‘You never know what’s going to happen’: How the pandemic led to major life changes

Containers of Clorox wipes are scattered throughout the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government office. Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton addressed the public after the first case of coronavirus in Kentucky was announced on Friday, March 6, 2020. Governor Andy Beshear made the announcement about the case in Lexington earlier in the day on Friday and also declared Kentucky in a state of emergency.

Callie Justice

One year ago, the world stopped. When it resumed, very little was the same. Masks adorn faces, friends greet each other only on the screen and houses became the whole world. But for some, these routine changes are not the whole story. The pandemic led to monumental career and life shifts for some Americans, including University of Kentucky senior Victoria Graffam.

Graffam, a health society major, was studying abroad in New Zealand last March working as an intern at the International Health Department. The pandemic put that path on hold. A month into her studies, she was requested back by UK with threats to take away her health insurance if she did not return. 

“I was thinking I might be able to stay just due to New Zealand being really safe at the time,” Graffam said. “As things got worse and worse, you could see students getting the email each day, day by day, more and more students would have to go home because their universities were requesting them back.” 

Graffam was one of the last students requested back. She returned to hauntingly empty air-ports and went from an immersive learning experience in her field of study to class in front of a computer screen, a transition that strongly affected her motivation. 

“I do appreciate that UK is taking a lot of precautions, but it’s also affecting my style of learning,” Graffam said. “Thinking into the future, that transition from being in school then going into a career, I feel like it’s going to be tricky.”

As a social person, the lockdown has greatly affected Graffam’s lifestyle. Her connections with friends are limited due to isolating almost exclusively at home.

“I find that I have no need to go out and do a lot of things,” said Graffam. “I feel like I’m really lazy now and I feel like my mental health is definitely not at its greatest, just because you know you’re locked inside with your thoughts a lot.” 

The struggles of lost opportunity and confinement weighed heavy on Graffam. But she she was able to find meaning by connecting with family.

“I have never felt closer with my family just because during the time of extreme quarantin-ing we had to do, it was really fun. My mom would work from home, my dad’s job never stopped but he would come home,” Graffam said. We were always in good moods which is surprising, I know some people aren’t lucky enough to have that.” 

Like many, Graffam found that the pandemic forced them to realize what matters most to them. This change in perspective has been a marked quality of Graffam’s year. 

“I feel a little more grounded too, just before I felt I was constantly on the go, doing this, doing that. Now I feel like I have a little better grasp on just my life in general just because I was able to slow down, halt everything and reevaluate,” Graffam said. 

For some, reevalution led to big changes. Abigal Owens, a nursing major at Bluegrass Community Technical College, was living the normal college student life – socializing, planning a trip to the Bahamas before quarantine took effect.

“I guess I was just not being as appreciative for life as I should’ve been,” said Owens. “Now it’s like all the things that you took for granted a year ago are so different now.”

Owens was planning to apply for dental hygiene school, but decided to wait because she believed she would not do well in the online learning model. COVID-19 has since led to a career change, with Owens changing her focus to more caretaking and switching her major to nursing. 

“It’s definitely opened my eyes to ‘wow I’m young, I have so much life to live, I have so much that I can give to others,’” Owens said. “I hope to be making a difference, impacting people, just spreading love every day, because that’s what I strive to do every day.”

Nurses have been in high demand throughout the pandemic and will continue to be as many Amer-icans struggle with the long-term effects of severe illness.

One of the biggest struggles for Owens has been not being able to visit her grandfather for over a year to protect him from the virus. He has developed dementia during the pandemic. 

“It’s kind hard to even know if he will remember who I am now,” Owens said. “He was my best friend my whole life growing up, we did everything together. He lived in a little country house on land we’d just go out and do all kinds of different things.”

Owens transformed this personal struggle into a positive impact. She began working for Homestead, a company that caters to the elderly, many with dementia by providing resources and needed company. This service allows elderly Lexingtonians to stay in their homes without having to risk contact or enter a nursing home. 

“I would pass meds for them, make sure they were assisted with hygiene task, make sure they were changed, make sure they were clean, make them food,” Owens said. “Just small stuff that you would never think that someone really needs, and they do.”

Owens was able to help others in need, but also help herself by providing her with compa-ny that she could not receive from her grandfather

“It’s very sad to see someone deteriorate, but it’s also very positive effect because you know that although they don’t maybe remember you, you know that you will always remember them and the impact you left on them,” said Owens.

Many can relate to Owen’s hardships of being separated from family. Jackson Leach, a junior at Tulane University who took a class online last semester at UK, lost his grandmother to COVID-19. 

“She was kind of like a mom. I was as close, or maybe even closer, with her than my mom,” Leach said. “She was kind of dying of a lot of reasons but COVID definitely made it faster. It was kind of a shock.”

Even though Leach was greatly affected by this loss, he did not become bitter against those who did not precautions during the pandemic.

“I thought I probably would [become bitter] but not really, honesty. I can kind of put my-self in people like that’s shoes, their lack of understanding, lack of empathy. You know you can’t save everyone,” Leach said. 

Leach is currently taking a semester off school because of his dislike for virtual learning and a desire to return to New Orleans. 

“New Orleans is a lot more locked down than here, so it affected my decision to not go back and my parents’ decision to not want me to go back,” Leach said.

Many students, like Leach, do not like online school – the biggest change in the day to day lives of college students. Demarcus Smith was a junior studying film at the University of Cincin-nati. He was director of recruitment at his fraternity and worked at a nearby bar, both things lost to the pandemic. 

“Online stuff is just not how I learn. I need human interaction to be able to ask my profes-sors questions and stuff,” Smith said. 

Ramifications of COVID-19 led Smith to leave college and Cincinnati, moving to Lexing-ton despite knowing few people in the city.. With little job availability in his college city, Lexington provided him with an overwhelming amount of opportunity. 

 “I lost my job at the bar and I was working at the University of Cincinnati as an orientation leader,” Smith said. “I could not find any work in Cincy, but as soon as I came down here to Lex-ington, I had interviews lined up.”

Available work proved to be a huge benefit in his move, but moving to a new city during a pandemic left the usualyl social Smith with few friends and fewer avenues of meeting new people. He was able to overcome this obstacle by joining a recreational volleyball league and forming rela-tionships at work.

“Just with COVID no one wants to meet anybody new, no one wants to go out and do stuff, everything was closed. So, it was very very very hard to meet people, I mean it still is hard,” Smith said. 

The former film student’s path has completely changed from his art-based dream due to the job opportunities he found in Lexington. He is now working as a dental assistant for surgery and considering going to dental school.

“A small portion of it [switching career paths] did have to do with COVID, just because like even though we weren’t allowed to be around people, I had a mother sense to want to be around people and help people,” Smith said. “Honestly is was just a spur of the moment thing, I just got that job in healthcare.  Some things just fall in place like that.”

Despite losing his normal social habits and routines, the importance of connection and pas-sion have never been clearer to Smith.

“I was already getting a little too caught up in the fast life, college life,” Smith said. “The re-al people in my life who actually meant something were reaching out. All the people there just for parties or fun went away.”

Moments spent with friends or family have never held such an importance, as isolation tak-en away a luxury few recognized. 

“I had friends that I would have plans with and just cancel like ‘oh I’ll see you next week or something’ and now it’s not like that because you never know what’s going to happen between those times,” Owens said. 

With states easing restrictions, the year-long distance from loved ones may soon shrink. But the lessons of isolation will linger as these students embark on new paths brought to them as consequences of the pandemic. This once-in-a-lifetime disease has also been life-changing, and many hope their new appreciation for connection and purpose will last.