PERSONAL ESSAY

During a dark year, a dream realized: How the pandemic brought me back to school

I wouldn't be in my master's program — a dream I've long deferred — without the pandemic rearranging my life

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published November 26, 2020 7:46AM (EST)
 (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
(Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

This story is part of a series on good things that happened in 2020. Read them all here.

If there is lemonade to be wrung out of the worst of circumstances, I will always be the person frantically squeezing citrus. This year has tested the limits of my elbow grease. And the weirdness of this is not lost on me: I would not be enrolled happily in my current master's program if this pandemic hadn't happened.

After testing the back to school waters via an online certification in professional studies, last December I began sending out applications to various MA programs, just a few short decades after obtaining my bachelor's. I mostly aimed for affordable online programs, but threw in one semi-long shot — a private university in another state, with all the private university in another state's geographic and financial obstacles in the way. But also, it was my dream program.

The pandemic hits, the world goes to garbage, my family and I are slammed with a series of setbacks and outright tragedies. It's bad. Really, really bad. You no doubt have your own version of the macro- and micro-level horrors that 2020 has doled out relentlessly — and continues to!

It's late July. I get a call from the school. The program has moved online and they're offering me a little scholarship. Not a full ride, but enough to make it comparable to the lower-tier program from which I'd already accepted an offer.

I have waited, through my broke twenties and my young-child-parenting thirties. I have waited and waited, but the money was never there, and the time was never there. This year took nearly everything, but I will say this — it also gave me a modicum of financial grace and a whole lot of time. All the outside work that dried up, all the business trips canceled, all the brunches and parties and plans: they made space in my life to do the thing I dreamed of for so long. To go back to school. 

I am one semester in and many, many credits away from actually getting that piece of paper. I can report that two and a half hour-long weeknight Zoom classes are in my top three life endurance tests, along with childbirth and running a marathon. But wow, do I love this.

No one would choose this year. If there's a 2020 where I don't go to school but I live on a non-pandemic Earth, I would like to choose that one. Yet all around, I see so many of us who, forced into this brutal situation, discovered something. A skill, a passion, a project, a person. It doesn't make any of this less awful. It's just the nature of life, that sometimes from the darkest place you can pluck something beautiful that you never otherwise would have found. And that you're thankful for it.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Covid-19 Essay Higher Education Something Good In 2020 University Year-end