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The New Normal

The Urban Dictionary defines it as “The current state of being after some dramatic change has transpired. What replaces the expected, usual, typical state after an event occurs.” No situation in my life compares to the change that has and continues to occur, resulting from COVID 19. Although there really isn’t a new normal yet, I believe there are indications of positive outcomes from students currently enrolled in higher education. Although many changes occurred suddenly, without a lot of planning and assurance that everything would work out well, the families I spoke with say their college students are resilient, accepting, and continue to maintain focus on what they believe to be important.

Both my son and daughter returned from their respective institutions of higher education within two days of each other. Johns Hopkins University issued an email on Tuesday evening, March 10, stating that students needed to pack their belongings and return home as soon as possible with a possible return date of April 12. On Thursday morning, my son was safely home by noon with two packed bags, mostly school supplies, his Xbox, of course, and enough clothes to last a couple of weeks at home. At the end of his first week home, he asked me if I could do the laundry a little more frequently since he had been wearing the same underwear for two days. After a good chuckle, I realized that I was still in empty nest mode and that he packed for home as though he was going to return within a reasonable timeframe.  A week later, students were expected to remain home through the end of the semester, with their belongings professionally packed up and stored off-site to be retrieved at some unknown future date. I asked my son whether or not this would be a problem for him, and his response was not immediate, but thoughtfully replied, “I have everything I need.” I think he is pleasantly surprised by how little he actually needs. However, I may be cutting off his pant legs and long sleeves for summer wear soon.

My daughter, a senior attending UW Madison, returned on Saturday, March 14, after a last night bar hopping with friends that she felt she deserved since our family decided to forgo our Spring Break trip scheduled to begin that same day. Albeit not the best decision, she managed to get through that night unscathed, but we promptly sent her into a 14-day stay-at-home, mostly in her room that we converted into a guest room with her cat, quarantine. It was torture at first, mostly for my husband and me because we responded to her every beck and call, and then for her, once she realized that she would trade anything for the freedom to leave our house and our rules. After those two weeks were over, and she emerged from her room, ventured outside for walks with our dogs, and hikes along various local trails, she has become such a joy to be around. I would like to think it is because she was feverish and not herself in the early weeks, but that would not be true. I asked her what changed, and she said, “I just realized that the situation was out of my control, and giving in just meant slowing down enough to realize how good life really is each day…especially when you are cooking my meals and doing my laundry.”

I asked several friends whose children have also come home from college what notable things they have witnessed or experienced with their sons or daughters. I heard a number of stories that also leads me to believe that a positive new normal may be emerging. Some were just plain hysterical. Some students had experiences with “Zoombombing,” but one friend told me that her son had a group of boys moon a lecture he was attending online, which, although terribly disruptive, made me laugh a little, imagining my own college pranks. Another mother told me that her son moved back in their home from his residence hall literally five miles away at St. Norbert College, but was determined to have his own space, so he holed up in the basement bedroom to have more space to spread out, with his Xbox, of course. They didn’t see him for the first week, not even to eat because there was a lower level kitchenette in the house. During the second week, he decided that family dinners would be tolerable. By the third week, he not only came up for every meal, he initiated and implemented a family “game time” each day. At a specific time each day, they would eliminate all external distractions, essentially shutting everything electronic off, and interact in highly engaging, face to actual face, friendly competition. What a novel idea, right?

Another friend expressed that her daughter, a biomedical engineering student at Boston University, had difficulty adjusting to having all of her classes, especially labs, taught online for several reasons, one of which was just logistical. She could not stay connected to her virtual classroom at first since home internet service is typically based on a relatively mediocre WIFI connection. She had a brother home from school as well as one of her parents working from home at the same time, which made matters worse.  Determine to succeed with the new teaching pedagogy, she developed protocols for use of the family WIFI based on everyone’s individual needs. First and foremost, cell phones could not be connected to the WIFI, using cellular connection exclusively.  Second, streaming music, video, TV, or anything elective, was reserved for after 5 PM each day. Each person was limited to one device connected to WIFI at any given time, and a central schedule of live virtual classes (not recorded) was shared so that other online activity could be scheduled accordingly. Although most all students are tech-savvy when the internet is working just fine, it takes some resourceful, collaborative problem solving skills to successfully use technology in less than ideal circumstances.

As an optimist as opposed to a researcher, I see these experiences as positive responses to changes occurring rather rapidly right now. While this is a small group of students that I am referencing, I know them all well, and their actions, beliefs, and values are similar to what is characteristic of Generation Z. They are independent, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy, accepting, and embrace change, to name a few. These student’s behaviors certainly represent some of these characteristics in ways that seem different, and somehow improved, from what I have witnessed previously. They are finding their new normal in space that can be anywhere, using the same tools they know well, learning new things online as well as in person with their families, and thriving as long as specific criteria are met. A good morning’s sleep, free and accessible meals, a long hot clean shower, a comfortable pair of sweats, and a place to focus when needed are essential because some aspects of college life never change regardless of location. However, the pace of life seems to have slowed to the point that they notice things they otherwise may not have, accept the situation for what it is, reflect on what is most important, and respond accordingly. In other words, adapt.  In my opinion, that is a life skill that is not easily taught. Without this current crisis, this generation may not have acquired this incredibly valuable skill, at least not during this time of intense learning. I hope it sticks.

If you are interested in additional content on higher education click here or email Carolyn Glime with your thoughts.


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