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What helped students get through the pandemic in 2020?

From a surprise visit from a loved one to traveling the world through podcasts — these are stories about silver linings
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Nothing about this year has felt close to normal. Through every hurdle thrust in our paths and pebble in our shoes, itʼs been hard to feel like we can make a single fluid stride as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on around us. So we asked U of T students: what has been your silver lining in 2020? How have you grounded yourself and grown under extraordinary circumstances?

This is a collection of stories about saving graces, running in the rain, bike-ride romances, and more. I hope that this compendium cuts through the bleak fog of the past year, and that it brings a smile to your face. After all, as we’ve learned to navigate uncertain waters, we’ve also learned how to tread them well.

— Stephanie Bai, Volume 141 Features Editor

Running away from the pandemic

The city of Richmond, British Columbia contains several islands. The Fraser River curves along the cityʼs northern border, protecting it from Vancouver; the great North Shore Mountains overshadow both. Down the belly of Richmond — past the millionaire houses and dim sum spots — lies a lonesome set of farm roads. The farm roads extend south until they reach the sea. I have run here most days during the pandemic; it is my place.

In the grey morning, I escape the virus-ridden world to run. I wear black shorts and feel professional. I begin on a gravel shoulder, slowly — this is apparently how runners start. I pass by a church, the gateway to the farmlands, its mirrors reflecting my stiff stance. A drizzle of rain polishes the asphalt beside me, making everything smell like musky manure. 

I am surrounded by green fields of freedom to my left and deserted storehouses to my right. They smear into a blur as I speed up, leaning forward; my legs obediently swing faster. My steps soon quicken into a moist beat of pitter-patters, joining the drumline of raindrops. Polyrhythm is the music of the farmlands.

I remember disliking rain before the pandemic, but I noticed that loose gravel packs tighter after light rain, making my steps secure. Heavy rain creates puddles, and splashing through each one makes me feel tough. I noticed how leaves cling to droplets through the magical powers of cohesion and how nighttime rain makes the trees bright and shiny. Rain is good.

In 20 minutes, I reach the sea and look ahead. Today, the wind is calm and the water is silver snakeskin. This is the end of the farm roads. I pause, deeply breathing more musky manure, then turn back to run up polished asphalt and packed gravel.

I remember running under my first sunset in the farmlands. Long fields force horizons to stretch far, far away, extending a heavenly stage. That night, the sky danced with pinks and reds in the east, and blues and oranges to the west, in front of the great mountains and me. I forgot that I was running. I felt small and safe — and that I needed to thank God for the performance I had stumbled upon.

I eventually repass the church and return to the pandemicalized present, but now my shoulders are low, my mind is quiet, and I am content.

— Caleb Chan

A bike-ride surprise and lockdown romance

I normally love the month of May. Exams have just ended and the thrill of liberation is still fresh. The weather feels perfect as the grass begins to grow green and lush. The responsibilities of summer jobs and internships have not quite crept in. It’s the sweet spot of student life.  

May 2020 was not quite so sweet.

Time stopped as the global lockdown continued. For me, it meant a three-month-old relationship became long distance while we were in the same city. When one of you doesn’t have a car and the other is waving around an expired G1 license, 22 kilometres becomes a lot farther. 

So in between hours of Facetime and Netflix Party, baking more loaves of bread than my family could possibly eat, and shattering that normally unreachable Goodreads goal, I walked.

Every single day, walking with nowhere to go was my bright spot. For a couple of hours every afternoon, I felt the sun on my face and had relief in the form of silence from a full family squished under one roof. I could listen to music, pray, or remember what busyness normally buries. And every night, I would relay it all to my boyfriend, Jason. 

The sun was streaming on a warm day in May. Happy to finally discard my winter layers and heavy boots, I slipped on my Converse as Jason texted me yet again asking if I was ready to walk ‘together’ while talking on the phone. Excited for a ‘date’ to chat that didn’t involve my love-hate relationship with Zoom, I stepped out the door — only to be rudely interrupted by a speeding bike. 

When I heard the biker shouting my name, I thought I was hallucinating Jason. Time slowed in the ways that you read about as thoughts raced through my mind. Was I overly attached to the point of literally seeing a mirage of him now? Did I need to reevaluate if this relationship was superseding my priorities?

I was so shocked that all the breath left my lungs in one fell swoop. I wanted to cry or smile or something to show how touched and happy I was, but all I could do was stand there with my mouth gaping open. 

After nearly two months of separation, he’d biked all the way from downtown Toronto to quiet, suburban Scarborough to walk with me. I joked that the real reason for my happiness was the fact that he’d brought his copy of The Two Towers for me to read. But, really, I was just so excited not to send him any pictures from my walk that day. 

What I’d thought was going to be a walk-and-talk on the phone with Jason turned out to be me walking beside him and his unwieldy bike. Usually, three is a crowd, but that day, it was perfect. 

— Dana Tors

Reading my way through this break

Call me crazy, but if it weren’t for my one saving grace, I don’t think I would have made it through the pandemic. Are you wondering what saved me? I’ll save you the anticipation of guessing: it was, simply put, reading. 

Reading was a blessing that helped me adapt my life to these uncertain COVID-19 times. During the early days of the pandemic, I dismissed it with a simple wave of my hand. I assumed COVID-19 would die down in only a few months. How wrong I was. 

Weeks had passed, and I began to seek solace elsewhere since I had only interacted with the same three people. I had been reading here and there, but I hadn’t fully occupied myself with it. 

As more and more weeks began passing by, I soon increased the amount of time I was reading. Boy, I was hooked. My mind was deeply engrossed with vibrant imaginary worlds, masterfully crafted characters, and best of all, enthralling plots. Every book was literally a whole new world — a world without COVID-19. 

