A tribute to what we have lost
Graduating this year comes with many obstacles—entering an employment field of uncertain modality, missing out on making memories with large groups of friends and saying goodbye to a campus that seniors have hardly inhabited for their last three semesters at Washington University. Each person of the class of 2021 has lost something unique, something that deserves space and time to remember. Student Life sat down with three seniors who had a story to share about loss and closure.
Senior Aja Drain never meant to spend her final year of college at home, nor did she expect to graduate a semester early. Yet speaking from her bedroom in Arizona, Drain reflected on a year where nothing went quite as planned. After a stressful few months of the pandemic, she decided that staying virtual would be the safest option for her first semester. Soon after, she realized that she only needed one more class in order to graduate, and so planned to finish her degree in December.
“[It] was a good decision, I think, in the long term, and I’m pretty happy with it, but it was kind of bittersweet,” Drain said.
Though she doesn’t regret the choice to finish college early, Drain acknowledges that she lost a long list of things—including a literal bucket list. Drain wanted to visit the St. Louis Zoo, the art museum, work as an RA and take a final spring trip with friends—all things that were never checked off.
Bigger than activities and sights to see, however, were the human connections that Drain felt faded during her time spent away from campus. Though she knows that friends come and go, she feels like she missed out on precious time with people she loved.
“Even without a pandemic, you might not be talking to your bestie from freshman year, and that’s okay,” Drain said. “But I think something that is really important is that, within those moments, to have those full four years with those people.”
During spring break of her junior year, right before Wash. U.’s campus closed due to COVID, Drain took a trip to New Orleans with a group of close friends. She recalled the highs of exploring the city, watching street performers and witnessing a public proposal.
“We finally [felt] like the atmosphere was kind of matching our own energy,” she said. Almost immediately after, Wash. U. announced they were not bringing students back to campus after break. Drain didn’t return for the next year.
While at home, Drain was grateful to spend time with her family, especially her younger brother, but she admitted that the past year was unique in a variety of mostly negative ways.
“It’s very isolating. I definitely feel more alone than I ever have,” she said. Feelings of isolation were exacerbated as her family moved from her childhood house in Maryland to a new one in Arizona, a place where Drain has no childhood friends and doesn’t know any familiar places.
In May, Drain is planning to travel to St. Louis for Wash. U’s commencement ceremony. She’s worried that the connections that she’s formed during her time at school will feel strained.
“I’m kind of nervous because like, a lot of those relationships have changed, because you can only do long distance for so long,” Drain said. Yet overpowering those feelings of uncertainty is Drain’s desire for closure to what ended up as a tumultuous senior year.
“We’ll be in big old robes, just having that moment, [and] I think that will definitely help to take that step forward and kind of move on from the year, move on for the pandemic and just be able to say goodbye to Wash. U properly,” she said.
Senior Connor Keuchel remembers the first laugh he ever got onstage: as a freshman, during his first performance with the Washington University long-form improv group, Suspicious of Whistlers, or “Spish” for short.
“I remember being really nervous because there [was] a lot of people, and I was like, ‘What if I’m not good enough?’” Keuchel said. “But when you get your first laugh… it [was] a very, very satisfying moment and that energy feeds into you, which makes you more excited and want to put out more.”
After that show, he was hooked. Out of all his activities, including volunteering at Wash. U.’s med campus and chess club, Keuchel dedicated the most time to improv, spending hours each week perfecting his craft.
Though it may seem entirely off-the-cuff, Keuchel explained that coming up with content on the fly is actually a practiced skill. An actor has to know how to match or elevate the energy that they receive from others onstage, as well as navigate how to choose a new line that will allow for new content to form. Suspicious of Whistlers routinely puts out shows that are 30 minutes or longer—an endurance sport, really.
Yet this year, the adrenaline that comes with performing has been notably absent. Keuchel noted the contrast between being onstage and practicing on Zoom.
“You can still do it well, but it’s much harder,” he said. “I’m not in front of a lot of people [and] I can’t feed on that energy, because I’m just in my room, alone.”
Seniors of Suspicious of Whistlers typically are foundational members of the group. Though the class of 2021 has tried to facilitate connections between new members, Keuchel recognized that like everything else this year, virtual meetings just don’t quite cut it.
Despite the many letdowns, Keuchel has been able to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. After all, that’s what improv actors do best. “I’ve definitely learned to not get over-reactive about certain things, just, ‘this is the way it is and we’ll have to roll with the punches,’” he said.
It’s been over a year since senior Joanna Grill has been able to fully taste or smell anything. After contracting COVID from her study abroad in Sweden at the very beginning of the pandemic, in March 2020, she lost two of her five senses, and hasn’t fully regained them since.
One of the resulting challenges of people who have prolonged loss of taste is a diminished sense of joy and satisfaction from food. Grill said that she has experienced frustration while eating a meal which would have been one of her favorites.
“I was at Hillel having a meal and they brought out mango Baked Alaska, and everyone was like ‘Oh, this is so good,’ [and] I literally only felt the texture,” she said.
Losing smell can also be hazardous, as Grill realized when she could no longer smell things burning in the kitchen.
“There was a little piece of food on my stovetop in the burners when I was cooking a month ago, and I couldn’t smell that it was burning,” she said. “[That] probably has been the most consequential repercussion.”
Grill’s smell and taste are slowly beginning to return, just as the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is starting to appear. Just as it’s difficult to remember life before Zoom calls and masked faces, she finds it hard to recall what it’s like to enjoy fully flavorful food.
But Grill wants everyone to be cognizant that we’re not out of the woods just yet.
“I’ve heard people are hesitant about getting the vaccine. And I will say that whatever happens with getting the vaccine is certainly not as bad as what could potentially happen. Getting COVID, you don’t know if you’re going to lose your smell, lose your taste, lose your memory or develop a new medical problem,” she said.
While her situation is far from ideal, Grill repeatedly emphasized that she feels lucky to have otherwise survived the pandemic largely unscathed. She recognized that her experience with COVID wasn’t the worst it could have been.
“I’ve lost my smell and taste, which certainly is no fun, but I try to keep perspective because people have experienced much more substantial loss,” she said. “It just doesn’t compare to losing family members and friends—whether from COVID-19 or the emotional repercussions of this time or another cause—or losing financial stability, among many other hardships.”