COVID looks orange to me

The Nostalgia of SU's COVID Generation

SU’s Class of 2023 looks back at a college experience – and a pandemic – with something like fondness.
Published: May 11, 2023 | Updated: May 12th, 2023 at 6:11 pm

Syracuse University Commencement 2015 in the Carrier Dome

In late March, I sat in the back of a history lecture with over 100 students. In the midst of a lecture on the rise of communism in modern China, the professor caught my attention with a sudden change of academic gears. In a stunning lecture pivot, he began to speak candidly about his presence on social media. He said he had recently seen videos from people our age about feeling nostalgic for the COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.

“Do you miss the COVID-19 lockdowns?” the professor asked.

The class groaned, laughed and rolled their eyes. But I, a senior graduating in May, found myself surprised to answer “yes”.

Nostalgia for COVID-19 lockdowns began as a social media trend after the rules and regulations of COVID America began to loosen up in 2022. If you search “Lockdown Nostalgia” on TikTok, you are bombarded with hundreds of videos romanticizing the traumatic time. But for the graduating class of 2023, lockdown nostalgia means more than simply feeling nostalgic for COVID walks and socially distant Zoom hangouts. For the class of 2023, lockdown nostalgia means a longing to restart the four years we have spent together at Syracuse University.

In a study about nostalgia’s triggers and functions, researchers found that nostalgic feelings are usually evoked when remembering events that were disappointing, but eventually were mitigated by subsequent success. In other words, nostalgia has become a coping mechanism when remembering difficult times. People can cope with these memories by looking back at them through the lens of personal growth. After months spent inside and apart, even something as tedious as going to class felt like a win.

Being a college student during the pandemic was nothing short of bizarre, and many students can’t help but see it as a disappointing time to be entering the “best four years of their lives.” Colleges across the country were shut down for the majority of 2020, while some schools like SU opened for in-person, hybrid learning in Fall 2020. For the class of 2023, the pandemic dictated our college experience from the beginning to the end. COVID rules and regulations stayed in place through the majority of our junior year, and for some, into senior year.

Syracuse University established a strict code of conduct when it came to handling COVID-19 on campus. Students who decided to return to campus committed to the Stay Safe Pledge, agreeing to a list of rules put in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The rules included things like masks in any public spaces, opening dorms to residents only and no gatherings of groups larger than 25.

But as graduation inches closer, many students find themselves reminiscing on four unconventional years spent on campus. While talking about past stories from her time as a student at SU, senior retail management and marketing major Kira O’Donnell – who still must wear a mask to her women and gender studies classes, – says she sometimes longs for those strange days.

The type of nostalgia that O’Donnell feels, though her experience in college was anything but normal, may seem unusual. It seems strange that anyone would feel sentimental about harsh restrictions, the constant fear of sickness, and prolonged isolation. However, results from a study conducted by Fred Davis in 1977, which have since been upheld in later studies, found that “in those cases where the nostalgic experience contains negative elements, these hurts, annoyances, disappointments, and irritations … are filtered forgivingly through an ‘it was all for the best’ attitude.”

Advertising senior Gabby De Oliveira echoed this form of nostalgia for the past four years. She explained that even though her time in lockdown is jarring to think about, she credits it for large growth both in her personal and professional life.

“I learned how to be independent during my time on campus sophomore year when everything was locked down,” De Oliveira said. “I got a job, I learned how to take care of myself, and how to create meaningful relationships with my family and friends.”

The same study about nostalgia’s triggers and functions found that nostalgia is used to cope with current fears, anxieties, and uncertainties. These emotions are just a few that graduating seniors grapple with daily as they are about to enter the unknown of adulthood.

Sebastian Philemon graduated from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, in 2019. He explained that even though he graduated in “pre-COVID” times, he felt the same fear that the class of 2023 feels now. He said this fear is understandable to all: the fear of the unknown chapter of post-graduate life.

“I was scared to graduate,” Philemon said. “Being in that position, you’re established, you feel like you have a lot of control and comfort. So I was afraid of leaving that bubble and reestablishing myself.”

Philemon said he still feels nostalgic when thinking about the last few months as a senior, and he talked of a universal emotion that any graduating class feels, no matter the circumstances they faced over their four years.

“A lot of people tell themselves they are ready to get out of there,” Philemon said. “And yeah, to an extent, you are. But in reality, I was sad. You know, nothing was ever going to be as fun or as easy again.”

The nostalgia the class of 2023 feels is an overwhelming and normal feeling of the closing of this chapter in our lives. The themes of sadness, fear, and sentimentality that any graduating class deals with is still felt today, even by the COVID generation.

What we all feel nostalgic about may slightly vary from one to another, but the common theme seems to be less about the dorms, the food, or even the classes we have all taken either in person or online. Jordan Adner, a senior at the Whitman School of Management, explained that when he looks back on his experience at SU, he won’t think much about days spent in lockdown. Instead, he said, he thinks about the people that made campus feel like home in dark times.

“There are so many people that I know here, and that I am close with here on campus. But I know after college I am not going to see them,” Adner said. “I’ll miss running into them. I’ll be nostalgic about all the people that I’ve met and become close with.”

O’Donnell agreed and said that the time she spent trying to gain control of such an out-of-control experience at SU is why she does, and will continue to, look back on the past four years in a nostalgic and positive light.

“I think I’m nostalgic because our experience is unique, and it’s always going to be unique to us,” O’Donnell said. “It was so out of everyone’s control, and we did what we had to do to still have fun and to see our friends, and still have as close to a normal college experience as possible.”

Adner said that, like many of his peers, he will miss Syracuse University once he graduates. The past is the past, he said, and even though he would have preferred a different college reality, he wouldn’t change his time on campus.

“I’m going to miss it. Everything,” Adner said. “Obviously COVID messed with the normal college experience, but I am one of those people who think if you look back and wish you could change things, then you are not going to appreciate what happened.”

The class of 2023 is resilient. Though the past four years were nothing like we thought they would be, graduating seniors weathered the historic storm of COVID, all while managing to make the most out of our college experience. The bond that we all share because of what we went through together is what we will be nostalgic about for the rest of our lives.

Adner agrees, and he smiled when thinking back on his time at SU. He expressed how most seniors feel when talking about their time spent on our campus in Central New York.

“I don’t really care what it could have been because I had a great time.”