimes speculate about what their lives would be like if they’d been born earlier or later, and not had their college years blown up by a once-in-a-century pandemic.

“It was all on our mind so much,” she said. “We didn’t want to get each other sick. I didn’t want to be responsible for getting my parents sick. It’s fair, but It’s hard.”

21 going on 25

Bridgette’s mother, Mary Bauer, regrets that her daughter’s college years were so difficult, mixing praise and concern for her daughter’s journey through the pandemic.

“I look at her more as a 25-year-old than a 21-year-old,” Mary Bauer said. “There’s pride in that, but I don’t know if that’s such a healthy thing. She’s just a kid, (but) she was expected to make adult choices.”

In one example, Bridgette landed a good job with a Lansing advocacy marketing company. But her mother said she can’t shake the feeling that Bridgette “felt the pressure to get the job earlier than she needed to, because she wanted the security” that the pandemic had stolen.

“She’s a very social person, and having to stay at home so much, affected her more than even I realized,” Mary Bauer said. “I feel a lot of sadness for people her age.”

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Bridgette Bauer paused when asked if she was as happy now as when she was 19, in her dorm room with walls covered with posters, before she and the world had heard of COVID-19.

“I am, but a different type of happy,” she said. “I learned the value of life and how quickly it can change, how one thing can change things. Whether that’s not taking things for granted or appreciating my friends, more than I did before.

“It's kind of cheesy to think you only live once, but it’s kind of true, really. Things happened and it sucked, but I’m just (accepting) this is where I am and I can't change that.

“It’s a new normal, in a way.”

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