Hydroponic gardening is hard.

On Pinterest, there are plenty of posts of mason jars filled with dirt, leafy greens, and tomatoes set on beautiful sunlit counters. They make it look so simple. I, however, learned the hard way that providing your vegetables with enough sunlight and nutrients isn't so easy. My buttercrunch lettuce wasn't Pinterest–worthy, but it was my first of many quarantine hobbies.

It was March of 2020, the first month of quarantine following Penn’s decision to move to remote learning. The longer break meant more time to relax before school started up again. I planned to spend the time binging Netflix and working out.

But then things got worse. A lot worse. 

My first year at Penn was over. The friends I ate every meal with, studied in GSRs with, and spent late hours chatting with were only accessible via text. Classes moved online, leaving me with a lot more time on my hands.

As my friends and I spent longer and longer in our childhood bedrooms, the texts became fewer and farther between. The FaceTime calls became less frequent. For the first time during college, I felt like I didn’t have enough friends. Your first year is supposed to be when you “find your people." I felt cheated. 

I decided I wanted to come back to Penn in the fall and relive my first–year experience, but better. I wanted to talk to every stranger who sat next to me in big lecture halls. I wanted to join every club I could. 

My anxiety about making friends, though, would soon manifest into a summer–long parade of hyperactivity. Being lonely felt unnatural. Having so much free time felt criminal. I filled the empty space by picking up hobbies. 

Cue the hydroponic gardening. After a few dozen Amazon orders, I had crowded my house with lettuce–filled mason jars. But I lost interest midway through when I realized most of my plants weren't growing well. The few lettuce heads that survived made for a very depressing salad. 

Photography came second. My dad had an old DSLR camera in the basement. I got it out, charged it for the first time in years, and spent the next week watching beginner photography tutorials on YouTube. I learned all the basics and started practicing on the few subjects I had available around the house. My memory card is still filled with pictures of flowers from my backyard. But after a while, photography got old too.

Cooking was third. Over the summer, I found myself deep in food TikTok. I saved recipes that looked good and tried to recreate them. I’ll admit, I whipped up some pretty delicious meals, but laziness eventually set in, and the daily cooking came to a halt.

My last and most ambitious quarantine endeavor was writing a book. A friend told me about a writing workshop that helps students publish books. I went all–in and even found an editor. I knew what I wanted to write about, and I devoted dozens of hours each week to interviewing people, researching, and drafting. 

But like my other short–lived hobbies, it all fell apart as I lost the willpower to continue. I finalized the introduction and a few chapters but couldn’t bring myself to write one more word. Just the thought of writing made me anxious. I ghosted my editor, and half of the chapters remain unwritten. 

One after the other, each quarantine hobby I picked up was like a band–aid. None cured my summer–long anxiety.

Being lonely sucked. I hated that I couldn’t make more friends because college was online. In my head, I thought pursuing these activities would be the key to new relationships. There must be some Penn students interested in gardening. Photography and cooking were sure to be useful to join some clubs. Writing a book? A great conversation starter.

I don’t think I was genuinely interested in any of those things. I was just compensating for my guilt about not meeting more people during my first year. 

I came into college with high expectations: I would know everyone on campus and make memories every week. It would be some of the best years of my life. There are moments when these dreams of a perfect college life are true. But there are also times that Penn is lonely. Burying myself in quarantine hobbies took my mind off of the isolation temporarily, but it couldn’t fix the problem. 

When the in–person semester resumed, I chose to put myself out there more than I did my first year. I’m happier than I was during quarantine, but there are still moments where I feel alone, even though I’m surrounded by friends. I’m realizing that’s okay—there’s no need to hide behind schoolwork or hobbies. I’m learning to embrace it.