“As students, one of our dreams is to go places. To travel, and see new cities, meet new people, learn more about this world we live in,” says Muskaan Vaidya, who studies Energy Systems Engineering at the Lucerne University. But things turned out differently in 2020.

I had it all planned. After my first quick solo trip back to my home country, I would go to Florence, Vienna, Budapest and other cities that fell along the same route. I had even booked the flights to Budapest. And my cursor was just hovering overbooking the accommodation in Florence. 2020 was going to be my year!

But all that actually happened, was that single trip to my home country. And already as I boarded the flight to head back to Zurich, passengers were wearing masks, maintaining social distance. Still, even then, back in February 2020, we had no idea of what the rest of the year had in store for us.

University lectures resumed as usual. Switzerland was quite off the Corona radar then, so we didn’t have to wear masks yet. I met my friends every day, we had our lunches together, sat next to each other on the bus and didn’t hesitate to hold on to the handles for support at precarious turns. Three weeks into my return, the shut-down was announced. “Due to the growing influence of the pandemic, we will now be shifting our lectures to online learning. Please bear with us as we set up the required infrastructure.” An email along these lines was sent out. Campuses were closed.

The rest of the events were a trickle, like raindrops making their way down a windowpane. One after the other. About two weeks in, I started to sorely miss all that I had taken for granted. I no longer ate the meals on campus, online examinations became a nightmare, I could only see my friends on a screen, my public transport General Abonnement was of no use anymore. But this was just the start.

When I look back at 2020, where online learning wasn’t even imaginable, I can think of quite a few other things that we couldn’t do. Contact sports and gyms were risky to go to. We could no longer just walk into the cafeteria on our bus rides. There was also a slow trickle of emails, expressing regret at the cancelled plans of events, parties, and trips – of course, with a more hopeful note towards 2021.

Photograph of Muskaan VaidyaThese were the bigger things. Then there were finer details that I had not paid much attention to – like the finer strokes in a mesmerizing painting. Not noticeable upfront, but their beauty adds to the entire experience. These included: sitting next to friends in classes and giggling over an old joke. Passing plates and cutlery at the cafeteria. The open buffet of salads where we could argue over what made the best combinations. Not even thinking before grabbing the pepper and salt shakers off the counter to season our foods. Walking in to buy a chocolate croissant and looking at the freshly baked goods to pick out the one with the most powdered sugar. (Now they are all wrapped in brown bags). Waving to the lovely library lady as I left, seeing her smile, and waving back. Somethings as simple as being able to see a friend’s grin at a stupid joke… Now, I had to settle for just the visible crinkles around their eyes, over the masked lips.

In-class experiences changed drastically. Mostly because, well, there were no contact classes anymore. No more long discussions. No chalk dust flying from the board. No time used up while the lecturer cleaned up the board with a sponge. The little red laser beam dot that danced on the walls as we all sat there, grasping a new topic was missed. The breaks where we made plans and rushed out to reach the coffee machine before it got crowded was a thing of the past. When we sat ready to bolt out the door and get the Foosball table to get maximum out of our break time, played intense matches, throwing in bets and dares for the fun of it, and laughing together – all in the span of just 20 minutes was all gone now… vanished!

With real breaks from the classes, we used to have a chance to clear our mind and return to class with a fresh perspective. Now, our breaks are from one screen to the other: when the zoom call on the laptop pauses, we turn to our phones.

Over lunch hours, my friends and I used to have interesting discussions about politics, philosophy, experiences, world affairs and everything under the sun. We voiced our opinions and feelings, discussed our plans, our worries, our fears…our futures. It was in these little breaks and hours after classes where these conversations found a home as well. It had all come to a screeching halt now. Talking about emotions became more and more difficult over texts. So, when one of us finally checked in with the other, the feeling of a limb or two missing because of not being able to meet the others become even stronger. We tried to schedule Skype video calls. They worked sometimes.

Life somehow became 2-dimensional. It no longer had the depth we had come to love and appreciate. We started to live from screen to screen. Zoom calls on the laptop, breaks on Instagram and Whatsapp on the phone and decompressing at the end of the day with some Netflix. New schedules had to be built to make up for the lost sports. An hour of biking or running. Maybe some cardio at home and hiking on the weekends? The hours spent in the yoga studio, laughing over our inflexibility, were now replaced with newer, unanticipated things.

I didn’t realize that it was possible to miss a 3-hour long commute so sorely!

It was easy to fall into a swamp of negativity. And within this swamp, it sometimes becomes hard to look at the positive side of humanity. So, while these were the things that made life difficult, there was also the other side of the coin that came to light as well., I saw humanity around me show up with sheer resilience and an adamant refusal towards failure.

Despite difficult scenarios, my lecturers adapted their interactive exercises within the 1920 x 1080 pixels of our screens. Yes, undeniably 2 dimensional, but something that could not have been imagined before. They even found alternatives that could help us learn the concepts with just about as much fun as we would have had in class. Older professors tried harder to teach from their homes and navigate the technological world. Younger lecturers took upon the new challenge by seeking out interactive tools that can be shared through a Zoom video call. When we were unable to print the long scripts required for our coursework, the professors got to work and sent the complete scripts to each one of us by post. Library staff reached out and organized the return and lending of books through post. Despite the wrapped croissants and the disappearance of the buffet bar, the cafeteria was transformed overnight to still provide us as much variety in meals as possible. Sanitiser dispensers were stationed in every building, on every floor in no time. The cleaning ladies were seen around more often, sharing a smile to the ones not absorbed by their phone screens, wiping down surfaces and cleaning the railings. I made it a point to keep an eye out, and mirror their smile.

As students, alongside our course material, we also learned to adapt and adjust. We created new schedules to match the new situation. We used the time saved from travel to learn new skills, like extra time for a workout or to just relax a bit more on the couch.

It wasn’t just universities that were paving new paths in a place where they had never been before; it was always a community of people. The society that we tend to criticize so often swooped in and everybody was trying their best to adapt to the new scenarios. Despite uncomfortable circumstances, I could see people going the extra mile, buying groceries for their elderly neighbors. There were snacks and drinks left at the door for parcel delivery employees. In the business world, with work-from-home announced as a mandate, I could see the walls between home and business breaking in a beautiful way when someone’s toddler’s laughter was contagious to all the adults on the Teams meeting.

In the flurry of changes, at first, there was a standstill for all of us. And then slowly, the feet started moving, and we began to move with the changes. Through this difficult year, I learned that nothing is quite impossible. There are still small cracks, and little nooks of hope that we can hold on to. One thing that’s certain is the fact that the human race is utterly resilient, and though unforeseen circumstances can freeze momentarily, we have it in us to find the energy to take the steps again. I also learnt to not take the most normal things for granted, because who knows when a new normal would kick in?

About the author

Photograph of Muskaan VaidyaHaving moved through 9 cities, across 3 countries, Muskaan has grown up with an international flavor, but still maintains her Indian roots. As a young child, she sought out libraries in her locality (whichever city that may have been) and devoured books. Since having picked up a passion for reading from a very young age, she soon began to fill up notebooks with her own imaginations and self-woven universes. Today she retains the same passions and continues to write about her learnings from her adventures through life.

Right now she is pursuing her bachelors in Lucerne. Having completed multiple work experiences with MNCs, she is also slowly defining her early career steps.

While studies usually take up most of her week, Muskaan can often be found strapping her hiking boots on and wandering through the Swiss mountains on warm weekends. And sometimes, a simple night in with a movie and popcorn is the best way to decompress.

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