By Noah Monroe
As UNC-Chapel Hill junior Justin Watson relaxed on his couch, he reminisced about the day he was accepted into the university in 2020.
Watson described the feeling of getting into his dream school and the innocence of who he was on the winter day decisions were released.
He was unaware that in 49 days, his high school career would be cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For this Concord, N.C. native, his first taste of college wouldn’t come for another 567 days.
Watson’s demeanor changed as he recalled how he had grown since that January day.
‘It was crushing’
Watson walked around his neighborhood to get his mind off the conversation he had just had with his parents.
He couldn’t believe it; he was staying home for his first year in college.
How could this have happened?
How did COVID-19 evolve from being an extended spring break to a global pandemic that forced him to miss out on his first year on campus?
“It was crushing,” Watson said. “I took time to process high school and COVID ruining things. I was just in college mode, and that’s where I put all my chips. And then COVID ruined that as well. It sucked.”
Several states away, Griffin Fuetsch, who was supposed to be Watson’s roommate, was dealing with the same dilemma in New York City.
The two met on an Instagram page designed to help incoming UNC-CH students find a roommate, suitemates and ultimately, make friends.
The two started talking because Watson thought it was cool how Fuetsch was from New York City. They talked more and more, and Fuetsch soon became Watson’s first friend “at” UNC.
“Watching those two weeks go by where everyone is meeting people was stressful,” Fuetsch said. “Knowing I had a roommate who was going through the same thing as me and was going to start at the same place I was, it meant so much.”
Still though, not being on campus affected Watson.
Two of his high school friends, Christian Thomas and Jordan Nance, noticed this when they interacted with him in Concord.
“He was frustrated,” Thomas said. “He was cooped up at his house, so he just felt like there was no escape. It was weighing down on him that he couldn’t be on the campus and interact with classmates.”
Once that disappointment wore off, Watson knew he had to make the most of the situation so that when he finally stepped foot in Chapel Hill, he’d be in a good spot.
He got more involved with fitness, buying a punching bag and dabbling in calisthenics. Though Zoom was not the ideal introduction to college classes, Watson honed in to continue his track record of making excellent grades.
“(Being stuck at home) sparked a drive in him, and he kicked it up a notch,” Nance said. “I remember he was extremely determined to get through the classes. He was saying, ‘Just wait until I get on campus,’ and he proved himself when he was able to get on campus.”
‘Everyone has to learn, and I learned a different way’
In a friend’s basement during the summer between his first and second year, Watson began to rap Lil Baby’s part in the Drake song, ‘Wants and Needs,’ a song he had familiarized himself with since its release in March 2021.
Music had always been influential in Watson’s life, but while at home during his first year, he listened to it more, often to manage his emotions.
When he moved into Morrison Residence Hall at the beginning of his sophomore year, he knew his transition from living at home to college wasn’t going to be all smooth.
His suitemates had developed skills the previous year, like meeting people and balancing academics with social activities. Since they had experience with college life, they were able to give him advice.
But even with help, there were still growing pains.
“I was still a little bit immature sometimes,” Watson said. “Sometimes I felt like I could’ve handled things better. Everyone has to learn, and I learned a different way.”
Watson needed a way to channel his frustrations, and found a familiar avenue his sophomore year – music.
“It calmed me down,” Watson said. “When I felt anxious, I’d put on my headphones, and I’d walk through campus. It was mainly music that got me through a lot of things sophomore year.”
Walking through campus without his headphones was a rare occurrence, but a symbol of his growth throughout that year.
In combination with his experiences on campus, music helped Watson adapt to college life and learn what to expect on a daily basis.
He advanced ahead of the curve and improved his time-management. He knew his schedule and what it would take so that he could attend class, do his homework, have time to decompress, hang out with friends and attend social events.
He found time to start a website with a friend, giving students a platform to discuss improvements for their respective colleges. Watson even found time for a girlfriend.
By the end of his sophomore year, Watson was comfortable with who he had become. He’d walk through campus with his signature headphones, taking them off to talk anytime he ran into someone he knew.
“Seeing who he is today, it’s the best feeling a friend can have,” Nance said. “In high school it seems like we were all pretty young, not knowing what we wanted to do. When I’ve seen him, I feel a sense of confidence in the drive that he has and knowing that he’s doing well in college.”
Edited by Collin Tadlock and Caleb Sigmon