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'Definitely not what you expected from movies': Celebrating 21st birthdays in quarantine

Restricted by social distancing measures necessitated by COVID-19, students find creative ways to celebrate this milestone, stay connected with friends

The weekend of her 21st birthday, Morgan Awner ’21 was supposed to be in Patagonia, hiking and taking in the breathtaking views of the region’s infamous glaciers, fjords and mountains, on her study abroad program’s first trip out of Santiago, Chile.

“That was supposed to be my birthday trip,” she said.

Then, COVID-19 developed into a global health crisis and forced her onto a last-minute flight back to Buffalo, N.Y., where she spent March 23, the day she turned legal, with her parents and sister — quarantined in her childhood home.

With thousands of college students across the nation vacated from campuses in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many are spending their 21st birthdays quarantined at home, restricted by the social distancing measures needed to mitigate the spread of the virus. At the start of this academic year, 11 million students enrolled in post-secondary institutions were between the ages of 18 and 24, and in 2018, around 53 percent of 20 to 21-year-olds nationwide — the largest percentage of any age group in the national population — was enrolled in college.

“I remember I got really sad on the night of my birthday,” Awner said, reflecting on how for years, she’d looked forward to celebrating this milestone. Then COVID-19 struck, and “it just ended up being (spent) back in my house.”

Still, while the pandemic has made it difficult for anyone to spend their 21st birthday as they might have expected, the conditions of isolation have fostered creative ways of celebrating and memories that will, nevertheless, last a lifetime. 

“Definitely not what you expected from movies.”

When Awner was maybe 16, she’d looked ahead on a calendar and found that, much to her dismay, the day she turned 21 was fated to land on a Monday. 

Still, “I was really just looking forward to celebrating my birthday abroad and having so much freedom,” she said. Those hopes were dashed when her program in Santiago was officially cancelled March 17 amid mounting fears of COVID-19, and she was told she had to be out of the country within the next three days. Panic set in when, the night before her frantically-booked flight, a helicopter flew overhead announcing a city-wide mandatory self-quarantine beginning at midnight. Awner had two hours to pack her bags and get on a flight back to Buffalo, where she arrived just a few days before her Patagonia trip was supposed to begin.

But the day of her birthday was not entirely lost. Relishing the rare opportunity to celebrate with their daughter, Awner’s parents broke quarantine to buy orange juice for mimosas and other ingredients to make pancakes and a painted sign and cards.

“I really was thankful for how much they tried to make the day really special,” Awner said. “I really feel like they did that and I have fond memories of it now, just a month later.”

And while spending the day with their parents isn’t exactly what someone might hope for their 21st birthday, “it was actually really nice to celebrate my birthday with my family, because I hadn't done that since I started college,” Awner said. And since the legal drinking age is 18 in Chile, where she had spent the past few months, the milestone just “didn’t really matter” as much. 

Later that day, Awner drove around her block to eat lunch out of the trunk of her car — parked 10 feet away from her best friend from home, who was sitting in her own trunk, and who shares Awner’s birthday. “That’s what I did all afternoon,” she said.

After dinner, Awner hosted several virtual parties over Zoom. Her first party, which was the first time she and her study abroad friends had seen each other since departing Chile so suddenly just a week prior, “was definitely bittersweet and a lot more stress than fun,” she said. “We were still at the point where we were stressed about classes, we were stressed about our semester getting canceled.”

Her second Zoom party, with her Brown friends, was more fun, she said. Awner and her friends made a “huge list of crazy, weird activities” to do while self-isolation measures remain in place — a list they titled, “Quirky Hobbies for Quarantine.” Ideas ranged from productive daily habits to “pierce your own ear” and “post a serious singing video on your Instagram.”

After a day of spending time with her family and friends and answering birthday messages from all those who reached out, Awner said that while her 21st birthday was “definitely not what you expected from movies,” she still felt “thankful” for her close friends.

“I felt loved by my family.”

Instead of learning mixology at the Graduate Center Bar bartending class she’d already bought tickets for with a friend, Shinyoung Lee ’21 celebrated her 21st birthday with her parents back home in Seoul, South Korea. 

In a country that has largely “flattened the curve” of new COVID-19 cases, Lee spent the day driving around Seoul and eating a traditional Korean lunch out at a restaurant with her parents. And even though she’s been able to venture out of her home after finishing a 14-day government-mandated quarantine, the hour-and-a-half drive with the windows down gave Lee the chance to see the cherry blossoms blooming on the outskirts of Seoul.  

Throughout the day, “the most pronounced thing that I felt was that I felt loved by my family,” Lee said. “I definitely realized how important they are to me.”

She added that her past two birthdays, both of which she celebrated while on campus, always happened to land during the thick of midterms — each year, she had at least one or two exams the day of. “I don't think I ever felt at peace being there,” she said. With everyone around her equally stressed and academically busy, celebrations for her birthday usually culminated in a 30-minute cake cutting. 

