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An Undergraduate's Thoughts on Gratitude

Laura Tobar


If I were to close my eyes and imagine all the emotions that 2020 has evoked, the list from off the top of my head would look pretty negative. I imagine that many of ours would, if we wrote down our feelings about this year instinctively.

It doesn’t immediately feel like there have been many reasons to rejoice. The past eight months have ushered in a global pandemic, widespread unemployment, a contentious election cycle and the interruption of life as we knew it. So, as November gets underway, a month that's supposed to be about joy and giving thanks, it’s important to me to reflect on these events in a new light.

During a year that has upturned my typical 20-something experience, I’m finding it admittedly more challenging than usual to muster gratitude. But, due to this same year’s inconceivable circumstances, I’ve also grown to realize just how much I had previously taken for granted. I can’t change everything that has happened, but I can change my outlook; instead of feeling resentful over all the loss and confusion of 2020, I'm trying to use the spirit of gratitude this November to focus on the silver linings.

In mid-March, my university (like many others) made the decision to send its students home. This was at a point in the year when information about the gravity of the pandemic wasn't widespread so the news felt unsettling and abrupt. With a send-off advising us to pack heavier than normal for spring break, I optimistically threw some extra pairs of pants in my suitcase, convinced that I'd be coming back to campus for at least part of Spring quarter.

As the situation unfolded and our understanding of the virus developed, the rest of the academic year was moved totally online. Just like that, more than a third of my junior year of college was upended. I spent a lot of time thinking about what could’ve been and mourning the premature end of one of what were supposed to be the best years of my life. Amidst a whirlwind of confusion and lack of information, it was difficult to truly understand the drastic measures.

While I was upset at that instant, when I look back at this time now with an eye towards identifying things to be thankful for, I find quite a few.

First, I’m grateful for my health.

I now understand that my school was prioritizing my health in its response last spring. I was lucky to be able to quarantine with my family, away from the crowding inherent to a college campus and outside of what was, at the time, a hot spot for infection.

The choices that took away part of my college experience gave me and my family our safety in a moment when it was most important; that’s a trade-off that I would make again every time.

I can find reasons to be grateful for my virtual education, too.

While the online college experience was a far cry from the joy of learning on campus, my professors and teaching assistants put in a tremendous effort to adapt their courses to a new format, and they were understanding of the difficulties their students faced in focusing on academics while the world was in turmoil.

Though taking courses online wasn't in my plan, instead of remembering only the frustration of those months, I can choose to focus on the positive results of some of the tough decisions and thank the educators who did their best to support their students in impossible circumstances.

I'm grateful for bonus time with my parents.

In 2020, as college life slowly transformed, my personal life as a young adult also turned upside down and I suddenly found myself living at home again, in my childhood bedroom.

Living in the room I grew up in can still sometimes be stifling, but there's another way to look at it. Not only do I have a safe and loving place to live, I'm also geographically close with my parents in a way that wouldn't otherwise have been possible again. Building routines together and coexisting as adults presents challenges, but I’m thankful that the challenges are ones that arise from spending so much time with people I love.

I'm more grateful than ever for my friends.

Coronavirus restrictions quickly ended my hopes of seeing friends anywhere but a computer screen. I haven’t been able to meet any of my friends in person in more than half a year.

This makes it tempting to fixate on the loneliness that comes with not being able to so much as hug these people who support me, share my struggles and make me laugh.

Instead I can focus on how grateful I am for my friends, regardless of physical separation. I'm lucky to have people who write me letters, orchestrate Zoom birthday parties, and even just send the occasional text to let me know that, although our world has changed, our friendship has not.

In the spirit of November, I'm pushing myself to concentrate on my thankfulness for the wonderful people who continue to choose to be a part of my life. With the effort I at one point devoted toward being upset about what I couldn’t change, I can try even harder to show my friends how I value them now more than ever.

I'm grateful for new vocabulary words!

Quarantine and regulations aside, it was as if 2020 was taunting me with just how surreal it could become when, in June, a derecho touched down in my backyard. Yes, that's a word, and I'd never heard it before either. A derecho is a quickly advancing storm complex with especially strong, destructive winds. While several large trees fell in our yard and neighborhood and our power was out for nearly a week, my family and our house went unscathed. I’m hugely grateful that my loved ones and I were able to weather this storm. Pun intended.

I'm grateful to be close to loved ones during a time of grief.

By far my darkest cloud in 2020 was the loss of my Oma, who I loved more than words can say and who I was unable to see for most of this year.

There is no silver lining to losing my grandmother. As anyone who has lost a loved one can attest — and as the people who have faced losses this year in particular know — when someone so dear to you passes away, nothing can truly ease your grief for a long time.

Nothing will change how devastating it is to be without Oma, but I am grateful that I was there in her last days. As distressing as the world’s upheaval was, it brought me home, where I was incredibly thankful to say goodbye to her in person.

And lastly, I’m thankful that in this time of immense loss, I am surrounded by family. I'm thankful to be spending more time with my grandfather and thankful not to grieve alone, but to be with him and my parents.

I'll admit that I occasionally struggle to see some of the silver linings among everything that happened in the world this year, but I'm determined to find them, and in the interest of learning from this year and taking nothing for granted, I can be thankful for what these situations have brought me. I can reflect on my internet college experience gratefully. Although I sometimes think about my time capsule dorm room and wonder what happened to my stuff, I can be thankful my university was kind enough to pack it up for me (hooray for free storage!). I can acknowledge the gratitude I feel at having such caring friends. I'm cherishing the moments I have with my grandfather that I wouldn’t have gotten if I were on my campus 2,887 miles away, and I'm recalling and sharing beautiful, happy memories of my grandma with my family.

There are always reasons to give thanks, if we resolve ourselves to find them.

Laura is a member of the Class of 2022 at Stanford University, where she studies Communication. When she isn’t reading or writing, you can find her experimenting with new vegan recipes, watching football, or expressing herself through art and poetry.

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