Where were you when the reality of the COVID pandemic first struck you?
I was 4,000 miles from home, hitching cheap and early flights through Europe to find my way home from a semester abroad gone astray.
January 28, 2020 | Lecco, Northern Italy
Seven eager exchange students and I woke up early for a daylong trek through a mountainous town near Lake Como.
We had all just flown in from our corners of the world to Milan for a semester at Bocconi University.
We used the streets and staircases to wind our way up the side of the Piani d’Erna, following paths that cut through backyards and past gardens, shrines, and barking dogs. The man operating the gondola said we were his only customers — that the clouds and fog must have deterred everyone.
A spectacular parting of the clouds greeted us at the summit.
Surely this was a sign of good things ahead for our time in Italy.
My intentions were set: to pass my classes, learn alongside students from all across the world, explore relentlessly, and immerse myself in the cultures of my host country and its neighbors.
March 3, 2020 | London Heathrow Airport
I woke up from a bad nap, sprawled across a few airport gate seats, wedged in place by the immovable armrests above me.
In 24 hours I made it from Bratislava back to Milan to hastily and angrily pack my things; then to London for a transfer flight to New Jersey, where I’d finish my semester on my own, at home.
I stared at the ceiling above me in Heathrow Airport, head spinning.
How do I take exams? How do I learn like this? This isn’t a real semester.
As I waited for a flight I didn’t want to board, I vowed to (or tried to convince) myself that I would make the most out of the hand I had been dealt for this semester … whatever that might mean.
I traded the sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis for the pensive silence of home.
I replaced my nicest neutral-colored clothing with joggers and t-shirts.
A renowned educational network became a laptop and a WiFi network.
I slowly and begrudgingly learned to stay on track, engaged, and motivated to finish an interrupted, improvised semester of school, largely on my own.
At My Pace, and Only Mine
This is a theme for college writ large, but without the structure of a commute to wake up for, and nightlife to stay up for, I was really marching to the beat of my own drum.
Scary thought. Empowering one, too.
Some days flowed more smoothly than others. I remember plenty of days, probably weeks I spent without watching a single lecture.
But as the days continued to roll off the calendar, I fastened a grip on my routine; alarm set for the morning, breakfast pre-made, lectures queued, exercise clothes set out for later.
I learned to design systems that gave me the highest probability of success, even though the backstop was always me, and I wasn’t always reliable.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this experience gave me the reps I needed to become accountable for my own success in all facets of life.
Finding My Feet
Difficulties cropped up in most aspects of the schoolwork.
Beyond the language barrier that separated certain professors and students were barriers like poor internet connection and scheduling live lectures for students across literally every time zone.
So, I bought textbooks that I thought I wouldn’t need just a few weeks prior.
I read suggested chapters. I did practice problems. I knew I’d have fallen behind if I didn’t. And now I had the time to dig deep, even though I knew I’d have spent that time differently in Milan…
…like going back to Lecco in the springtime.
I was setting myself up for habits that I’d carry throughout the rest of my academic life and straight into my work after school.
On Being Alone
I learned alone, and I learned to be alone: to become comfortable in silence, in boredom, in the acres of mental space I now had, instead of the exhilaration of an exchange semester.
The most difficult part of this semester for me (then and now) was the threat of losing important friends. In the age of the internet, we were always within reach, but not in the way any of us would have liked.
We shared far more than just a roof. So, when our concerned parents, our home universities, and finally the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention summoned us back to our corners of the world for quarantine, we suffered.
Out of necessity, I learned to actually enjoy my time spent at DCU.
Recordings, Repetitions, Reflections
If I’m honest, I rarely watched live lectures.
I started to like to pause and rewind. Rewatches got 2x speed treatment.
I have a notebook filled with supply-demand graphs, sample data, practice problems, vocabulary, case preps, and some doodles.
All I needed to do was pass, but the underachiever’s attitude quickly left me.
I realized, despite the lethargy, I was still an exchange student at Bocconi. I represented my home university and my country as a student, so I wanted to act like it.
Professors and administrators were bent over backward trying to accommodate some crazy conditions for college education.
Now I’m grateful for that and for my opportunity to get an education amid a pandemic. That attitude stuck with me, as has a propensity for learning things twice, or dozens of times, until it sticks.
I keep saying I unraveled lesson after life lesson by myself, but it’s not true.
With the help of countless staff adapting to teach me, pilots to get me home safely, and friends staying up late for group video calls, I learned.
An experience I never wanted to have prepared me for the future in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
For all the ambling I did around the house, and for all the solo, roundabout ventures through an all-too-familiar neighborhood, I stopped feeling alone.
And as final projects kicked off and I received international group assignments, I came full circle. I was learning alone, together.
The group for my marketing project coordinated schedules from New Jersey to Rome to Melbourne.
We parsed work into manageable chunks, spoke on the phone with one another when we could, trusted each other to pull weight, and churned out an excellent final project.
“Peer-to-peer” took on an entirely new meaning to me, but it worked.
Asynchronous learning works. And peer-to-peer learning can still happen.
You just need an awesome, dedicated team working on things they really care about to get it done.
I experienced shades of this during my senior year, too, and graduated in May (complete with a virtual commencement address).
Now I work a job on a remote team dispersed across three continents and 13 hours of time difference.
If I didn’t have to build systems to stay accountable, learn by myself when it needed to happen, and adapt to an almost fully asynchronous semester, I might not have been ready to accept a position at a team like ours.
I’m grateful to have learned those lessons and to have been gifted hardworking project groups.
Time is the Only Separator
The international dorm was as you’d imagine — teeming with students from all over. There was a frenzied eagerness toward friendliness that grabbed anyone that lived there.
We became like family. We traveled in packs, we took care of one another, we studied together. We collaboratively ousted some bad eggs that left dishes in the public sink or took too long with the washers and dryers.
The pandemic felt strong enough to rip the seeds we’d sown right from the ground. Friends didn’t disappear, though it felt like they would when we left.
But I ran a half-marathon with one of them in October 2022, after she moved to Manhattan from Australia.
I hosted another for three days at my house during his visit from Scotland.
I’ve seen handfuls of other friends in NYC over the past two years.
And I’ll plan trips in the future to visit others, near where they happen to be.
May 21, 2020 | New Jersey
This is a picture from the last day of my ‘abroad’ semester.
From my childhood bedroom, I submitted my last exam. I set my laptop on the ground, played guitar, then snapped a picture, as I planned to do with the big moments of my semester.
The concept of my own education over those four months was flipped on its head. No in-person office hours; no study groups; no frantic chats on the walk to an exam.
No practicing a second language; no international travel; no aperitivo.
There’s a reason I’m writing this essay, and I promise it’s not to try and make you feel sorry for me.
I got to learn about how I really learn.
And for all the bitterness, unwanted solitude, and hair-pulling while watching professors and students navigate the intricacies of screen-sharing on Zoom, I became a better learner by having to adapt to a semester abroad done from home, virtually.
Those lessons led me to a job where I feel valued; where working autonomously is seen as a strength; where reflection and curiosity are key components of all our processes; where time management is crucial; and where learning alone, together, couldn’t be more relevant.