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SUBURBAN DIARY

When freshman year turns into a lesson in solitary confinement

Holly West in her hotel room in Middleton, Wis.
Holly West in her hotel room in Middleton, Wis.

Four days after my daughter began her freshman year in college, she called me to share both the good and the not-so-good.

“I love my roommate and we’re having fun setting up our room,” she said. “My classes are going to be hard, especially Arabic. The lakefront is beautiful. It’s sort of exhausting meeting so many new people and finding my way around. Today I cried for 10 minutes and then felt better.”

Absent from her description was any mention of classes being held on a computer screen instead of a lecture hall, trying to remember names when the associated faces were half-covered by masks, or the mandatory biweekly appointment to have the inside of her nose swabbed. She wasn’t concerned with starting college during a pandemic. She was just airing the usual tensions of a new college freshman, far from home.

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“By mid-September, it will start to seem normal,” I reassured her. “In three weeks or so, everything that’s strange and new now will be a regular part of your life.”

And to some extent, I was right. Two weeks after arriving at school, she told me she was getting to know her way around the campus and had even explored the surrounding city a little bit. She’d started a job at a coffee kiosk in the student union and met with the professor of her most challenging class to talk about study strategies. She and her roommate had hosted a movie night for the girls in the adjacent dorm rooms.

But on the three-week anniversary of her arrival at college, the date I told her it would all begin to feel familiar, I got a different kind of phone call: the one in which she told me that her roommate had tested positive for COVID-19 and my daughter, as a result, was being quarantined.

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Just when I envisioned Holly starting to see college life as her new normal, she boarded a van that drove her to a hotel 20 minutes from campus. There she’d stay, alone and not allowed to leave her room, for two weeks.

“Two weeks alone in a hotel room with someone delivering meals every day,” sighed my sister when I told her of Holly’s plight. “Is it awful that I’m a tiny bit envious?”

I understood. For busy parents overwhelmed by the pressures of balancing their own jobs with their kids' virtual learning, two weeks of solitude in clean, comfortable, well-maintained surroundings with food delivery does sound somewhat irresistible.

But not for an 18-year-old who was just starting to get acclimated. Abruptly, rather than counseling my daughter through mild and typical college homesickness, I was trying to help her navigate the incomprehensible territory of two weeks of solitary confinement.

“It’s a really nice room,” my daughter reported the day she moved into the hotel. “I have two big beds and a desk. And a bathroom all to myself, after sharing one with five other girls for the past three weeks. And the food is better than at school.”

But she was all alone. She had every possible creature comfort she might need — not only a comfortable bed, hot water for showers, good food, but also movies, TV shows, and constant access to her friends via all the forms of technology that kids her age use — but zero contact with other humans.

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For as long as I’ve been a parent — maybe even ever since my own days as a homesick college freshman — I’d anticipated the extra support she might need when she first went away to school, and I was ready with good advice. Seek out new friends. Join clubs. Attend events. Participate in activities. I thought I had all the solutions for any problems she might face this fall.

But I never envisioned the challenge of being locked in a highway hotel for two weeks.

Still, solace appeared in unexpected places. A box of chocolate-covered strawberries sent by her grandmother; a coloring book from an aunt — Holly announced that she would tape each completed picture to the hotel room wall to personalize her space — groceries delivered to the front desk by her roommate’s thoughtful parents; phone calls from relatives and high school friends.

I wondered how she would look back on this. It was easy to imagine, as my sister implied, that someday maybe Holly will be an exhausted young mother juggling work and home life and dreaming of the time she had two uninterrupted weeks in a hotel with room service.

But it was also possible that she was more like a prisoner than we realized, and would struggle with the memory of this total seclusion, and the overwhelming loneliness that periodically overtook her despite the Facetime chats and online classes that populated her day.

Only a few weeks earlier, as Holly waved goodbye at the curb at Logan Airport and headed off to catch the first of two flights that would take her a thousand miles away to attend a university she’d never visited in a state in which she’d never set foot — because as with many high school seniors, she’d had to alter the final stretch of her college search once the pandemic hit, and chose her college sight unseen — I worried about how long it would take her to feel comfortable there.

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Holly West explored the University of Wisconsin Madison campus by electric bike the morning after her quarantine ended.
Holly West explored the University of Wisconsin Madison campus by electric bike the morning after her quarantine ended.

Not nearly as long as I might have predicted, was the answer. On a Friday morning in early October, after 15 days of isolation, she received the “all-clear” e-mail from the university and boarded the hotel shuttle that drove her back to campus.

Just over a month earlier, that same campus had been a strange unknown place. But after two weeks away, she already saw it as home.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.