By Nadia Pulu
My first semester of college at California State University, Monterey Bay was one of the best times of my life.
It can be difficult acclimating to university life, but everything felt natural and exhilarating for me. I made great friends during my Educational Opportunity Program’s Summer Bridge Program and even more once the semester started. One of my professors referred me to an internship at the campus’ Cross Cultural Center, where I still work today. I was even able to maintain a balance between my social life and my academics. I was happy, thriving and on a journey of getting to know myself better.
Then came early spring of 2020. A friend had mentioned a “new virus” he read about that was spreading in China and could be serious. I probably replied with a passive “Oh, that’s interesting,” went about my day, and well, you know the rest of that story.
Almost two years later, in fall 2021, I returned to that same campus, the place I had fallen deeply in love with and, even in a short time, invested much of myself into. Yet, the person I had begun to find there two years prior was gone. As I began to navigate this new version of the home I had begun to build but could never finish, I learned I couldn’t just pick up where I left off.
Reconnecting with old friends and acquaintances was harder than I imagined, especially when a common trend among them was commenting about how different I was. Many people said things like, “You’re less extroverted,” or “I can tell you’re a homebody now” — all of which I internalized as “you’re uninteresting and socially awkward.” Whether they meant it that way or not didn’t matter; that was what I believed, and that way of thinking was debilitating to my already struggling effort to rebuild connections. I became less confident in myself to the point that I wasn’t really sure of who I was at all.
Before the pandemic, my entire identity was built upon my ability to connect with others. I clung to that part of myself with pride, so when I no longer knew how to be that person, I felt lost. And since I had become more guarded and introverted, I didn’t really talk to anyone about how I was feeling. Instead, I tried to deal with these changes alone, regularly wondering if other people also felt this way.
Because everyone experienced isolation and shutdowns, I assumed we all would be a little changed; the problem was no one talked about it. It felt as if we all came back to campus from this extremely traumatic experience and just decided to put it behind us instead of processing what we went through. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Rates of anxiety, depression and substance use disorder have increased since the beginning of the pandemic.”
I believe that is because our society has not taken the steps to collectively process what we have been through. Maybe it’s because the change was so sudden that everyone sort of rolled with the punches and processed things day to day, or maybe it was just a touchy subject in general.
I clung to who I was before the pandemic because all my best memories were tied to that old version of myself. But I also began to own the “new me” and accepted the new parts of myself. I began to put myself into social situations so that I could practice being more extroverted again.
What helped me most in navigating this internal journey was — to my surprise — a job. In summer 2022 I worked on a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative for the city manager’s office in Monterey. I felt like what I was doing mattered, and it gave me a sense of fulfillment.
After the internship was over I found myself slowly falling back into those old feelings of self-doubt and insecurity. But I now understand that the lessons I learned along the way this past year will keep me afloat.
If my experience resonates with you, remember that you don’t have to go it alone. Talking to friends and family, reaching out to counselors on campus or even forcing yourself to be out around other people can make a huge difference in easing the isolation.
And try not to get discouraged or give up on yourself. Specifically, I found you sometimes have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to transform into who you’re meant to be. A shift in perspective can go a long way. Where I thought I was lost was really where I was finding myself.
My strongest resources to learn these lessons were books like “The Mountain is You” by Brianna Wiest, podcasts such as “The Psychology of your 20s” by iHeartPodcasts, and most importantly, a strong support system made up of my friends, family and mentors. Slowly with time, patience and compassion for myself, I grew my self-confidence and found balance.
Today I know that growth comes with growing pains, and it should be embraced. Once I stopped fighting the person I was growing into, let go of what didn’t serve me, and began to be true to myself, I flourished. Now I have a home at California State University, Monterey Bay again and the best time of my life is today.
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