I was visiting friends in Chicago when we got the email that we had been waiting for, telling us that classes would be online for the remainder of the semester. The university, along with the dorms, was to close until the fall in four days and the vast majority of students were away with maybe a week’s worth of clothing for spring break. I boarded a flight back to school that evening, and packed up my freshman year dorm room overnight, just in time to catch a flight home in the morning.
The past five months have been filled with stress and uncertainty as college students around the nation have come home to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. This period has also been marked by coming together to celebrate those on the front lines and offering our help to students that might not live in environments where they can adequately focus on their online classes. Many college students have had a unique experience with the virus: one of deep gratitude and equally deep sorrow and disappointment. And this confusing experience has the potential to be detrimental to the mental health of many college students who, as a group, already face high levels of anxiety and depression.
Being in college is doing a whole bunch of learning. Learning how to manage your time, how to make yourself breakfast, or especially in my case, how to do your own laundry. It’s also, learning how to live with a roommate, how to conduct yourself in an interview for a club you really care about, or how to write a paper for your 5 PM lecture, while you’re in your 4 PM lecture. It is building community by joining student groups and organizing events. With campuses closing, we lost those events and experiences, but essentially, what we lost was the autonomy we had been enjoying for the first time in our lives. Being home with our parents is not the same as living in a dorm, and, as lucky as we are to be safe and healthy, we have lost an independence we had gotten accustomed to and that helped us grow into adults.
Roles are different at home and decisions are now made by the family or by our parents. Something as simple as diet can be an issue. My friend, for example, is a vegetarian, and she has had a particularly hard time at home because the food available is not suited to her lifestyle. This lack of autonomy can be felt much more seriously, too. I empathize, for example, with a student who went to therapy while in college and continues to do so remotely from home, while having to hide it from her parents. More universally, I think every college student has developed unique methods for studying and for coursework that might be challenged by living at home, whether it’s the specific library where you like to study or the all-nighter you pull before every single test because it makes you feel ready.
To some extent, however, we don’t feel entitled to the mourning of our college experience. After all, people are dealing with much worse due to the pandemic and we are lucky to be safe and at home. We see our pain as trivial, which makes it harder to cope with, and instead, many of us have felt the need to be even more productive than usual.
Summer plans, which are especially important to college students, were uprooted, with many internships and research opportunities canceled or moved online. As a result, some students have opted to fill their schedules with costly summer classes. While others attempted to find new opportunities after getting sent home, just to find out that those opportunities simply might not exist due to the pandemic. Students chased these summer opportunities to compete even though it seemed rather clear that employers and graduate schools will not expect anything from this summer.
And, now, as most universities decide that Fall classes will also be conducted online, many students will continue to be home for the foreseeable future. This is, of course, a huge disappointment for students, but I also believe it's contributing to a positive mindset change for our age group. College was once this 4-year un-moveable block of time, and for many, there were no other alternatives. This pandemic has taught us to embrace uncertainty and the opportunities that come from it. Many students are considering gap-years or are taking this time to explore other interests and passions before they return to school. Young people are stepping out of their comfort zones, and are going out on their own for the first time, without the net of college. I'm hopeful this will breed bolder and more independent leaders, as we look ahead to a post-COVID time.