Birthday parties and group hugs are canceled during quarantine, but with the help of friends and family, Cornellians aren’t blowing out their candles alone.
Ayesha Chowdhury ’23 was among the first to celebrate her birthday in this new world on March 15 — two days after President Martha E. Pollack urged students to leave campus as soon as possible. She spent her 19th birthday moving out of her freshman dorm and flying home to quarantine with her family in Minnesota.
Chowdhury started her day in her Jameson dorm room with her roommate.
“She sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me as I was rolling out the suitcase to head to the airport at 2 a.m.,” Chowdhury said. “I gave her a hug goodbye when I got picked up by Uber.”
For Chowdhury, the current circumstances turned her traditional birthday plans upside down. Luckily, her friend from home made every effort to make her birthday special.
Telling her to look outside, Chowdhury’s friend brought a collection of gifts. “She was standing there with her mom, my favorite flowers, a couple cut-up mangos and some cupcakes, [which] she gave to me through my balcony,” Chowdhury said.
Despite a day filled with loading boxes and goodbyes, Chowdhury considers her 19th a very memorable birthday.
“I keep telling myself you can’t get more chaotic than that,” she said. “It only gets brighter from here.”
For other students turning a year older during quarantine, their special day was only a reminder of missed friends and experiences.
“I lay in bed until like 4,” said Claire Decordova ’23, who was also looking forward to celebrating her birthday in between St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. “I was kind of pretending that it wasn’t my birthday because I was so sad that I wasn’t with my friends and not at school,”
Adelinne Wenger ’22, who left her teenage years on April 8, agreed the family-centered birthday wasn’t what she expected.
“If I was back at school I would definitely be seeing all of my friends in person and we’d probably go out to Collegetown,” she said. “But when I was at home it felt like I was much younger because I was at home with my parents all day.”
While Wenger was celebrating with her parents, Jimmy Ringsby ’23 spent his birthday doing school work and spending time with his sister at home. His day ended on a more energetic note when his friend surprised him with a dance performance on top of her car.
“It is a little disheartening,” said Ringsby. “I was a little sad I couldn’t go outside or do anything exciting, but it was still an enjoyable day.”
Still, Cornell students have found ways to keep their birthday spirits high by replacing ‘normal’ college birthday celebrations with creative quarantine alternatives.
“My parents were really cute. They planned dinner and we had cupcakes — just did a little family thing,” Decordova said.
Aleena Ismail ’21 tried to mimic past birthdays by having a photoshoot with her sister.
“It sounds kind of silly, but I feel like usually when it’s a special occasion we commemorate it with a photo,” she said. “It felt like looking for normalcy by still having a photo to post. It made me feel special.”
Similar to the rest of Cornell’s semester, Ismail’s friends took a more virtual approach.
“When it was midnight on the [April 7], my friends put together a really sweet video that had messages from all my close friends,” she said. “That was really sweet because I obviously couldn’t see them in person.”
Other students have also taken to video chats to celebrate among friends.
“I was basically just facetiming or on Zoom with a bunch of my friends,” said Sania Hussain ’23, on the way she chose to celebrate her day, on March 30. After being home for about two weeks, she spent her birthday reconnecting with fellow Cornellians. “My favorite part of the day was just seeing my friends again, even though it wasn’t in-person.”
Wenger took it a step further and created a virtual birthday party.
“At 11 o’clock I set up a Zoom meeting and I came up with an online invitation,” said Wenger. “I invited a bunch of my friends … we stayed on there for an hour or two just talking.”
For others, the actual birthday seems to just be a formality, as students excitedly await the chance to return to campus.
“I’m excited because I’m going to plan my half-birthday celebration on [Sept. 17]. We’re gonna redo St. Patrick’s Day,” Decordova said.
Instead of large parties or decorated dorm rooms, quarantine birthdays have been all about celebrating with loved ones, from home-cooked family dinners to hour-long Zoom chats with friends.
“I felt really lucky to have such good friends who showed me that I was loved and cared for regardless of us being able to be in person or not,” Ismail said. “The people who care about you will work to make something special for you regardless of the circumstance.”
Correction, April 23, 2:57 p.m.: A previous version of this article misspelled Ismail’s name. The article has since been updated.