Edmund Pajarillo, PhD, associate professor in the College of Nursing and Public Health, teaches the First-Year Seminar Experience course Global Health and Multidiscipline Health Roles.

Students in the class discuss pressing issues and then write journal entries reflecting on the topics. In the last week of class, he asked them to write an entry summarizing everything they learned in class.

Elena Yaccarino’s entry stood out to Dr. Pajarillo. “Elena has always been an active and engaged student in my first-year seminar class,” he said. “In this essay, she articulated the unity in the hodgepodge of topics we discussed. She expressed this semester of fear, uncertainty and pessimism with such hope, promise and resilience. Her attitude is something we all should emulate.”

Reflecting on My First-Year Seminar Experience as I Transitioned to College and Adult Life

by Elena Yaccarino

I was the main character of a movie in my first semester of college. It had all the elements—a protagonist and antagonist, conflict and resolution. The movie made a strong impact on me, and I know this will remain in my memory for a long time. It helped shape my transition to adult and college life. I know this movie will continue to influence me the rest of my life.

This story began with my first-year seminar class, which opened my mind to the realities of the world: Global Health and Multidiscipline Health Roles. When this class began, I had no clue what to expect because the course description did not do justice to the impact it had on me. The course covered global health and multidisciplinary healthcare roles. However, it also touched on many topics, including, but not limited to, racism, diversity, inclusion, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), white privilege, underinsured, uninsured, low-taxed neighborhoods with underfunded K–12 schools, disadvantaged college students, socioeconomic determinants of health, maintaining physical space, mental health, drinking, addiction and developing countries and America’s democracy. It seemed like a hodgepodge of current issues.

Toward the last third of the semester, Professor Pajarillo was able to weave them together into factors that influence health and what different healthcare professionals do to help individuals and communities promote health and prevent illness and other catastrophic conditions, such as this pandemic. The class stirred up open and active discussions that many would have avoided. The professor set the tone of being open, nonjudgmental and confidential, and encouraged us to speak our minds from the beginning of the semester.

The discussions intrigued me. For example, we talked about socioeconomic factors that affect one’s life, how one might have a good life, or how one might wish not to have a life at all. Growing up, I never really gave this thought. My parents are not rich, but they managed to create a wonderful life for my sister and me. In Professor Pajarillo’s class, we also talked about racism. During these current times, I believe this is an important discussion, no matter how old or young a person is. We are not having enough conversations regarding racism. In order to take a step forward in the right direction, we need to be willing to learn about racism because it is a systemic issue requiring collective and collaborative approaches.

I learned to have a new perspective about life in every class discussion we had. For me, there was always a major takeaway lesson after each class session. At the time, when these discussions were going on in our class, not much really made sense. As our class exchanges kept percolating in my mind over time, everything started to fall into place.

Despite the pandemic, my first semester in college felt like it went by in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, it was December and I was preparing for finals! I could not believe the first semester was over, and I survived!

If someone had told me last year that I would be taking online classes, I would have laughed. I do better in a classroom, so being online felt I became closer to my computer. I am not sure if that is funny or sad. Online learning made me feel safe but also very nervous. I was grateful to be home most of the time where it was safe, but at the same time, I had to consider many things. I had to plan what room I would take my classes in and make sure my computer was charged. Not everyone could sit in one’s own, quiet room. I share my room with my sister, who is a full-time, virtual high school student. Trying not to distract her with my classes and vice versa was tough and stressful. We have a small home, which means you can hear everyone and everything. I sometimes wished that I could snap my fingers and make everything go silent. Sadly, that was possible only in my movie.

I now dream that the spring semester will be different and that things will go back to normal. I can only hope. The pandemic changed my life dramatically. This virus put me through hell but made me grateful. I am not the same person that I was a year ago. Anything can happen, and readiness is key. Life can suddenly change and life will change. The adjustment that comes with change is hard, but change can also be good. Many people wish this virus never existed, and they grumble about having their lives back. If you want your old life back, you have to be willing to accept this new one. The world will not go back to normal by complaining. It will not cure the virus but will only spread it even more. We have to listen to those risking their lives to ensure our health. To those who do not listen, I think they are a new type of virus. They are a virus that will break us all from within.

I would not change anything that happened to me last year. The year 2020 taught me a big lesson. Life can be kind and it can be cruel. Light fills my life, but darkness also consumes it. This current film of my life may have stopped recording but I cannot wait for the sequel to begin. My film ended happily. I survived my first semester in college and the doors to becoming an adult have opened!

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