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Advice for New College Students From a Recent GradCambria Pilger
Last summer, when I looked ahead to the fall of 2020, I worried that the pandemic would continue (it did), that my sophomore year would be changed by it (it was), and that I wouldn’t be able to live on campus.
Fortunately, I did have the option to return to campus but most of my other worries, fears and dreads came to pass. Life went on; I continued online classes and was beyond grateful to attend two classes in person. But things were hard. So many people didn’t return, and campus felt empty without them. I stopped noticing the mask on my face, learned to recognize others with their masks, followed socially distanced dots on floors instead of looking up, got used to closed libraries, got good at spitting just the right amount into the COVID test kit. I stopped noticing how deserted the campus looked because, eventually, that started to feel normal.
When COVID-19 case numbers got worse, the university closed the dining halls and my habits changed again. I slept, studied, attended zoom classes, took exams, and now ate meals in my room. Cold weather made seeing friends harder since we could only safely hang out together outdoors.
Without the usual positive social interactions, walks around campus, and libraries to study in, I felt more gloomy and burnt out each day. Thankfully, things got better second semester — I had the amazing scientists working on vaccines, my friends and spring weather to thank for that. And so I made it through my pandemic sophomore year.
In one of my very first college classes the fall of freshman year, the professor told us to pay attention. For first-year students, everything is still fresh and exciting. We are startled and thrilled when green trees we’ve walked past each day suddenly turn bright yellow. Sophomores recognize us by the way we don’t yet know the right pattern for navigating the dining hall, and how we look at maps on our phones to find a building. We wonder what clubs are like, how cold it will get, who our closest friends will be.
At the time, I figured this newness was a phase I should try to get through as quickly as possible. Wouldn’t it be better when I knew what I was doing and where I was going? My professor saw it differently. “You are still in wonder,” he told us, “and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Recently I read a book about memory. It explained that we remember best what we make meaningful, the most unfamiliar things that happen each day, and what we pay attention to. I remember the first time I toured campus as a prospective student, and I remember freshman move-in. I remember leaving abruptly in March 2020 when the university closed because of the pandemic, then returning to get my belongings. I remember FaceTiming friends. I remember feeling thankful for my family’s health.
We forget what we don’t pay attention to. We forget familiar, habitual actions, like brushing our teeth, making coffee, and driving to work each day. I forget most of the times I got back to my freshman dorm room. After my first few nights studying in the campus library, I forget all the other nights. I forget the second time eating at that restaurant everyone recommended. I forget what I did with my time back at home at the start of the pandemic.
It makes sense I forget so many of those repetitive days in quarantine a year ago because day to day, nothing changed. No meaningful moments advanced my life story.
Back on campus last fall, I remember the first time I accidentally left my room without a mask, but I don’t remember the second time. I don’t remember every time I ordered food online and picked it up to take back to eat in my dorm room.
I do remember getting both of my vaccines and dancing to music in my seat in my roommate’s car on the way back. I remember my first normal move-out and how exhausting it was. I can tell you exactly what the tent the university put up for COVID testing looks like, and what the field it’s on looked like when it was only grass.
This fall, I’ll get a chance to experience another, more familiar new. Classes will resume in person. Everyone on campus will be vaccinated. People who stayed at home will return. A new crop of first-year students will learn how it is, sophomores will learn how it once was, and juniors like me will learn how it has changed.
I’ll recognize all the buildings; I’ll remember the secret color of the trees. But in many ways, I’ll return to the state my professor told us to cherish. I’ll have to readjust. I’ll have to pay close attention to find a new pattern. I’ll learn where I can sit again, where I can return to. That's before the muscle memory kicks in, before it all becomes automatic, before life again becomes normal. Until then, I’m left to wonder.
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