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College Cut Short By Coronavirus: Making the Pivot

I saw a meme that pretty much sums up the last few days: “What a year this week has been.”

A week ago, I had flown across the country to visit my daughter, a sophomore in college. Our son, a college senior also joined us, eager to check out his little sister’s territory. We looked forward to spending some quality time on campus with her which included meeting all of her friends and a field trip to either Universal Studios or Joshua Tree.

Less than 24 hours in, my son received notification that his spring break was extended and that learning would continue online. He had heard rumors, but it’s not real until it’s real. “I can’t believe that I may have attended my very last college class,” he said in disbelief. Abject misery.

All of us spent the rest of the day in a disappointed daze. Like every second semester senior, there was so much that he was looking forward to. And let me be clear: not one of those things included moving back home at 22.

The lone positive?

At least he wouldn’t have to worry about missing classes during March Madness when he refuses to leave the couch for the first four days of the tournament. We know how that story ended. First the conference tournaments. Then the Big Dance. Then the NBA and every other sport for that matter. More abject misery.

Meanwhile, my daughter finally succumbed to the fact that her spring break plans to an international destination were a no go. To our relief, she and her friends quickly devised Plan B which satisfied our requirements that she stay in the United States.

It was hard to talk about anything else but the Coronavirus, even as we watched the finale of The Bachelor together. At this point, colleges were sending students home left and right, and her professors were practicing with Zoom, but it’s not real until it’s real.

The next morning, my daughter called sobbing.

A professor had sent out an email that informed students that campus was shutting down – for the rest of the semester. A few hours later, we received the official email from the president of the university. Even more abject misery (is abjecter abject misery a thing?).

I don’t think I have ever felt so incompetent as a parent. I’m not one to jump in and fix things for my kids, but I do live by the mantra that every problem has a solution. But this one doesn’t. My kids were thriving at college, and now they are going to have to come home and learn online. Really? Academics aside, they are being separated from their friends and their activities and their lives.

And quite frankly, I don’t want them at home either. Not because I don’t love them to pieces but because they need to be where they are so they can complete their amazing metamorphosis into adulthood. Home means regression to the mean for all of us. 

Adjusting to the New Normal After Coronavirus

All I can do is validate how they feel, which is easy because I feel the same way. They are grieving and angry, and I don’t blame them one bit. So I hold back my own tears and say that I’m so sorry, which seems incredibly inadequate.

But already, I’ve seen glimpses of their resilience that makes me want to cry even more. We returned to my daughter’s college a few days later to pick up some duffel bags to bring home for her. She was wiped out and admitted that she hadn’t slept much, but she was calm and ready to face what was next. She also started working me to get a dog to help her survive the next several months, proving that she’s moving forward and preparing herself for what’s to come (and that she has some excellent negotiation skills).

My son and I talked a lot about how he’ll spend his days. Always a planner, he realized that he needs to push himself to use his time well. He’s thinking about what that will look like. Maybe he’ll learn more about cooking so he can add to his three-recipe repertoire. Maybe he’ll train for a long run. Or maybe he’ll get back into reading.

While it’s not fair that their lives have been disrupted, they will ultimately make the best out of an unfortunate and frightening situation. There will still be hard moments and hard days. And no matter what routine we ultimately fall into over the next weeks/months, we will all still be wishing for something different.

Making the Pivot

My wish for my own kids – and for all of the college students who are so disappointed right now – is that they figure out how to pivot. The first step has already begun. As social distancing and travel restrictions and closures have continued to mount, they have come to realize that what is happening is bigger than they are. As the president of my daughter’s college remarked, this may well be the most significant event of their lifetime. It’s just not about them.

Are you struggling with the transition to online?

There is no doubt that they will look back and remember how bitterly upsetting this time was, but I do have one more wish: that they will feel proud about how they responded to it. That when they tell the story of the Coronavirus to their own children, they will be able to share the compassionate, thoughtful, and productive ways in which they made the best of an uncertain time. That they used their considerable strengths to enrich their lives in new and different ways. In their own time (which, sadly, they’ll have a lot of), they’ll find ways to power themselves and others through the Coronavirus crisis.

Jody Podl

Jody has spent her life around teens, as a teacher and as a parent of three.

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