The timer I had set on my phone startled me as it broke the near silence of my dorm room. I flipped through the rest of the blank pages of the practice exam, cursing that I would need to be able to complete it so much faster during my final that would take place in about a week. I felt like I was over-preparing in some ways, it was my first finals week at the University of Washington after all, but at the same time doing poorly wasn’t an option for me. The first quarter hadn’t been entirely what I imagined it would be all those years ago watching the Huskies play football. It had been difficult to really make friends, and since I had been accepted to the Computer Science program out of high school I almost had a target on my back in my intro programming courses. It seemed so dumb to me, why would people want to beat me out in the class, as I was already in the major. That, or people looked at me like I was some sort of programming genius — however, the first time I ever tried programming was the first day of my first college programming class, so that definitely wasn't the case. I had chosen CS on a whim when I filled the UW application out, and had been fortunate enough to be selected in a small cohort to actually get in. So, the next step was to actually learn to program, something many of my peers had been doing for many years before arriving at college. Altogether, there were some differences between me and the other people in my program that I had to reconcile in the first quarter at UW. Still, sitting alone at a cramped dorm room desk, going through practice exams all weekend, working on the final programming project of the quarter — all led to some feelings of inadequacy and regret.
My isolation was only exacerbated by the fact that I hadn’t truly been apart from my family for more than a couple weeks until this point. They decided to get season tickets to the football games — something they had always wanted to do but never had a necessary excuse to make the four hour drive every other weekend — and would come and visit me every few weeks. The football season had ended three or four weeks ago, meaning that every day that passed I set a new personal record for longest time away from my family at once.
Our last programming assignment was called “Critters,” and it was a sort of game that had different shaped creatures fly across the screen and if two ran into each other, the stronger would win and kill the other. There were other critters that were passive and would build up points for you, but they would be easily eaten. The goal was to develop a way to win the most games possible against critters developed by other students in the class. This meant thinking of interesting ways to protect the critters that scored the points, or find a way to seek out the other team’s critters. Basically, survival of the fittest. Oh, and our critters tried to survive, too.
It was Election Day, and I felt a special connection as it was the first time I was allowed to vote. I had earned that when I turned 18, which just so happened to be one day prior. My whole family had come over the night before, doing the usual birthday-spiel of cake and presents. The atmosphere was a little different, however, as people weren’t sure whether to be excited or worried for the following day. “He can’t really win, can he?” School during the day of the election had been particularly interesting too, as I had argued with a few classmates on the chances he had of winning. I was sure she would win, and that he wouldn’t have a chance once some ballots came in and were tabulated. Lots of reputable polls shared my sentiment, and it seemed like I was the only person in any of my classes who had even considered a mathematical approach. Boasting, I told my friend Jackson there was no chance he would win, fivethirtyeight had him at a less than 30% chance of winning. Jackson angrily barked “Have the votes been count yet? No, then it doesn’t mean anything.” I scoffed at that logic and wished more of my friends shared my political beliefs. I had filled out my mail-in ballot a few days prior, proudly inking the bubble next to her name.
The first results were trickling in as the MSNBC hosts were detailing each way the night could conceivably play out. “What’s the cover going to be this week if she wins?” I asked my dad. My family started and runs a local newspaper in my hometown of Spokane — called The Inlander — and it has always been fun to get an insider sneak peek at the stories and artwork before they are published and distributed around town. “Not sure, I haven’t seen any of the mock-ups yet,” my dad responded.
Just hours later, the newspaper was considering running a completely black cover that said “MOURNING IN AMERICA.” The night hadn’t gone how any of the anchors had said it would, how any of the polls had predicted, and the brief moment of excitement and hope from that morning had been dashed and replaced with fear and worry.
Four years is a long time, I remember telling myself. He’ll be the President almost the entire time I am in college, and there is nothing I can do about it. I was about halfway done with my college application to the University of Washington, where my dad and my uncle both went to school, where I had been working towards getting into my entire life. Every Saturday in the fall we would catch a Husky football game on TV, my dad remembering his days in school and me hoping to one day be able to apply. I still had to finish up my essay to apply, but the election fueled me even more to put everything I had into my writing. I wanted to go somewhere I could just forget about this night until it was all over.
