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Challenge: Pandemic Parenting

How first-year college students got an even better education in ‘COVID University’

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And how we parents adapted through this crazy upheaval too.

If someone asks what you’ve learned this past year, what comes to mind? A new appreciation for so-called ‘normal’ life? How easily you took your ever-important loved ones for granted?

So much to learn from a pandemic... and I’m not talking about wearing masks, social distancing, and not touching your face.

In the beginning, I don’t think any of us pictured it going on this long. Yet here we sit, rounding a full year of constant hand-sanitizing, varying stay-at-home orders, and constant dread of catching or sharing a deadly virus.

The good news? Our kids have grown up in very real ways this year.

As some head off to college, just the process of getting there shows growth and determination. A newfound focus on what really matters.

That’s a win, in my book.

In Spring of 2020, we prepared the quads to head off to college during a global pandemic.

My list of concerns were quite different than the first two times around with my older daughters.

Back then I worried about bedspreads, dorm fridges and roommates. (I know it seems silly now, right?) My worries shifted to how many in-person classes, schools being shut down and mostly — their overall safety. How to not catch Coronavirus and end up quarantined in an isolation dorm.

Think back to your own college experience, or when you brought your child to college in ‘normal times.’ College life is all about gathering and the social scene. You never knew who you were going to meet in daily dorm life, with open dorm room doors and fellow students popping in and out. Football games, tailgating, study groups, staying up all night and devouring an entire pizza — all part of the fun.

In the usual preparation process for the big transition into college freshman life, students get a special orientation. It’s filled with information to get them adjusted and fun events to get them plugged into their new life.

As parents we also get ‘schooled’ at our own orientation to find out how we can best support them and let go. And no, it’s not daily Facetimes and texts. I can almost picture the rows of parents sitting in a packed auditorium as it starts sinking in… This is really happening.

The big piece of advice you hear over and over as a parent — “make sure your kids get involved with a club or organization and meet new people to avoid getting homesick.”

I kick myself for what I thought when I attended these events in ‘normal times.’ A 2-day orientation filled with what to expect? Such a drag and way too time-consuming. I thought, ‘whatever happened to just dropping your kid off at college and waving goodbye?’

If I only could go back and tell myself be careful what you wish for… In a pandemic, orientations were virtual. Students and parents didn’t get that important adjustment time.

In my first blog, I share how I was ready to experience some of these usual parenting rights of passage — x’s 4. As you already know, nothing went to plan or as we expected last year — except the x’s 4!

We started seeing how this time shaped all of us, as students and parents, into a better version than we ever imagined.

However, I didn’t immediately feel that way about it. By January of senior year, we felt pretty good about where everyone had decided to go. We’d done countless college visits, because if one of the quads was interested, we all went to check it out. At the time, I thought the hardest part was letting go of this hope that they’d all go to the same school. (Boy, was I wrong.)

When Shay decided to graduate high school early, move out and work as a page in our state capital, I rolled with it. Okay, so then one leaving home early would be the hard part of my year. We moved her in January 2020 for what we thought would be 5 months. (The laughter is all too loud in my head...) She’d come home for the summer, then head off to college. After all, she’s my biggest planner and the first to decide on her college and major, so it felt like a solid plan.

Until everything changed. Here comes Covid.

In March, as the Capital shut down, she moved home to announce “I think I’ll join the National Guard.” What? Now that’s a whole new level of worry as a parent. For those of you parents who’ve done it, or are going through it, hats off to you.

Next, McKenna changed her mind about both her major and school. Trying to pick a college with Zoom appointments and virtual visits should be easy, right? (No. I’ll just say it, not easy.) After deciding on a nursing school, we finally got to see it in-person a few months later. Nerves all-around, hoping she’d like it.

Well, at least Tori and Josie were going to the same college and that was still on track. Until Tori found out that all of her classes are online while Josie would get some in-person. Because in-person turned out to be really important, Tori decided on a different college in July.

Out of 4 of them, can you guess how many kept their original major or plan?

A whopping zero!

