This Has Been a Kinder Gentler Year to Start College



My second and youngest child went off to college last month. She’s having a great experience — she likes her roommate, has made new friends, joined a club, enjoys her classes, and seems to be working hard on her homework. She went out on the quad with a bunch of people one night last week to look at Jupiter through a telescope, and is going apple-picking with a group this weekend.

beautiful black college student
My younger daughter is having a wonderful college experience. (Twenty20)

I have an older daughter as well, who returned to her own university as a junior this fall. She graduated high school as part of the class of…dun dun dunnnnn…2020. And her experience as a university freshman during the fall of 2020 was, to say the least, different from the experience my younger daughter is now having. As I told well-wishers at the time, “it’s more like sending her to prison than college.”

My older daughter’s move-in was isolating and lonely

After Covid deprived my oldest of those once-in-a-lifetime high school rites of passage – no prom, no senior trip, no senior sunrise, no graduation ceremony or party – she was required to arrive on her college campus ten days before classes started. This was because move-in to the dorms had to be extended and constrained to a minimal number of students at a time. A lonely move-in, devoid of the excitement and animation that normally surrounds the event. We kissed her, hugged her, and left her sitting tearfully on her bed with its new comforter and TJ Maxx-scented throw pillows. She spent those next ten days isolated in her room with her roommate (not a great match, by the way).

“Orientation” consisted of sitting on — you guessed it — Zoom for hours over a three-day period. They were not allowed to eat in the cafeteria – rather, they walked in, picked up a to-go bag, and returned to their own dorm room to eat in solitary confinement. This particular requirement hurt my heart the most; one of the most basic, bonding experiences of the human species is sharing meals together and breaking bread.

When classes started, the majority were online (more Zoom). In class, they distanced and masked, guessing at their professors’ and classmates’ expressions. They tested twice a week, those who came up positive being quickly whisked away to the compounded isolation of off-campus housing, like so many questionable apples who might spoil the whole barrel.

Starting college during Covid was so different

Students were told not to leave campus and go home to their families for the weekend, for fear of picking up Covid and spreading it on campus. High school friends she kept in touch with over social media, each in their own isolation pod across the country, asked each other, “Are you going to drop out?” rather than the traditional “How’s school?” And yes, the subject of dropping out came up in phone call after tearful phone call.

Sports wouldn’t start for a couple of months, and attendance at the campus gym was severely restricted. So my go-to lines for kids who were feeling down — “why don’t you get some exercise? Why not go see a friend?” – couldn’t be brought into play. “Go for a walk around campus,” I suggested, only to be told “I don’t know anyone and I don’t want to walk alone.” It was an extremely lonely, disorienting time for her.

Those were the pre-vaccine days, and we were very lucky that she didn’t get sick, that our family didn’t suffer any losses that she would have had to grieve alone. In those days, there were far worse things than being a lonely 18-year-old on a college campus.

Eventually, sports started up, restrictions were eased, and friends were found. I know my oldest is okay; perhaps she has even gained some valuable perspective about life’s priorities from the painful experience she had. She is certainly determined to grab life by the handful, already turning her eyes to college graduation (I told her we’d have a big party to make up for the high school one she missed), the car she wants to buy, where she might want to live when she’s gainfully employed.

It’s a joy to watch my second daughter have a more normal experience

It’s a joyful feeling to watch my second daughter experience all the things college should offer — that intoxicating freedom, that sense of endless possibility, that devouring the perfect salad from her school’s mega-awesome salad bar, new friends surrounding her at the long tables in the cafeteria.

But it brings into high contrast just what my older daughter missed out on.

More Great Reading:

Five COVID Lessons I Hope My Family Never Forgets



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