Months into the pandemic, the dreadful first day of attending university classes arrived. Worst of all, my classes were in an online format, much to my dismay. But I knew that reading was going to help me cope with both the pandemic and virtual classes.

And it did.

Days were spent on university papers, projects, and tests. Nights, on the other hand, were always spent reading story after story. There was not a single night where I didn’t read, except for those I spent studying. 

I had a routine that kept me motivated and made the time pass by faster than ever. The hours I spent reading would only feel like minutes. The significant stress from university courses was reduced considerably. I was relaxed, sleeping well, and largely worry-free. I was essentially in my zen.

Reading was quite the saving grace, I must say.  Rather than going to parties or spending nights at Blue Mountain risking COVID-19, I enjoyed my winter break by avidly reading fictional stories. Without the worries of completing assignments and studying for tests in the back of my mind, I had all the time to read not one, not two, but dozens of books. 

So it’s safe to say that I’ll be continuing to immerse myself with the wonders of the fictional world for the rest of this pandemic and beyond. 

— Jessica Han

Singing in law school

Like many law students, I struggle with impostor syndrome. We are graded relative to our peers’ performances, so naturally, this introduces ample opportunity for peer-to-peer comparison. In a distant reality — one where we freely roamed school hallways without masks — I validated these fears with my classmates daily. I commonly heard people saying, “Have you started the assignment yet?” or “I’m stressed about exams too!” 

These interactions instilled a sense of belonging, reassuring me that I wasn’t alone. Without them, I became increasingly alienated from the study of law. As I poured over my casebook readings, I began to wonder: was I the only one who found the material difficult? Even though, in hindsight, I was far from the only one who found the material difficult, I still doubted my abilities, and consequently, my mental health suffered. 

However, through singing, I gained a new perspective on the roadblocks imposed by impostor syndrome. Through a community of musicians on YouTube, I learned that my singing progress was only hindered by my mindset. 

Even though I had a strong desire to sing, I never learned to sing until 2020 because I was embarrassed and ashamed of my voice. I only practiced singing in my car, alone. Singing is a vulnerable activity — pitch issues, voice cracks, and other vocal mistakes sometimes feel like moral failings even though they’re not. 

I contrast this feeling with my experience as a piano player, where I never felt the same degree of shame even when I made a mistake or ironed out the wrinkles of a new song. 

As I gained an education in voice, I realized that even the best singers — the ones who seem to sing effortlessly on stage — put a lot of work behind the scenes into their voice. I realized that even during a performance, singers must consciously think about breath support, navigating vocal registers, stylistic ad-libs, tone, and more. 

Finally, and most reassuringly, I realized that even the best singers make mistakes. Your voice is truly an instrument that you can gain control over, but you have to start somewhere.

I began singing more and more during exam season, a time when my academic stress was at an all-time high. Singing served as not only a cathartic release but also a means of boosting my overall self-confidence.

While I’m grateful to have learned about voice and to have been given a space to sing, I’m not going to lie and say my impostor syndrome has dissipated. I do grow frustrated when I can’t pick up a technique quickly. And I can assure you that I will grow frustrated with concepts I learn in my next semester of Zoom law. 

However, I will say that learning is a journey, and becoming a master at anything takes focused effort. This is a healthier mindset to carry into my future endeavours. And, hey, if all else fails, at least I’m prepared for karaoke night when the pandemic subsides. 

— Vivian Cheng

When a podcast lets you leave the house

It goes without saying that 2020 has been a year that none of us will soon forget. While all Canadians were affected by the same pandemic, we each dealt with it differently. 

Every person had a ‘saving grace’: something that kept them grounded during these unprecedented times. For me, it was, and continues to be, podcasts. 

I have been listening to podcasts for over a decade, and during that time, I have amassed a sizable library of favourite shows, ranging from history, current events, philosophy, urban planning, and everything in between. One particular genre that I have grown to embrace this year is storytelling. 

Personal narrative has always been something I enjoy listening to, mostly in order to escape from my own life and dip into somebody else’s for an hour. In 2020, however, for the first time ever, I found myself confronting the same events as people in every corner of the globe, and this gave rise to an entirely new listening experience. 

Instead of pressing play in order to tune out, I began to do so to tune in, to see how others were handling a problem that I was facing too. I would listen to episodes that showcased how individuals from all over the world — in Germany, Hong Kong, the United States, and so on — were dealing with COVID-19. After hearing their stories, I often felt blessed to be living in Canada, where the pandemic has been, relatively speaking, not as bad as in other countries.  

Podcasts have also helped scratch an itch that comes to me every summer, courtesy of the travel bug. This is the first year in recent memory that I have not found myself overseas, thanks to travel restrictions in place due to COVID-19. Listening to podcasts helped me deal with the absence of adventures abroad, allowing me to immerse myself in faraway destinations via my ears. 

I would stroll around my neighbourhood while listening to a podcast walking tour of Paris, New York, Cairo, or Johannesburg, and I would mentally transform the scenery around me into that of another city. Upon returning home, I would order takeout from a corresponding restaurant — or even sometimes attempt to cook the dishes myself. 

Aside from podcasts specifically about travel, I also listened to shows about current affairs while doing day-to-day tasks, making me feel like I was actually in a different place. Doing the dishes while listening to the latest news in South Africa or cooking while catching up on the events of the day in Scotland gave me stationary travel experiences.

Podcasts have always been an integral part of my life. However, it was only this year that I truly came to appreciate their existence. When everything was locked down, they allowed my mind to remain open. When people felt more distant than ever and travel seemed a thing of the past, they allowed me to connect with the world. 

For years now, if Iʼm asked to sum myself up in one sentence, I would reply, “I’m usually somewhere else, listening to a podcast.” In 2020, this is perhaps more true than ever before. 

— Jarryd Jäger 

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