On December 19th, my daughter Bella received the ping she had been dreaming of: Congratulations, Bella! You have been admitted to the class of 2024. With maize and blue coursing through the veins of her grandparents and parents, she was thrilled to have her chance to take on Ann Arbor.
It’s been thirty years since I graduated from the University of Michigan and memories of my freshman year still feel crisp: the day that I moved into South Quad, the dorm that housed the football team and 1170 others, and found myself in a tiny room with two girls from rural Michigan who channeled their newfound freedom into guzzling Mad Dog 20/20 and then puking on our shared floor. To avoid these antics, I made fast friends, friends who decoded Michigan jargon (pop=soda, mashing = making out, a Yooper is a person from Michigan’s upper peninsula) and offered essential intel regarding garment layering, a novelty for a Miami gal who had never even owned a winter coat. My childhood had been about tanning and clubbing. So, that first football Saturday was mind blowing: the kinetic energy in the dorm, beer chugging at 10 am, the mass shuffle to the stadium as strains of Victors, UM’s renowned fight anthem, blasted from every porch. Then, being a part of 115,000 raucous fans in The Big House. I had no clue what the players were doing. Just being there was a party. A friend in my dorm, a former Miss Michigan, inspired me to participate in sorority rush. We got gussied up and I hobnobbed my way through the houses the same way I talked my way into clubs back home. Greek life provided an instant community and a cultural learning curve. Girls named Barb and Kitty? Guys in plaid and flannel? Having grown up in the glitz of South Florida, I found all of this wildly exotic.
Freshman year sets the tone for a student’s four year campus existence. It’s a time of complete receptivity: making friends, joining clubs, figuring out how to get from the class on one side of campus to the next, creating the routines and connections that will color your overall experience. Covid has ruined this rainbow of epiphanies for my daughter and every incoming freshman. While Bella feels “it’s a win” just to get to campus, I am devastated that her time as a freshman will not look or feel like mine.
Apart from nostalgia, I was looking forward to reconnecting over shared experiences. The teen years had been slippery, the perma -closed bedroom door a symbol of our somewhat fraught relationship. Since December, I had imagined commonality functioning as a door stop, offering a few inches to slip back into her world. With her campus existence looking increasingly like Hunger Games, Higher Education edition, that opportunity too has gone up in smoke.
As of now, students can live on campus but all of the courses are remote. Dining halls require reservations (if they open at all) or it may be limited to takeaway food. Football is cancelled. Dorm room and hall parties won’t be permitted. It is unknown if libraries will open. Office hours with your professor? Doubtful. I won’t even get into the masks. Of course they are essential. But, they add another dystopian patina to making friends (Is he/she smiling at me? scowling? ) The biggest fear is health. Even with frequent testing, can the campus keep COVID at bay with so many people coming on and off to run operations? If not, students will need to be prepared to decamp from the campus in a flash. The undercurrent of anxiety alone will be exhausting.
Learning in isolation can be meaningful. But, it’s not a University of Michigan experience by a long shot. The joy of attending a big public school is social. Lots of interaction happens in classes. The verve of a professor, turning to your neighbor to comment on the lecture or just chatting with others in the rush of exiting the hall. Once, after music history class, I waited behind a cute guy to ask the professor a question. That guy is now my husband. So many relationships blossomed over football Saturdays. The pre-parties, the games, collapsing in someone’s dorm room (often someone I just met) after the game. On a huge campus, sorority membership means an instant clutch of girlfriends and access to a vibrant social life. I was Kappa Alpha Theta. Bella’s grandmother was Sigma Delta Tau. Whether you end up joining or not, the rush process itself is a conduit to meeting new people. An online version leaves me cold.
Since I cannot control the timeline of this pandemic or how it will play out at the university, I’ve had to pivot from frustration and anger to something resembling optimism. I’ve spent time listening to Tara Brach’s wonderful guided meditations, specifically ones about finding light during the pandemic. I’ve spoken to other parents (parent Facebook pages have been a wonderful resource) and ruminated over creative solutions that the university might implement so students can meet their classmates in person. Hopefully student leadership will bring clubs to fruition. Partying will be the hurdle. This has been the downfall at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Notre Dame and so many others where cases have spiked due to large gatherings. University of Michigan is placing a lot of faith that students uphold a code of conduct. They have built outdoor tents to accommodate get togethers. But, kids will be kids.
I’ve come to appreciate that, in the end, my daughter will learn resilience and adaptability, two traits essential to succeed in any career. Next week, I will install Bella in her dorm in Ann Arbor. I fight to shine a light on the positive: a great roommate that you got to pick! All of the spots you can pick up from with your meal card! Decorating the dorm room! Bella and I are finding joy in the getting ready process. She is communicating with her roommate about color schemes and fairy lights. We have purchased dorm bedding and are sorting through the toiletries and clothes. She is excited about her courses.
Maybe, in a pandemic, that is enough