It was a little past one in the morning, and I had started to consider that convincing myself an eighteen credit quarter was a good idea was, in fact, not a good idea. My Sophomore year was only about three weeks old, and I was already starting to feel the pressure of my courses. These were the first “real,” programming courses I was taking in college, after taking the intro series my first year. I was trying to decode a lecture slide on Assembly, a computer language that looked like a garbled mess of numbers and letters had been haphazardly thrown into a blender.
mov eax, 0x048178ab meant to move whatever was in the register named
eax to the memory address
0x048178ab (It has letters because it is encoded in hexadecimal, meaning it is base 16 rather than base 10 like we would normally use, because why not make it more confusing). It was far too late to have my brain cooperate with what was going on with this homework. I paused for a moment and marveled at what I was really working on.
Assembly is one step up from machine instructions, long strings of 0’s and 1’s that tell the computer exactly what to do. Although it was hard to understand, it was interesting and felt like magic to being able to modify the Assembly code to impact what the program did. “We want to be able to understand assembly so that we know what our computer is really doing with our code,” I remember my professor lecturing from an earlier class. The memory layout of the computer was pretty remarkable. We want everything to be fast, and sometimes we want to do upwards of millions of operations a second. To do that, we need to have fast memory. Fast memory is expensive, so Computer Scientists have devised different caches on our computers that can store data that we expect to access many times in the short term on memory that is able to be accessed very fast. Then, for longer term data like a pdf document or a photograph, we can store it on our hard drive. It is slower, but that’s fine because we want to be able to store a lot of items on it at once, reliably. One day in our class, we went over this in more detail. My professor introduced the “Numbers every Computer Scientist should know,” a list of how long it takes to do different computer operations. For example, reading from the L1 cache, the fastest memory we have, only takes half a nanosecond. Looking for something on our hard drive takes ten million nanoseconds. The analogy from our class was that if we wanted an avocado, getting it from the L1 cache would be like picking it from a tree in our back yard. Equivalently, getting it from disk would be like planting an avocado tree, watering it for a couple years, and then picking one when the tree was fully grown. A second has one billion nanoseconds. One billion. It’s remarkably hard to grasp in any sense of the word. It’s almost 32 years in seconds. The fact that our computers can break time down so granularly is absolutely incredible. I flipped the light off in my dorm room, laid down in bed and fell asleep to dreams of what life would be like if we lived in nanoseconds and not seconds. Living an entire lifetime in a moment.
“We should totally go camping or something next weekend,” one of my friends mentioned as we were studying for a midterm during spring quarter of my freshman year. I chuckled and kept working quietly, trying to work on a proof for my logic class. “I’m not kidding, it’s a three day weekend, we could totally get a group together and do something.” “I guess we could think about it,” I said, hoping he would forget the idea. “Sweet, I’ll set up a group chat!”
Barreling down the road, we were heading towards the Olympic National Forest with ten total people to camp for a couple of nights. One group was in the white F-150, the other in the navy Pilot. I was grateful to have made some more friends over the last couple of months and that they would invite me on a trip, but I was also mostly going along because I didn’t want to miss anything. Back in Seattle, I was avoiding studying for a midterm that was coming up soon, along with a particularly lengthy English assignment that would be waiting for me when I got back. But, the trip sounded fun so against my better judgement I went for it. All ten of us were Computer Science students, so we made a pact not to touch a phone or laptop all weekend unless we were taking a picture. Didn’t matter too much, as our phones wouldn’t have gotten a signal at the campground we chose anyway.
We felt like kids again, not a care in the world. No papers, no assignments, nothing. For a few short days, we felt a burden lifted that we would never be able to escape within the confines of the University and our Computer Science degrees. Still, we felt free, even if only for a moment.
After four long years, containing all of my college experience, we were finally at another Inauguration Day. It was a tumultuous lead up to January 20th, however. Two weeks before was another of those drop-everything-and-watch-MSNBC-all-afternoon type days. The Capitol building had been infiltrated by rioters looking to kill elected officials, with the former President egging them on with his rhetoric. Soon after, he lost his internet privileges, and although the damage had already been done, it felt like the country was finally moving past the last four years. My family and I watched on as Joe Biden was sworn in as the next President. When I had applied to the University of Washington, it was right around the time that the former President was elected. Now, sitting about eight weeks out from graduating and moving on from the University of Washington, it was finally different. Four years is a long time, I thought to myself.