That’s very normal for kids already in college. We kinda expect some to not have it figured out, to change majors or switch schools.

Choosing and attending college during a pandemic sped up that growing process. It’s forced them to really examine and decide what’s important to them.

I found out by going to college in a pandemic it showed me that I can adjust to situations on the fly. I know what it is like to change my decisions and choices based on what is best for me - like switching colleges at the last minute.

— Tori, Western Iowa Tech Community College

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Although the new college experience feels like something from an apocalyptic movie, it’s teaching us parents and our kids so much.

As summer ended, move-in days arrived. First, you had to drop your child off at a Covid testing center. Fingers crossed they’d be negative and not have to start off with two weeks isolation.

Moving into the dorms, we got 1-hour time slots, staggered out by days and floors, with only one parent allowed to toss their belongings in their new room and be rushed out. This really did feel like ‘throwing them in the deep end.’ Now sink or swim. How could we possibly prepare them for this?

As the four girls headed down their different paths, I asked them to be mindful of how different this time in history was. To take photos and document what their first year attending college looked like during a global pandemic.

While all they know of the college experience is this, I hope they can look back and understand how tough they were by starting this new chapter in the midst of such a challenging time.

Going to school is a distraction from the pandemic because I’m too busy to think about it. Because I was at a smaller nursing school, I’m grateful to have my classes in person and clinicals to take care of patients.

— McKenna, St Luke's College

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For me, I expected getting used to an empty nest would be difficult. But it’s quite alarming to see your child’s video of people wearing white hazmat suits collecting a student from the dorm and carting her off in a special car to the isolation dorm.

Images of what I never imagined, things that feel like scenes from some apocalyptic movie, THAT’s their college experience. If you’re like me, we parents gain a new appreciation for the things we once took for granted.

For my child attending basic training, I would’ve normally worried about the physical and emotional toll. Now I pray that she remains Covid-free and hope she gets through the whole thing in good health.

Going to basic training and AIT (Advanced Individual Training) in the Army during a pandemic makes me appreciate I have a guaranteed job and that I’m going to help the country.

— Shay, Army National Guard

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The little things are what makes you happy. Seeing photos of them attending classes in-person, receiving the text ‘my covid test is negative,’ getting a letter from Shay, or hearing the sound of her voice on brief phone calls.

Why do I believe the class of 2020 college freshman are lightyears ahead of the typical college freshman?

They had to grow up much more quickly. Gaining independence isn’t just a term. They have to be much more self-reliant and resourceful in a new way of learning.

In an environment with thousands of students, they’ve been told to keep their circles small and stay distant from others. Their primary concern isn’t for themselves, but how they can keep themselves AND others safe. I don’t know about you, but in my college years, looking out for others wasn’t exactly at the forefront of college life.


Three things that were positive about going to college during a pandemic:

1 - I got to create a small community of friends that were supportive and safe

2 - I was able to attend events that I would not have been able to without a virtual options - like interview with Dan Levy and the APVMA symposium

3 - I got to work on school on my schedule instead of going to class all day long

— Josie, Iowa State University

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We parents can consider ourselves lucky in how much growing up occurred in this short amount of time. Not only did we gain a new perspective, but our kids had a complete mindshift as well. When they do get to experience college in a post-pandemic world, they will truly appreciate it and build on the strong foundation of what they’ve already accomplished.

While not ideal, attending college during a pandemic has provided me with opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. With classes almost entirely online, I am able to work more than I normally would. You are able to have control over where and when you complete your coursework.

— Cambree, South Dakota State University

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When they graduate, start their careers and head out into the real world, they’ll think, ‘hey I’m tougher than I thought and can handle just about anything.’ They have what they’re learning about themselves during a pandemic — and they’re going to just keep growing from here. I think that’s the real education.

As we near the end of the school year, whether your own children are in college, elementary, middle or high school, their experiences have been unusual.

What would their response be if you ask them what positive thing came out of education in this pandemic?

I bet we’d get some really insightful answers. I’d love for you to share them with me in the comments!


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