One of the editors at my college newspaper used to talk about expectations: “Manage your expectations, and you’ll be a lot happier,” she’d say. If you apply for your dream job, for example, expect not to get it. That way, if you do it’s a pleasant surprise.

That philosophy makes sense, and it has done well for me — for the most part. But there are some things in my life, many of them trivial, that I never imagined could go awry, or warranted managing my expectations. Before March, I expected to stay late at the Daily Pennsylvanian (of which now I am the president), resolving conflicts and helping editors meet print deadlines nearly every night this semester. I expected to start my senior year of college with live classes, in real time, and to sit next to my peers. But now, I’m logging onto Zoom meetings from my childhood bedroom, juggling participating and muting myself as my dad takes work calls in the background.

A University of Pennsylvania student wheels a hamper filled with her dorm contents past a large collection of hampers students used to move out in March.
Michael Bryant / File Photograph
A University of Pennsylvania student wheels a hamper filled with her dorm contents past a large collection of hampers students used to move out in March.

On Sept. 4, I turned 21. Like many other things I had planned this year, my birthday looked different than I imagined. I expected to spend that time at Smokey Joe’s with friends and have my first legal beer, probably stressed out about a job application or a homework assignment. Instead, I enjoyed a piece of chocolate cake at home.

It’s no tragedy that I could not spend my birthday how I wanted to — hundreds of thousands of people are dying around the world because of the coronavirus. And honestly, I don’t even care that much about bars limiting people and clubs being closed. I never envisioned a huge 21st birthday extravaganza. Beyond trivial inconveniences like mask-wearing and constant hand-washing, however, turning 21 in the middle of a global pandemic feels like a treacherous milestone.

That lesson about expectations, while valuable, isn’t helping me out much now. I feel guilty that I got to work this summer while my friends had their summer internships and jobs delayed, and even canceled, due to the pandemic. Every time I open my email inbox, it seems like more bad news awaits: A job rejection, a depressing article from one of the dozens of newsletters I subscribe to, or a long-winded COVID-planning notification from Penn. Still, I’m incredibly lucky: I have excellent friends, a caring family, and stable-ish WiFi. I go to a good university and study something I’m passionate about. Yet, none of this was foreseeable, and none of it feels fair.

I’m graduating from college in May with a degree in English and hopes of becoming a writer. But that dream never felt as out of reach as it does now. I feel too old to be in my classes and too young to be interviewing for full-time jobs. And the job market is bleak, looking more like the Great Recession than I ever imagined. I’ve been applying to postgraduate opportunities ranging everywhere from management consulting to graduate school in the United Kingdom. As I push myself into adulthood, I have absolutely no idea what the future holds for me.

I do keep thinking about expectations, though: What I expect of myself, what my father expects of me, what the people I work with at the DP expect me to accomplish. The burden of expectations, particularly those of others, weighs on me quite a bit. Nearly every time I log into Facebook or LinkedIn I see one of my classmates posting about a full time job offer they’ve accepted. I go to school with thousands of highly motivated people with detailed four-year plans. Usually, I’m one of those people too, and I know exactly what I want. But some semblance of security is all I wish for now.

Since March, my life has become less about managing expectations and more about not knowing what to expect at all. While I loathe uncertainty, I’ve found comfort in taking a step back, being grateful for what I have, and knowing that things are so crazy and ever-evolving that I just can’t expect anything at all. I’m lucky enough that my family is safe and healthy, doing our best to get by. I’ve now seen how life can be upended in big and small ways in an instant, and I’m learning how to deal with precarious situations. That’s the most I can expect right now.