I sat down in a quarter-filled performance hall, setting my backpack on the chair next to me. I settled into the chair, a little too comfortable after running between classes all day, and flipped open the program. I scanned the list of names playing drums and percussion, finding my brother’s nestled among the dozens of students performing. He had started at the UW in the fall, and I hadn’t made a good enough effort to see him on campus over the first few months. He was in a class that met once per week that taught drums, marimbas, and other percussive instruments — they were having their end-of-quarter performance at Meany Hall. I glanced around the hall, seeing other people file in slowly. I noticed several students wearing surgical masks and making sure to sit far away from other groups. There was a new virus going around that was kind of gaining some steam in the news. I had hardly considered it so far myself. I clapped along with the performance, enjoying the short break from my assignments.
The following day, I met with a few of my friends that I was working on a group project with. It was for my data visualization class. We had downloaded a massive, multiple gigabyte csv file that contained every movie and tv show review on Amazon.com. Our goal was to make a dashboard where you could see review sentiment a little better than Amazon’s interface, and also draw conclusions from all the data, like if the length of a review had any bearing on the star rating, the average length of review, any trends among genres. That particular day, we were working on converting the file into more manageable chunks for our program to query. We ran into some technical difficulties and spent the whole afternoon trying to get it to work. I didn’t care. Some of my best friends were in the group with me, so I was mostly just having a good time working with them. Mostly, we just laughed through all of our troubles, commiserating in how difficult finishing the project was going to be.
That night, I was also meeting up with a few other friends and going to a men’s basketball game. I had a couple of friends that I had convinced to buy season tickets, and we had gone to almost all of the football and basketball games during the season. We had bonded over how terrible our teams were at times, and having some time set aside that we didn’t need to think about any of our programming assignments was something we all appreciated. For a couple hours that night, we jumped around on the bleachers, cheering and screaming along with a couple hundred other students.
A few days after that, I was back at work on the data visualization project. I had been tasked with working on the website all the visualizations were going to live on — coding up the layout of the site, the fonts and colors, everything that impacted the look and feel. I was working at the Computer Science labs, and a couple hours before dinner, a few friends hatched a plan to go downtown and get chicken wings at a restaurant they had heard about. Someone’s birthday had been a week before, and we agreed that this impromptu party could be in their honor. Before long, we had a group of eight or so people huddled together on the light rail, heading downtown. We descended upon the restaurant, piling up orders of chicken wings, fries, drinks, and sides. The party was a rousing success, we all decided.
I slept in the next morning, a Friday. When I rolled out of bed, I saw a couple missed calls, a few texts, and several emails on my lock screen. I opened my email, reading and re-reading and re-reading the subject line of “Beginning March 9th, classes and finals will not be held in person.” It was from the President of the University, and detailed how the spread of COVID-19 in the area had forced them to cancel classes for the time being. Spring quarter was still planning on going forward like normal. I clicked on the missed calls, from my mom. She said they were driving over from Spokane to pick my brother and I up to go home for the next couple of weeks, since our classes would be online. I pushed back a little bit, but gave in quickly after really wrapping my head around what the next couple weeks would look like if I was to stay in the dorms. I threw a weeks worth of clothes into a small duffel bag, grabbed all my chargers and my toiletries, and threw it into the car my parents pulled up in a few hours later. By the next afternoon, I was back in Spokane, the house where I grew up.
I made my way into my room, plopping my laptop down on the desk where I had filled out the application to the University of Washington. It was a time capsule of what I was into about five years ago, my walls crowded with LeBron James, UW football, and Gonzaga Basketball posters. My data visualization group had scheduled a meeting to figure out how we were going to finish our project remotely on a video conferencing app called Zoom. I downloaded it, and launched it for the first time.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, let me know if there is anything I can do for you, man,” I said to my childhood best friend, Jackson. We were at the reception of the celebration of life for his dad, Randy. I only kept up with a few friends from high school, and I had heard from Jackson about the deteriorating health of his dad over the first two years we had been in college every once in a while. First, his parents had gotten divorced right after Jackson went to college. He was their youngest kid, and once he left the house they didn’t feel like they needed to hold the mirage of their marriage together any longer. Or that’s what Jackson told me, at least. His dad didn’t stop drinking after that — or before, either — and a year later he was gone. It happened incredibly fast, especially just getting updates every couple of months on his dad’s health when I would call Jackson.
