When you hear the word “college”, many things spring to mind: late nights, gallons of coffee, mountains of textbooks, new friends. For many teenagers, going to university represents a new chapter in their life, as for many it’s their first time living away from home. Countless film and TV scenes depict young adults heading off to college, with friends and family helping them unpack their things from a crammed car into an unusually stylish student dorm. But of all the images that spring to mind when you hear the word “college”, a global pandemic usually doesn’t make an appearance. Amongst the glossy pictures in school brochures, the smiling people on TV, the blog posts, forums and YouTube videos, the stories and memories of family members and friends of their times starting college; there is nothing to tell you what to expect when you’re beginning college in the middle of a global pandemic.
For some people, the pandemic meant flying to Berlin alone instead of with family: sitting amongst strangers in silence on the plane, masks on, visors up, sanitiser everywhere. For others it meant getting tested at the airport and being quarantined upon arrival, locked indoors with people you’ve never met before for two weeks, and nearly developing cabin fever. It meant everyone arriving at completely different times, scattered over weeks, coming into the middle of class readings and blossoming friendship groups. In fact, some people still have yet to arrive, bags packed and ready to go, still waiting for visa appointments and embassies to reopen. There was nothing conventional about the Class of 2024’s start to college.
The Language and Thinking Program is a crucial part of the initiation into academic life at BCB. We dived into college level reading and writing; we met our future professors and made friends. This year, however, required Zoom calls to replace in-person interactions, and masks every time you set foot inside a building, leading to muffled voices– “Can you repeat that?”– and awkward eye contact with the person directly opposite from you on your socially-distanced table. The good weather came as a blessing; class outside meant finally being able to read facial expressions, as we discussed complex and confusing texts. L&T led to course registration, and soon life with classes kicked in. Considering whether to set your alarm to go to breakfast; questioning your ability to handle 9am classes; and trying to work out what on earth was going on in The Iliad helped create a routine.
Luckily, the BVG transportation Semesterticket provided some relief, and lots of opportunities to explore Berlin and meet people. The good weather allowed us to escape our masks for a bit and spend time at the city’s many parks and lakes, although Olivia, a first-year HAST student from China, lamented that it “…led to me being the most sunburnt I’ve been in my life…”. It also led to many long conversations about life, and learning what makes people tick. I was lucky enough to spend my days and nights watching people’s eyes light up as they showed off pictures of family, and hearing all kinds of laughter as old stories were told. It was a chance to learn what people value and believe in; a piece of who they are, and who they wish to be.
Friendships were forged at three in the morning on the train whilst sharing hand sanitiser, and strengthened at breakfast the next morning. “I was sitting in the Rosenthaler Platz U-Bahn station with semi-strangers, absorbed in conversation, when I realized that I wasn’t alone,” explained Ian, a first year HAST student from the USA, fondly recounting one of his first evenings out in the city. He was out with a large group, but only half of them made it onto the train in time. Stranded in Berlin in the early hours of the morning, this rag-tag crew had the formative experience of navigating through the city with very little German. As well as the chance to practice their A1 Deutsch, they had a chance to learn more about and understand each other better, sparking some beautiful friendships.
Berlin became an essential part of our lives, with its streets nearly as familiar as our homes’, and the Fernsehturm became a beacon by which to orientate ourselves. Trains were missed and trams were taken in the wrong direction, but the tangle of transport systems soon untied itself, with the symbols “M1” becoming a friendly sight. A portion of our bloodstream became mate and coffee, Döner and Currywurst weekend dietary staples for carnivores, vegans and vegetarians alike, thanks to Berlin’s accommodating culinary scene. Ian passionately expressed how important döner is to him:
“Getting off the M1 next to Rewe (pronounced “Wee-wee”, for those who don’t know [an increasingly small majority of people]), we stopped by the ole Bistro for what was and may forever be the best Döner I’ve ever had. I began a Döner journal that night.”
The multitude of Platzes scattered across the city were no longer mystifying. This is the park where we made friends who feel like family under a clear starry sky, the Spätis where we flexed our German skills, and the doorway we stood under to escape the pouring rain. Slowly, the “I don’t speak German. English?” grew into “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and “Ich spreche und verstehe ein bisschen Deutsch.” We are slowly growing from tourists to residents in this city.
At the same time however, there are twinges of sadness. At one point or another, we all found adjusting to college difficult. The usual college concerns and anxiety over classwork, roommates, homesickness, and fears of missing out were exacerbated by the pandemic. Corona has made it impossible for most people to go home over October break, and there is greater concern over whether it will be possible to return in winter. Worse still is the risk of another lockdown, and the fear of the mental impacts of isolation all over again. It was in these moments of concern that we rallied together, offering open ears and hearts, knowing it would be reciprocated when needed. I have had several of these moments, sometimes giving, sometimes receiving. I’ve stayed up until the small hours of the morning listening and talking, just to check up on people; just to be there for them. Likewise, I’ve spilled my soul across seemingly endless nights, and was lucky enough to be guided to dawn by the unshakeable kindness and patience of people I’ve met here.
Over the last two months (although it feels much longer), we have been able to build a second family in the people at BCB, who have seen us through our worst and raised us up to our best, and a second home in its campus and in Berlin. Ian was kind enough to summarize this experience:
“After our first month together as a class, it seems folks have found new, comfortable places to be themselves, or they’ve embraced the nearly perpetual self-questioning-and-reforming that this school and city seem to encourage, or they’ve mixed the two. Regardless of where the truth lies in these perceptions, this first month has been full and generally good, albeit somewhat demanding (both personally and academically) at times.”
Coronavirus may have made our start to college unusual, but it’s made it even more unique. It strengthened and united our cohort in a way few experiences could. The first month at BCB has proven, at least to me, that provided we have each other, we can face whatever life may throw at us.