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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

The Boomerang Brigade: Survival Tips for When COVID Sends College Kids Home

Last fall Rachel Prull was reveling in her newfound freedom. A college freshman at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass., Prull, 19, was living away from home, and embracing all the privileges that come with emerging adulthood. “I could do the things I wanted on my own time, and not have to tell anyone. That was huge.”

Then, halfway through her second semester, COVID closed the campus. Prull unwittingly joined the boomerang brigade, the millions of college students nationwide summarily sent home to finish school online. “Being kicked out of student housing with a week’s notice felt deeply traumatic,” she said.

That was not the plan.

Just when they’d gotten a taste of being able to come and go as they pleased, create their own schedules, and have an adult room, they were jolted back to house rules, childhood bedrooms, annoying siblings, parental expectations, and less privacy.

“When a student goes away to college, the first one-to-two years are really instrumental to their being seen as an adult,” said Michelle Janning, professor of sociology at Whitman College, who has published articles about the home-to-college transition, and is studying how the pandemic is impacting this rite of passage. “Now as kids go home, they are reminded of who they used to be by parents who don’t always know how to negotiate their new identity.”

And, I think to myself, who don’t know to quit the jokes about the time you threw up on the babysitter, or filled the kitchen drawer with snails.

“A child’s first move away from home is where the boundary between childhood and adulthood gets crystalized,” Janning said. “Being in a different physical space helps solidify a person as an adult. This is who I am now. I’m not the kid in my parent’s house anymore.”

And then they are. And it feels like a demotion.

“As we look at the pandemic and its impact on college kids, the disruption of their living spaces is a big part of the picture,” she said. “We cannot underestimate the impact of moving back into your childhood bedroom. It’s not trivial.”

After three years away at school, Wafa Abedin, a 21-year-old senior at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, went back home in March to finish school online. “At first, I embraced the opportunity to spend more time with my mom. But as we started to receive news that we wouldn’t be returning to campus, I got anxious. I began to really miss being with my school community.”

She also missed the amenities. “At home, I have a room with a bed and desk. At school, I can study in the library, or go to the dining hall. Those are important college experiences, and here I am stuck in my room for a long time.”

It’s a room she resists changing. “I haven’t redecorated. I’m still clinging to the idea that I won’t be here that much longer, even though I will be for at least the next four months.”

Conversely, when Annika Lucke, 23, moved home to Spokane last March, from her college apartment in Bellingham, she immediately redecorated her bedroom, so it looked more her like apartment at school, and less like her room in high school. “I didn’t want to revert back to that mentality,” she said. She created a more productive study space, and took down her Taylor Swift calendar.

Besides losing her freedom, for Prull, the biggest setback was the loss of artistic space and equipment. “At school I had all the resources available for my major. Back home, I had nothing.”

Well, except, an old empty barn in her backyard, which she converted into a studio. “I was super lucky.”

Prull went back to Tufts Aug. 29. After she has three negative COVID tests in one week, she can begin attending in-person classes.

While every student adapts to the college living upheaval differently, here are a few ways homes and families can make the unscheduled stay back home better for both parents and adult children:

· Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. After a child goes off to college, both the kids and the parents change, Janning said. When you’re all back together, it won’t be like it was before. Pay attention to the differences. Validate kids’ experiences away from home by not expecting them to follow the same limits (like curfew) that they did when they were in high school.

· Set and respect boundaries. College students need to talk to their parents about boundaries, said Abedin, like study needs, and do-not-disturb times. “Parents may want you to spend more time with them, but explain, these are my hours for study, and these are my hours for family.”

· Expect moodiness. Students are missing out on a part of life they had long looked forward to, and feel let down. Sadness, anger, resentment, frustration and anxiety are normal reactions. Talk about them.

· Change up chores. Everyone still needs to pitch in. After living on their own, kids often want to demonstrate their new independent living skills by taking on more household responsibility, so realign chores, like meal planning and cooking, to take advantage of that.

· Give the kids their space. Every child, regardless of age, needs a place in a home that is just theirs, Janning said. If you’ve already converted the child’s old bedroom to a gym, change it back, or give them another room that is all their own.

CAPTION: Artistic license -- After Tufts University told students they had to leave last March, art student Rachel Prull converted the barn in the backyard of her parents’ home in Walla Walla, Washington into an art studio. “I was super lucky.” Photo courtesy of Augusta Sparks Farnum.

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