When I was in 1st grade, my parents started looking at moving to a new house. Our old one was over a hundred years old and they were tired of maintaining it. We looked at a place one day that was in the right neighborhood, had a nice kitchen, yard and was the right size for our family. The only thing my parents didn’t like was that all the bedrooms for my brothers and I would have been in the basement -- they wanted all the rooms upstairs. So, we didn’t get it. A few months later, we found a house that shared a fence with the house we decided not to get, and it was perfect. We moved in shortly after. A couple months after we moved in, we found out that one of my friends from kindergarten had moved into the other house we looked at. Jackson and I would walk through the gate in the fence and see each other nearly every day for the next ten years.
As I was hugging him at a crossroad in his life, I couldn’t help but think that this could be me. We almost moved into the same house he had lived in practically his whole life. We were inseparable as kids. This could have been me. It felt like I still had a dad because we didn’t want to sleep in the basement.
Staring into the empty screen of my computer, I practiced my presentation. Scheduled for a half hour time slot, I wanted to be sure that I was razor-sharp on each of the different technologies I had used over the summer and my reasoning for choosing them. I was in the last week of my twelve-week internship with Adobe, and it had come time to present my work over the summer to a few of my bosses. My manager told me she expected around thirty people on the video call, and that her manager would be there, and maybe even his boss. I had been working on a prototype for the company to experiment with catching events and dynamically updating what was displayed on a webpage with the event’s results. One of my favorite parts of working on this problem was that they gave me free range to work on it whatever way I thought was best. So, after some research on ways to accomplish the problem, I started off on building the prototype over the summer. I made sure to detail this in the presentation, weighing the pros and cons of several different technologies, and explaining how I landed on the ones I eventually chose. I prepared for the inevitable questions I would get, “Why did you choose server sent events over Websockets? Is there a case where we would want the omni-directional communication rather than the one-way communication we have now? What does the network waterfall chart look like when you run your prototype? Is it computationally efficient and fast? Any motivation for using TypeScript over plain React?” Every question I brainstormed, I had rock-solid answers for. I ran through the presentation in my room, which had undergone a transformation into my office at the beginning of the internship — taking down the gaudy sports posters that would show up on video calls that I had deemed too unprofessional to keep up. Carefully tweaking my presentation slides so that they were informative but not too wordy. Redundantly clicking through the live demo, making sure nothing would break or crash when it really mattered. This felt like more of a job interview than when I interviewed for the internship, and I wanted to make sure I nailed it and that I would have the opportunity to return after graduation in a full time role.
After practicing tirelessly in front of the glowing screen in my bedroom-office, I gave the presentation in front of my glowing screen, talking about what I had done while I stared at my glowing screen all summer. Everyone else, watching my glowing screen on their glowing screen, asks questions and comments on the project. They think it could be implemented into future projects, and that it was a worthwhile project for the summer.
A few weeks later, I would get the call that they were extending an offer for full-time employment for after I graduate. I accepted whole-heartedly, excited and pleased that the team I worked with wanted me back personally to the team. The only time I met some of them in person was when I interviewed for the job, and even then I only spent a half-day at their office. At the beginning of the summer, I was enthralled that my internship would be moving forward and that it wasn’t cancelled due to COVID. By the end, I had found a stable job that would define the beginning of my post-college life.
Tom Hanks has it. An NBA player shut the league down with a positive test. Weeks later a new email from Ana Mari Cauce lights up my phone screen, an expected-but-feared subject line of “UW spring quarter classes will be held remotely.”
It had felt like three hours of staring at my programming assignment without any progress. The assignment was for my graphics course, where we were working on creating a short animation. The bezier curve control points were a little confusing, so I had been half-heartedly googling and trying some things out. I get a crisp knock on my bedroom door. My brother yells into my bedroom “We saw on Facebook that a vaccine clinic has extra shots they’re giving out, we’re leaving right now. Come on!” I ran downstairs, grabbed my shoes and without putting them on jumped into the car in our driveway. Jumping in the backseat, my family peeled out, as I pulled my shoes on in the backseat. I asked a couple questions “Where are we going? Do you think we’ll get it?” My mom explained to me that the clinic was at my old high school, Ferris, and that she had seen one of her friends that was volunteering at it advertise on Facebook the fact that they had allocated more Pfizer vaccines than they ended up using. The vaccines would be thrown out unless people showed up that needed them, so there was no concern about cutting the line.
