Student Post: The Most Important Meal of the Day

Updated: September 2, 2020

By Altan Mitchell
Brown University, Class of 2023

March 12, 7:30AM. The Ratty had just opened, and I was one of the first to arrive. Upon entering the empty dining hall, I grabbed a free newspaper near the entrance and walked towards one of the many uninhabited tables. As I strode past the fruit stand and buffet, I took a glance at the front page of the news. “U.S. Limits Travel After W.H.O. Cites Pandemic” was printed in large bold letters at the top of the paper. Ugh, more COVID-19 news?! I recognized the gravity of the pandemic but the way it dominated the news frustrated me. It was impossible to escape. Day after day, without fail, the front page of the news was littered with stories on COVID-19. 

I set my bag down in a vacant chair and tossed my newspaper onto the table. A couple of minutes later I returned with three fried eggs (over medium), two pieces of buttered toast, and an assortment of fruits. I dove into my usual breakfast and began reading about conflicts in Libya. The day had started like dozens before it. 

As I read my newspaper the Ratty slowly came to life. With the arrival of more students, the air began buzzing with rumors and whispers of our campus’ fate. 

“I heard they’re gonna tell us today.” 

“If class gets canceled I’m raging till we gotta leave.” 

“This is so wack.” 

A few days ago, my friend Julia had told me Harvard was ordering all their students home. We felt we were next. The entire NCAA had already canceled all sports, so our spring track and field season was decimated. A wave of anxiety, paranoia, and uncertainty had flooded our campus. Even though everyone understood that we would likely be going home soon, none of us had really internalized or fully accepted the idea of abandoning campus. People were upset and even afraid. The hardest part of it all was the uncertainty. Our future was up in the air, and we had no control over where it would land. 

Buzz, a vibration in my left pocket. I reached in and took out my phone. There was a text from my friend Daisy in one of our group chats: “Have you guys seen the email??” I unzipped my backpack, took out my laptop, and immediately signed into my school-issued email address. Near the top, buried among the usual spam, there was an email that read: “Brown’s transition to remote learning.” I knew what the email would say, but I read it carefully, scrutinizing every word. Finally, one of our greatest fears had been confirmed. Everyone would be heading home within the next 10 days. School would continue virtually in the form of video lectures and online assignments.

COVID-19 had now fully transitioned from an abstract, international crisis to an extremely detrimental, personal issue. My campus bubble had been popped, and like everyone else in the world, I was at the mercy of the virus. First my track season and now this!? How will I train? Where am I going to go? When am I going to leave? How am I going to pack my stuff? Where am I gonna store it all? I don’t even have a suitcase! A million thoughts were racing through my head but it was almost 10:00AM; I had to go to class. Moving through the motions that were so familiar to me, I packed my bag, disposed of any leftovers, and headed towards my first class of the day. I felt like a fraud treating the day like normal, but I didn’t know how else to act.

Over the next week my lively, vibrant campus transformed into a miserable ghost town. The  days leading up to my departure were consumed by the burden of figuring out what to do next. I had to find a suitcase, pack all my belongings, and, most importantly, decide where I was going. My family was spread across the globe. Not knowing how things might develop, I was afraid that if I went to stay with them, I would not be able to reenter the country and follow through with my summer internship plans. After long talks, I finally convinced my parents to let me stay with a friend in San Diego, where I would hopefully be interning. I left campus on the 17th of March. 

David, the friend I would be staying with, picked me up from the airport. The first couple of days in San Diego were calm and enjoyable, but I had underestimated COVID-19. Irrationally, I thought I would be safe in San Diego. I thought the beautiful sunshine and onshore breeze would act as a type of forcefield. I would be able to spend time with my friends, go to the beach, train at the local track, and live life like normal. But all those hopes faded quickly. When the stay at home orders came, my summer plans were once again in jeopardy. At this point, it became clear that my traditional summer internship was going to be impossible. I was not going to be able to go to an office or interact with people face-to-face and get a feel for the professional atmosphere. I finally accepted that I was going to have to shift my focus and find something else to do.

Long before the COVID-19 crisis, an upperclassman on the track team had told one of my closest friends, Amar, and I a little about his experiences as a freelancer working online. He had always urged us to try it out, but at the time, it was not a priority for me. After about 20 minutes of trying to create an account on the freelancing website, the online application asked me to specify my “area of expertise.” The upperclassman who had been so enthusiastic about freelancing was a phenomenal coder. He had a legitimate field of expertise and the demand for his skill set was enormous. As an undeclared freshman in college, I felt like I didn’t have much to offer to the landscape of online freelancing. I lost hope and moved on.

Unlike me, Amar followed through with the recommendation. Within a few weeks he was working as a social media manager and marketing director for a small start-up, which was producing a board game. He was also getting paid to experiment with a foreign exchange trading service. Amar was a freshman like me, and he was able to work on some really interesting projects. This re-sparked my interest in online freelancing, and with Amar’s help, I got back to working on my profile. Right as I left campus, I finally finished creating my profile.

In San Diego, I decided to devote a significant portion of my free time to freelancing. Early in the morning, while David was in bed looking at his phone, I would be at the desk scrolling through dozens of job postings. I was applying for all sorts of jobs, ranging from “Turkish Translator” to “Virtual Assistant.” Being new to the platform, with no positive reviews to my name, it was hard to find my first job. Oftentimes I felt like I was pouring my best efforts into applications only to be “ghosted.” 

Finally, after almost a week of applying with no results, I landed a job! The only catch was that it was terribly boring.. I had to copy and paste various keywords across a couple of websites for almost four hours straight. When I finally completed the job and I got my first five star review, suddenly the whole process was worth it. With a good review under my belt, my confidence soared. I kept applying for jobs and as time went on, I was not only able to find more work but also more interesting work!

My current situation is different from what I had planned for myself, but it’s engaging, informative, and challenging in a different way. My schedule is more flexible than it has ever been, and I get to work on a wide variety of projects with a wide variety of clients. I’ve been able to ground myself in work and worry less about the chaos consuming our world. It may not be for everyone, but I would certainly encourage college students in similar situations to give it a try!