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Photo courtesy of Toby Le

We Asked: Where Were You When You Realized the World had Changed Forever?

Students reflect on their memories of the last day of normalcy before Covid-19 completely altered their day to day life and expectations for the future.

Aug 30, 2020

In retrospect, details feel more vivid, like the way the yellow flowers of the blooming spring trees contrasted the blue Moroccan sky. On March 12, my roommate and I walked from school to finally check out a new restaurant we had been meaning to try. Six months into our gap year studies in Rabat and we were just now getting to it. We both agreed to switch to English, breaking our self-imposed language pledge we designed in September. Did we subconsciously know that this was the last day of our normal lives?
The attack on the Twin Towers, New Year’s Eve of Y2K, or a catastrophic natural disaster: these historical events are linked with a specific date. In our personal lives, we remember the normalcy before life-changing moments with equal lucidity. Where was your mom when she found out she was pregnant with you? What did you eat the day you were accepted to NYU Abu Dhabi? These specific moments, whether embedded in global history or within our own personal narratives, hold meaning and can often be recalled with vivid clarity. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed lives both on a macro and micro scale and for all of us, there was a day when the virus ceased to be a far off issue in another city, country or continent. Back in Morocco, we spent the afternoon walking through the quaint suburban area, eating truffles and checking out new grocery stores.
In just the next few hours, one of my best friends called to say she had booked a flight home for the next morning. She’d heard Morocco was planning to close their borders and she had to get out fast. The US State Department posted a vague statement about canceling some study abroad programs. There were six cases in Morocco, deemed risky enough for our program to be shut down the following day. By the end of the weekend, we had flights booked, then canceled and Morocco had closed their borders. After waiting in limbo, we were eventually offered space on a repatriation flight.
My story isn’t the only that seemed to go from delightful to doomsday in a matter of hours. When Mariam Amer, Class of 2022, entered a club in Berlin at midnight of the same day, she decided to leave her phone in her jacket to live in the moment. As the crowd grew uncharacteristically scarce, her group decided to head home. By the time they checked their phones at 7 a.m., “the world had flipped upside down,” explained Amer. Trump had announced his travel ban. Friends and roommates scrambled to make last-minute arrangements. “Everyone left everything behind,” she said. “It looked like the apocalypse.” Amer isn’t the only student at NYUAD to have their study abroad cut dramatically short. Sarah Afaneh, Class of 2022, was studying in Paris when her program was canceled. “I remember vividly that the night before was one of the first times I finally felt somewhat comfortable living alone in a big city,” she recalled.
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Photo courtesy of Sarah Afaneh
When she saw the email detailing the closure, she spent the rest of the day exploring the city with friends. “Late at night we went for one last Eiffel Tower visit and sat drinking hot chocolate in a cafe,” Afaneh detailed. “It was surreal, I couldn’t believe that I was leaving already.”
For some students, it wasn’t just the formal closure of programs and schools forcing them to abandon their sense of normalcy, but familial pressure to return home as well. Facing an ultimatum from both the university and his parents, Toby Le, Class of 2022, eventually agreed to take a flight home to Vietnam. He says he was still in denial over his campus in Florence being closed. “This was the last time, for a while, that I would have any illusions that things might get better,” he later reflected.
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Photo courtesy of Toby Le
Gianna Pendergrass, Class of 2022, also felt parental pressure to return home. The day before her flight back to the USA, she hung out with friends at the beach, was thrown a going away party and wrote about 20 thank you notes to the people that made a difference in her life.
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Photo courtesy of Stefan Mitikj
For incoming first year students, these last days of normalcy also represent the last days of hope for a regular senior year, commencement and a sense of closure for high school. For Stefan Mitikj, Class of 2024, his last day was spent at the parliament in North Macedonia, participating in simulations of parliamentary procedures and mock sessions. Another student was forced to execute their elaborate plans for the end of senior year in rapid time. The class showed up to school at 5:00 a.m. to flip every table and chair in the school, fill an office with balloons and host an impromptu cafeteria commencement party. Aya Adib, Class of 2024, dressed as Daisy Buchannan from the Great Gatsby to celebrate book day and receive her January A-Level results. For many seniors, standardized tests were changed or even canceled. “Initially we were told that the quarantine will be two weeks long,” explained Adina Maratkyzy, Class of 2024. “By the end of these two weeks, IB exams were canceled.”
In the case of Maya Muwanga, Class of 2024, the last day of her self-described normal life also meant quietly worrying about the effects of a virus and subsequent school closures, on students. She had been volunteering for an NGO focusing on civic engagement and accessible democracy. On March 9, she and a colleague carpooled to what would be her last time visiting a school in person. They discussed the possible impacts on students, especially those with parents unable to get leave from work or dependent on school lunches. “We were rueful in our conversation; the potential impacts were worrisome, but it all seemed abstract and far away,” Muwanga reflected.
For some of us, the last day of normalcy may be marked by things we took for granted: that last haircut in NYC right before the shutdown. Or a final sleepover with a best friend on the last day of school. Normal human contact like hugging and dancing. Perhaps, as for one student from Taiwan, the last day was filled with favorite treats like mochi and boba. Or shopping for furniture with a host mom, going to swim practice and doing homework.
No matter where you were, or how you spent your last day of normalcy, it is likely unforgettable. As we move forward with both our shared global experiences and individual narratives, these last few moments of the pre-Covid-19 era will remain with us. There is a silver lining in a sense — with an almost complete destruction of our old habits, there is now a blank slate of upcoming memories to rebuild upon.
Colleen Mader is a contributing writer. Email her at
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