We got to Ferris in about seven minutes and hopped in line, with about twenty people ahead of us. We made a plan of who would get it first if by some miracle we made it to the front. My parents were first, then my brother Jay, then my brother Carson, and then me. Jay got preference because he was required to attend school in person at Ferris where he was a senior, and then my brother Carson won a coin flip against me to get the fourth spot. We really thought that this was a formality as we didn’t expect to make it to the front of the line.
Eventually we did make it to the front of the line. We made it to the check-in tables. We made it to the tables where the shot was being administered. We got the shot.
I looked around what used to be my old cafeteria. It looked exactly the same as I remembered, college pennants filling every wall, hand painted posters that had our fight song’s lyrics. I remembered leaving school with Jackson — he was my first friend that got his driver’s license, and we rode to school together — and going back to his house and hanging out before making my way through the gate to grab dinner at my own house. All the teachers that had built me up to the student I had become, that had believed in me and pushed me harder every day in class. It all came rushing back along with the realization that my worries of the pandemic were going to pass in a few short weeks. I wouldn’t have to worry about my parents getting sick, or getting sick myself. I could eat out again, something I hadn’t done since the impromptu birthday party at the chicken wing restaurant. I could see my friends, my real life, 3D friends, not some projection from their Macbook’s shitty video feed.
It was the bookend to a crazy year. It was exactly one year to the day that I had received the message from the University that classes would be held remotely. March 6th 2020 to March 5th 2021. It all came full circle back at the place I had started my journey through the UW, where I was sculpted into a student that was able to get admitted to the University, where I had applied to UW, where I Iearned I was admitted. Everything felt remarkably intertwined.
11:43 PM, Monday March 15th. College is over. Technically, I still have to pass 12 of the 19 credits I took in my final quarter, but that’s a formality at this point. I’ll get the grades back in a week or so and that will be that.
I feel a bit of the same emptiness that you get when you finish an amazing book or a great movie. The emptiness where you need to reflect on what has happened for a few days, the emptiness that envelops you momentarily. I am ending on some strange circumstances, having not been on the University of Washington’s campus in over a year. I yearn to see my friends in person and make more memories with them. As much as that pains me, I am very thankful that my family and friends have all been relatively unaffected by the pandemic, in terms of health and mental wellbeing. My coursework that has been remotely held has all been fantastic in my opinion, especially with the added pressures and limitations of remote weighing on everyone. I was able to learn more than ever with school being the singular focus of all of my time and energy. During the summer of 2020 I was able to work remotely for my first internship, and it was another great experience, so much so that I will be back full-time with Adobe starting April 12th. Funnily enough, I got a job offer, completed the entire internship, got a full-time offer, and will have started all during the pandemic. I’ll have been working with some coworkers for well past half a year before I ever meet them in person.
Personally, this has been a year of growth for me. But, after all that, I feel a form of survivor’s guilt that I have had a valuable year. There are so many people who have struggled during the pandemic, many of my friends from high school that aren’t going into high growth sectors like tech have had jobs pulled out from underneath them, some even resorting to mowing lawns to pay the bills. It’s been hard to come to terms with the fact that we all started in the same spot and our lives are dramatically diverging. It's also been frustrating seeing light shed on so many inequalities that are plaguing our country.
It was both a flash in the pan and the longest years of my life. The news cycles tightened up to the point where weeks of stories would break in hours. I watched COVID morph from a distant rumbling of a threat to a realized pandemic that flipped life upside down. Life changed from meeting up at coffee shops and libraries to work on projects to engaging even deeper with technology, strengthening the unbreakable bond it holds over us. Tensions boiled over, people clashed, and our country found itself at a point of reckoning. Despite all that, we have all persevered. I am confident that this will make me a better person in the long run. There are still massive areas of concern that the pandemic has brought out that need to be considered as we move forward. Tech addiction and reliance, misinformation, division, inequality, the list goes on for a maddening amount of time. But, on a personal level, I learned what I can really do. I can take high-level computer science courses and do well in them alone. I can maintain friendships when they are hardest to keep up with. I fit in and excel in a work setting. I can write essays and stories that bring me and others joy. I can sacrifice anything to stay ethical and steadfast in my beliefs. It took me being in isolation for a year before I really learned all of that about myself. They say that college is a transformative time, that you really learn who you are through it. Last year, I thought I knew who I was, I thought I could pinpoint the different ways that college had been a transformative time for me. The clashing juxtaposition of in-person school and remote learning really taught me who I am, what I value, and how I want to live my life — and even thought I learned it in a roundabout way, I wouldn’t have it any different.