A Socially Distanced Summer is Now a Fall Without Friends

We couldn’t believe it when we heard the news. 

We had just received our move-in date and time, read the emails about the back-to-school procedures, and started purchasing the items on the “what-to-bring” list. Finally, after a long and frankly, disappointing spring and graduation season, we were moving forward, until, suddenly, we weren’t.

boy on rooftop
What will the fall semester be like for teens whose colleges told them to stay home to study? (TB Kilman)

Our college deviated from their original plan

The college my son was scheduled to attend announced that no one was going to be allowed on campus this fall, which was a deviation from the original plan to allow freshman, transfer students, and a few select others on campus.  

Even with all the caveats and changes to the “normal” college experience that were communicated (masks, virtual classes, grab-and-go dining, limited social gatherings, etc.) my son was excited to go to college. He, like so many others, just wanted to be there.

He was looking forward to meeting his fellow classmates and getting acclimated to campus life, whatever that was going to look like. My son was devastated and so was I.

What about the college students who are left behind?

As is usual this time of year, there are plenty of social media posts about college drop-off, moms “lamenting” the pile up of supplies on their dining room tables and counting “sleeps” before kids left home for the first time.

But what about the kids who aren’t leaving? What about the first-time college students who are being left behind? 

The clothes and dorm room essentials (including PPE) from our dining room table had to be moved so my son can use it for classes in a few weeks. I wish I could count the nights he had left at home. He, like so many others whose colleges and universities have shut down in-person instruction won’t experience the nervous excitement of meeting their freshman roommate for the first time.

Their dorm decorations will remain in boxes and their freshman year will be absent of any memories of corny orientation activities. I kept wondering to myself: what about them?

Remember, these are students who already had an abrupt end to their senior year. No prom, no graduation, no parties—they had none of the traditional celebrations to commemorate their accomplishments and bring closure to the end of their high school journeys. They have already had it pretty tough. And now, they had to make the best of one more sub-optimal situation, and it isn’t easy.

My son is facing a fall without friends

After a socially-distanced summer, my son is now facing a fall without friends, as most of them, it seems, return to campuses across the country while he is left at home.  One more disappointment to add on to all the others already endured. 

This one, though, seems to hurt a little deeper. I guess I didn’t realize how our hopeful expectation of college matriculation had gotten us through the darker days of the pandemic. We had been holding onto the promise of this one bit of normalcy and now even that was gone.

We didn’t have to put on a brave face

There will never be another freshman year for him. He will never get this time back. This was a real loss and I decided it was okay for that loss to be mourned. He didn’t have to put on a brave face, and I didn’t either. To be honest, this sucked, we both knew it, and there was no use for false positivity. In fact, it wouldn’t be healthy to do so. 

Without even recognizing it at first, my son cycled through all five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—and I didn’t try to shake him out of it. At first the news didn’t seem to bother him at all. He appeared to be absolutely fine. He even joked that he knew it was coming and he was unphased. That phase didn’t last long, however, and soon he was very angry.

He sulked and he didn’t say much, but when he did talk, it was mostly expressing his frustration very loudly that he was staying at home. After a few days of that, he moved to the depression phase, which lasted the longest. He stayed in his room watching his favorite movies for days on end, barely coming out to eat. 

I guess all that time alone gave him time to think, because then he entered the bargaining phase with lots of ideas about how we could make this “work”, including a house with other football players in North Carolina, or getting a studio apartment in the city where we live. He could get a job; he could get a roommate—he was determined to figure this out as any alternative was better than staying home. 

My son came up with alternatives to staying home

His ideas weren’t all bad, especially the getting a job one, but we weren’t going to send him to live with a bunch of guys from his team, in fact the coach specifically advised against it. Finding a reasonably-priced studio apartment in the major metropolitan city in which we live would be expensive—way more than whatever we would save by him not being on campus this fall. The roommate idea fell flat because most of his friends are, in fact, returning to school—at least for now.

So, we are slowly moving toward a very reluctant acceptance. The scowls are fewer and further between. He comes out of his room regularly now. The yelling has dissipated and even a few smiles have returned.

We are trying to find some things for him to look forward to this fall.  He is researching possible internships and volunteer opportunities as well. He is going to be okay, which means I am going to be okay. (What’s that saying about a parent is only as happy as his/her least happy child?)

I admit that I take a small measure of perhaps what is false comfort in the belief that my son will be safer at home than on a campus across the country. And I do appreciate his chosen college’s caution and transparency about doing what they believe is the best and safest approach, to keep everyone—students, staff, and faculty safe.

Adjusting to the new reality is hard

But it is so very hard to adjust to the reality that these moments, which are supposed to be filled with excitement and anticipation are awash with dejection and disappointment instead.

I certainly don’t mean to equate our relatively slight challenge to the tremendous loss of life and significant economic impact that this pandemic has visited upon this country. I recognize the real hardships that this fall brings. Teachers are facing real fear about their safety.

Parents feel torn when a choice for their kids’ academic progress could jeopardize their physical wellbeing. There are no easy answers, so I know that the fact that my son cannot be on campus at his university is a small sacrifice in light of the bigger choices and challenges others are facing, but it is our sacrifice and it its hard. 

But we can do hard things.

Like many others, we will make this sacrifice because we must, and we will endure, but it won’t be easy. We will continue to look for the proverbial silver lining and learn all the lessons, academic and other, that are awaiting us this semester even if it takes place at our dining room table.

I know that all these kids are building tremendous resilience and grit and expanding their creativity—qualities they will need to be successful in life. I just want to be sure that amidst the excitement of a new, if altered, beginning for some, we don’t lose sight of those 18 and 19-year olds, for whom their new beginning feels and looks like old news.

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About Sharisse Kimbro

Sharisse Kimbro is a writer and mother who has written extensively on empowering women, recovery from divorce and managing single parenthood on a variety of outlets. She is a contributor to the award-winning compilation, We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart and Humor, Her debut novel, Beyond the Broken, was published in 2013. She is currently working on her second novel.

Read more posts by Sharisse

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