So this year, "it was just really nice to have some downtime with my family,” Lee said, “just talking about (stuff that’s) not even that important. Just being with them was really comforting."

At night, she hosted a Zoom party with some friends from Brown. One of the trickiest things for her to figure out in organizing a virtual celebration was determining who to invite, given her different friend groups from various activities and social circles. “You can’t really invite people who don’t know each other,” she said, “because you can only have one conversation” at a time over Zoom. 

The virtual celebration went deep into the night for Lee, but ended at different times throughout the day for her guests, who are located around the globe. During the party, she and some friends drank anyway, even though the legal drinking age is 19 for her in South Korea. “It still felt like I should,” she explained, adding that it was “just fun to see people's faces and to talk to a lot of different people at the same time.”

And while celebrating with her friends might have been even more fun in person, Lee had lowered her expectations for the party from the beginning. 

“I was just like, if this doesn't work out, it's okay,” she said. “What’s more important is that we’re all safe in our quarantine zones, so that’s what I kept reminding myself.”

“As long as we’re safe, we’re happy.”

Nomin Baatarkhuu ’21 said her 21st birthday felt like any other day of quarantine at home in northern Virginia. 

For her birthday dinner, she and her mom cooked barbeque ribs — Baatarkhuu’s favorite food — potato salad, vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, banana bread and a crepe cake, which is something she’s always wanted to make. “I've tried to make crepe cakes before and I thought, since I have all this time, I might as well put more effort into it and try to make it really good,” she said.

Cooking with her mom has maintained a bit of normalcy for the family through the uncertainties of the pandemic. “It's pretty normal for my mom and I to cook together,” Baatarkhuu said. And “it’s normal for my brother and my dad to eat the food we make, so it felt like any other day."

Before COVID-19, Baatarkhuu thought she and her friends would be able to go out for dinner in Providence and bake a cake for her birthday. So having to celebrate with her friends over Zoom instead felt “weird.”

But while the day “was not what I imagined … my 21st birthday (would) be,” she said, “in the context of what's happening in the world, it was perfectly peaceful and relaxing.”

“In our household, as long as we’re safe, we’re happy,” she said. “My brother, my dad and I have just been staying at home. And we’re fine with that.”

“For the schtick of getting carded” 

Claire Miller ’21 was on a 12-hour flight home to Chevy Chase, M.D. from Tel Aviv, Israel — where she was studying abroad — when, over 30,000 feet in the air, it became her 21st birthday. 

Flying with an immunocompromised friend from her program, Miller said she spent most of the flight “just giving her hand sanitizer” and “wiping everything down with antibacterial wipes.”

The kosher birthday meal she ordered on the flight was “gross,” but had the added advantage of being double-wrapped to prevent non-kosher contamination — and in the context of a viral pandemic, Miller said, “it meant no one else could breathe on my food.” 

To celebrate a little on the flight, Miller ordered some wine, “just kind of for the schtick of getting carded,” she said. “I was like, I don't know when my next chance is going to be that I'm gonna get to use my ID, so I may as well use it now.” The flight attendant asked for her ID, then gifted her two mini bottles of wine. 

When Miller finally made it home at around 5 a.m. on her birthday, her mom had laid out a brunch with bagels and homemade cranberry bread, and had set up balloons — which she had purchased before Maryland’s stay-at-home order was issued March 30 — around the house. 


The last time anyone in her family bought balloons for the house was probably on her 18th birthday, Miller said, “so that was really sweet.”

But while having brunch at home with her family and friend from abroad “did feel in a lot of ways like a celebration,” Miller said, “it was weird to not have my best friends there.” 

Her original plans to celebrate in Israel were “very detailed because they involved hitting all my favorite places,” she said. After dinner at a Syrian-Kurdish restaurant, Miller planned to go out dancing with her friends until enough time had passed so that, in accordance with kosher guidelines, she could then go to her favorite dairy food place, which serves “flaky, Yemenite bread stuffed with shakshouka,” she said. “It’s great drunk food.” 

Still, she decided to take the entire situation in stride. “I thought it was really funny, mostly,” she said. “You know those instances where everything is just, like, so bad and going so wrong that it's absurd and all you can do is laugh? I just felt like all I could do was laugh. And I laughed, and it was fine.”

Miller added that her birthday celebration has been spread out, and the real celebration may have come 14 days after her actual birthday when she had “passed the incubation period for coronavirus.” What did she do to celebrate, two weeks later? “I left the house,” she said.

In terms of celebrating her 21st birthday again when the pandemic passes, Miller said that “everything is a little up in the air now.” Things have “gone downhill” since her birthday, with a family friend passing away from the virus and both of her grandparents contracting COVID-19 but recovering slowly. 

But Miller remains optimistic. “I kind of have this fantasy of my whole group of friends — probably my high school friends since I'm home, right now — kind of all going out together,” she said. While she and her friends from before Brown never thought they would be able to celebrate their 21st birthdays together, “now all of a sudden, we can just celebrate them clumped into one, hopefully all over the summer.”



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