By Solomon Myers, Orange Media Network
Turning 21 when you’re facing a dark time like the pandemic is challenging, as you can’t celebrate your birthday as you normally would with friends and family.
Celebrating reaching the legal drinking age, which often feels like the last stage in becoming an adult, should be the best moment of the year. But now that we are all isolated in a pandemic, how have students experienced turning 21?
Blair Stone, a fourth-year student studying animal biology at Oregon State, said that she is in a sorority and a bunch of her friends turned 21 around the same time so she was hoping to throw a little party at her new apartment with friends and go to the bars together.
“I was totally bummed out,” Stone said. “However, a lot of my friends are the same age and were experiencing the same thing so knowing I wasn’t the only one made me feel a lot better. I was grateful to be home and around family during these times.
“There were definitely more freedoms involved with it, as in finally ordering drinks at restaurants and going to bars, but when I was freshly 21 a lot of those things weren’t an option.”
For Leah Kahn, a third-year student studying management and theatre arts at OSU, she hasn’t really compared what her 21st birthday would have looked like outside of the pandemic.
“I think I’ve been in COVID-19 period for so long, that I didn’t even think of what I wished my birthday would be like in a non-COVID world,” Kahn said. “I do miss big parties and having all my friends under one roof. But focusing on what I can’t have just makes me sad, so I learned to focus on the exciting things I can do.”
When students reach the legal drinking age, they often have a wish list or bucket list of things to do, possibly years in advance, to celebrate the milestone. With the pandemic, this wish list has changed for some students as they turned 21.
“I jot down a list of things I need to do and accomplish by certain times, including little things like showering or cleaning my room,” Stone said. “Crossing these things off helps me feel more accomplished and productive. So, essentially, just taking things a day at a time helps me stay sane.”
“My mom took me to get my hair and nails done, and then we edited my book of poems in the backyard together,” Kahn said. “Then we got dressed up and went out to eat with the rest of my family at Del Alma downtown. Then we came home, opened presents and played part of the 1980’s game, ‘Dragonmaster,’ before we got too tired, and all went to bed.
“I was very happy and satisfied with what I had. I had a really awesome day and got to eat incredible food. Most people might think spending the day with their mom was lame, but honestly, we have the best times together.”
When people turn 21, they often want to do something more ‘adult,’ like drinking an alcoholic beverage to celebrate the milestone. But during COVID-19, people have adapted to celebrate their growth in other ways and found some new ambitions.
“I find that I have been drinking a lot more since I’ve turned 21, having at least a beer a day,” Stone said. “I find that it helps ease my mind and anxiety a lot. Unhealthy coping mechanism, I know, but since turning 21, I now have that option. I think I’m not alone with this sentiment.”
“I guess now I’m an official, official adult. But I don’t drink, or plan to start drinking, or gambling so I’m not sure there’s too much that comes with it. I guess it is a milestone, I’m older. But I don’t feel any different, if anything the older I get the more flawed I feel,” Kahn said.
“For religious reasons I won’t, and for personal reasons I don’t want to consume something that impairs my judgement or makes me addicted.”
Abram Smith, a third-year student studying horticulture at OSU, said that he is comfortable consuming alcoholic drinks and using recreational marijuana as he reached the legal age in California. His favorite pairing is wine with hash.
“Obviously you have to watch for dependency and do research to see if these substances are right for you,” Smith said. “I want to get a job on a cannabis farm this summer. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to ever since I was recommended medical marijuana by my doctor.”
Celebrating a 21st birthday can be a bit disappointing with the pandemic making students unable to throw a huge birthday party as normal. COVID-19 however may have also affected some students’ mental health as they enter this stage of adulthood.
Stone said that COVID-19 did not really affect her mental health as she turned 21.
As someone who has faced severe anxiety and depression growing up, being under quarantine made Stone’s mental health decline rapidly. Although she is an introvert, she does need distractions such as gym time, hanging out with friends, and seeing a therapist when there is no other option to get out of the house.
“Honestly, we’ve been doing the COVID-19 guidelines for so long now that it wasn’t a huge deal. I live with five members of my family, so we were able to celebrate together and honestly that was party enough for me,” Kahn said.
However, Kahn feels that COVID-19 has absolutely affected her mental health as she reaches adulthood and Smith is frustrated with the transition to a virtual world as well.
“It’s been a complete fucking nightmare,” Smith said.
“Not being able to hang out with my friends at the start of COVID was really difficult,” Kahn said. “And doing Zoom classes has made me feel so cut off and isolated from campus, even though I live five blocks away.
“Some days I do eight hours of Zoom, and by the end of it I physically cannot do any more homework. I just want to stare at a wall or go downstairs and socialize with my family because I feel lonely and need to socialize, but if I don’t do more homework, I fall behind.
It’s a perilous balancing act, and often I don’t do the homework, or save it for later. COVID-19 has messed with my mental health, but I have not let it defeat me. I have grown so much during this pandemic and learned what’s actually important to me.”
For anyone who is concerned about being alone when they reach the age of 21, it can be helpful to think positively about what they do have.
“You are not alone in turning 21 during this time,” Stone said. “It helps to stay grateful and appreciative of the things that you do have. I take time every day to reflect on things that are going well in my life and think of things I have to look forward to.
“I feel lucky and blessed that I am healthy and have my family and friends beside me. Also, the pandemic won’t last forever, as vaccines are out now and there will, hopefully, be many other birthdays you can celebrate.”
“Take a day off from work, maybe school too I might’ve skipped some classes on my birthday, hang-out with someone who loves you, and get out and do something fun! As my grandma said: ‘You only turn 21 once,’” Kahn said.
These students have tips to maintaining your well-being, studies and work throughout this difficult time and have experienced turning 21 during a pandemic.
“I like to cook, so I work, so I can afford to buy good ingredients. I try to get into a good groove of things and maintain my health through food and exercise,” Smith said. “Connect with your friends safely, I’ve found video games to be a good way to stay connected even though it’s kind of sad.”
“Obviously I still have some things to figure out,” Kahn said. “But I try to get all my homework done before the weekend, to try, I rarely succeed but it’s the thought that counts. I stop working at 4pm. I never do homework on Sundays so I have a whole day to dedicate to God and not worry about things. I get outside for a bike ride or walk almost every day. I focus on what I can control, I pray a lot, and I don’t worry about things until they happen.”
“My advice to the world now that I’m 21: Surround yourself with people who love you and support you, learn to say no, do what you love, and for all our sakes: be kind.”