August 2020

Graduating in the Class of COVID-19

COVID-19 robbed Brandon of his senior year and his sense of community, forcing him down a difficult road of self-exploration.

by Brandon Simanian

In 2015 I graduated high school and was heading to my first year at Santa Monica Community College in hopes of transferring to a four-year institution in the University of California (UC) system. As I finished my third year at Santa Monica, I began to apply to all of the UC campuses expecting to be greeted by acceptance letters. To my shock, school after school denied me. Weeks went by and I was beginning to believe I would not be accepted anywhere, but that all changed when I got an email from the University of California Santa Cruz titled “Message from UC Santa Cruz Admission.” My heart was pounding. Was this another rejection or had I finally been accepted? I opened the email to see in bold letters “Congratulations on your acceptance to UC Santa Cruz.” The happiness I felt was second only to my relief of having my work being recognized by such an exceptional institution. A door had been opened and now all I needed to do was walk through and live the unforgettable college experience on the other side.  

The two years I spent at Santa Cruz, before the COVID-19 pandemic took effect marked a period of incredible transformation in my life. While Santa Cruz taught me how to live through my own choices and actions, it also taught me the importance of having a community to support you and help reach your goals. During the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) strikes, where graduate students demanded fairer pay, I saw hundreds upon hundreds members of the community consisting of professors, staff, and undergraduates come to the aid of graduate students, standing in the picket line protesting for students. Taking time out of their days and their busy schedule to help others in need was an awe-inspiring event that opened my eyes to the reality of inequity and solidarity in our world. I was entering a special community at Santa Cruz, whose members leaned on one another to collectively build a more just society.

Isolated from a dangerous world. Photo by the author.

These times of inspiration and social change, however, came to a screeching halt three months into my final semester of college. In the middle of March, students received an email saying that this upcoming Spring 2020 quarter would be held online due to quarantine laws being put into effect. I had been expecting my final quarter to be the greatest yet, filled with parties, laughter, and memorable moments for me to look back on. Instead, I was faced with isolation from my friends and forced to stay indoors. Months passed at a snail’s pace as I sat quietly in my room working on papers and thinking about what I had lost.

It became increasingly apparent that the results of online classes could not only affect my grades, but my mental health as well. For years, I battled depression due to being bullied during my adolescence, which left lasting emotional scars. I convinced myself the world was out to get me, and I became paranoid about potential friends hiding their true intention to tease me. At Santa Cruz, a newfound self-confidence allowed me to subdue these anxieties. I was finding groups of people that I could trust not to tease or bully me, but truly wanted to talk and spend time with me, create memories, and enjoy life together. For the first time in years, I felt happy. However, after March, with quarantine barring me from seeing my friends, my mental state began to regress, and my happiness with it. My old anxieties returned as I began to question my friendships. Instead of reaching out to these people during quarantine, I withdrew from the world. I felt as if I were living the same day over and over again. Wake up, hop on Zoom for class, write notes, study, eat, shower, and then go to bed to repeat the process the next day. My social anxieties made it hard to focus on schoolwork, as I feared for my physical and mental health.

As the world outside my home grew more unstable, I continued to withdraw into my own head, frantically jumping between anxiety-fueled questions.  Is it safe for me to go home to my family? What if I get them sick?  What’s going to happen if I get sick? Where am I going to get a job once I graduate? Was my mind regressing permanently to its former depressed state? I was tormented as these doubts bounced around my skull night after night, day after day, and I felt more and more hopeless.

The days drag on. Photo by the author.

Those first few months of isolation were a living hell, but that community that I was so proud to be a part of at Santa Cruz, the community that stood together for economic justice and which allowed me to overcome self-doubt, once again showed up for me. I found comfort in the professors who reached out to me. Faculty members such as Professor Christie McCullen, Dr. Megan McNamara, and Professor Juan Manuel Pedroza ensured students had someone to talk to during this stressful time. The professors of the sociology department even created a Zoom commencement for the Spring 2020 graduating sociology class. These actions the professors took in the face of the coronavirus were critical, and without them I may not have escaped that dark depressing hole in which I found myself.

Professors at Santa Cruz also made sure they offered opportunities for students to be proactive during this period, creating a new class to give students the chance to research the effects COVID-19 was having on the world. With the creation of this new class, I suddenly felt as if I had a purpose and was joined by classmates seeking to understand the mental, physical and emotional strain this pandemic caused individuals, groups of people, and society as a whole. I decided my paper would focus on domestic violence during the quarantine. I found that those being abused are living with few to no options to escape from their attacker due to quarantine forcing them indoors. While the problems I was facing during isolation were harsh, there were countless people in the world, many within my own community, surviving a far greater strain. The situation my classmates and I faced our final quarter was heart wrenching, but to study the struggles of others or to watch them on the nightly news, put my situation into perspective. Having properly contextualized my own experience, I was able to reframe my experiences with friends, the memories I made, and the opportunities in front of me. While I still am disappointed about how my college experience ended, I can now also reflect on what I gained. Santa Cruz showed me that with determination and a strong community behind you, there are no limit to what you can achieve.

Brandon Simanian graduated as a sociology major from the University of California Santa Cruz in Spring 2020 after transferring from Santa Monica Community College. He will soon take the LSAT to pursue his dream of becoming a lawyer.

2 comments on “Graduating in the Class of COVID-19

  1. ALawlessLog

    Thanks for this illuminating piece and congratulations of your achievement!


  2. Henry Samidi

    Congratulations on your well-deserved success and best wishes in your future endeavors.


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