Sydney Grant was crushed.
The 18-year-old from Dix Hills had been planning to head off for her freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania when the call came in mid-August. The school was canceling all in-person classes in favor of online learning, to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Like thousands of other college students across the country, her fall semester will be spent taking courses from home.
Not that there’s anything wrong with having a little extra time with family, but many who graduated from high school last spring, as well as returning college students, were pumped up about the campus experience. Some, in fact, had already purchased décor, computers and even small items of convenience for their dorm rooms, connected with would-be roommates, and planned to participate in social groups, sports or activities. All this in addition to a commitment to dig in and hit the books.
But realities got in the way.
Forced to stay home, with their plans to dorm or live off campus on hold, students have been scrambling late in the summer to address a new challenge: creating personal learning spaces at home. For many, the first steps have included updating rooms to make them conducive to learning while offering a semblance of campus life.
"Sydney was devastated when she got the call," admitted her mother, Tedra Grant. "She had worked hard to get into an Ivy League school and had expectations as to what it might be like to live on campus. Her 20-year-old sister, Morgan, had already left for Barnard College of Columbia University, in New York City, and several of her friends had departed, too. But life is full of surprises — not all of them fun — and transitioning to full adulthood means dealing with whatever comes at you."
One way to move forward, Tedra suggested, might be to remake Sydney’s bedroom to look like a college dorm room. That, according to Sydney, turned out to be a great idea.
The mother-and-daughter team put their heads together and created a wall of photos, purchased new bedding and throw pillows, set up a little "Penn shrine," ordered a beanbag couch, and got a new rug. They also moved Sydney’s desktop computer and desk out of her bedroom and into Morgan’s room, where they created an office space she could share with her brother, Andrew, a 14-year-old high school freshman. Andrew Grant, 49, the children's father and Tedra's husband, also lives in the house.
"I thought it important to have a separate area for online learning," Tedra said. "That would allow Sydney to use her room for relaxing and hanging out while the office area could be her focus for online learning. With this setup, she won’t be cooped up in the same place all day long. It cost us $500 to spruce things up, but she can take everything to her new dorm when campus classes resume."
According to Sydney, who is on a premed track, setting up the new room helped lift her spirits. "We had already bought a lot of college stuff, so it was easy to set things up ‘dorm-style,’" she said. "The extra shopping was fun because I got to pick out exactly what I needed and I knew the kind of vibe I wanted to create.
"I especially like my new bedding; it’s white with a ruffled flower pattern and a clean vibe. All my pillows are different colors: orange, blue and mixed, to give things a Bohemian flair. I added a whiteboard, some small plants, and photos of my family and dog, Milo, to make things complete. Now I feel ready to make the most of things."
Space to study
Patrick Gillen and his son, Peter, of Babylon, decided to build a completely new room to accommodate the 18-year-old’s at-home learning lifestyle after Ithaca College, from which Peter hopes to graduate with a teaching degree, canceled campus classes.
"I was bummed to discover we would be learning online," said the younger Gillen, "especially while one of my friends was telling me how much fun he had setting up his dorm room in Florida. But this new room is helping. It doesn’t remedy everything, but it gives me my own space. My old room was cramped; this one is bigger and I’m enjoying moving in now. I painted it blue, moved in my bed, put up a whiteboard, and I’ll be adding posters and an Ithaca pennant to the walls. I have a folding table for my computer and desk. I’m sure I’ll add more stuff as I get settled."
As Patrick Gillen explains it, the move is good for the entire family. Peter’s room was near his parents' bedroom and, anticipating Peter will be up working late, the shift downstairs also made sense because Patrick runs the family’s fishing business and must awake at 4 each morning to skipper the Captain Gillen fishing boat at Captree State Park.
"We had a contractor put up walls," said the senior Gillen, "but we wanted Peter to paint, move the furniture and make this room his own. We thought it important he fix it up to his own specs, within reason, of course, but we don’t mind offering a little guidance. Ultimately, we wanted to give him the best opportunity to succeed, and we wanted to help him feel a little better about his situation. Will it help his learning? That’s the hope. I guess we’ll see."
Two students, one home
The Bram family, of Huntington, meanwhile, was faced with a dual challenge, Sheri Bram said. "My son, Alex, is 18 and supposed to be at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but he’s online this fall. Also, my daughter Rachel is a graduate student at Simmons University in Boston, and she’s home, too. Both would be using the same small living room desk, so we figured we’d give Alex his own space. We set up a 6-foot folding table in his room for his computer, and to serve as a desk, and that seems to be working out fine."
Sheri Bram said she’s fortunate her kids are resilient, resourceful and able to make do with simple things when necessary. "It’s also great that they get along," she laughed. "For now, Rachel will continue to use the living room desk, and Alex will work in his bedroom. We didn’t think it necessary to buy all new stuff because, hopefully, this pandemic will be over in a semester or two."
Rachel, 22, who is pursuing dual master's degrees in history and library science, is already settled in and working. "When my parents picked me up from school last spring, we took home most of my stuff in case classes were canceled this fall," she said. "In my work area I keep some small items from my college apartment, and a photo of friends. It’s sparsely decorated, but that’s how I am in general. I’m sure this will work out fine."
These kids were born with everything crashing around them, notes Sheri Bram. "First the World Trade Center, now this pandemic — but they manage to remain positive and find things to appreciate despite their situation. We feel very lucky and realize that not everyone is. We have a roof over our heads, we have our health, and our family gets along so well. Whether they learn here or at school in the future, we’ll get through this."
Sydney Grant agrees. "I really want to experience campus life," she said, "but I think my school made the right decision. In the end, it’s not so bad. Here at home, I’ll keep my lifeguard and tutoring jobs, get to spend time with family, eat great meals, and feel safe and loved every day. That should help keep me smiling until things return to normal."
Tips for at-home learners
Kate Singer, interior designer
Kate Singer Home, nwsdy.li/kates
- It’s important to allow young adults to express their own style in planning their own learning/living spaces. Doing so encourages independence even when living at home.
- A comfortable desk with good lighting and organization is key for online learning. A little privacy and quiet make things more conducive to learning.
Fran Bardio, Massapequa Park
Moderator, Dorm Chatter (Facebook Group)
- Allowing young adults to personalize their rooms (within reason) with photos, posters, etc., fosters pride in their living/learning space.
- IKA Frakta bags are great transport and storage bags. Whether at home or school, every college student should own a few.
Sydney Grant, Dix Hills
University of Pennsylvania freshman
- Get organized. That’s the first step toward successful learning in any environment.
- Less is more. Don’t buy furniture that is uncomfortable just because it’s aesthetically pleasing.
- Make your own choices when it comes to style. This is, after all, your room.
Where to find dorm information
The Facebook Site Dorm Chatter (nwsdy.li/chatter) covers items of dorm interest for students living both on campus and off. The site covers everything dorm-related including where to shop, setting up your room and dealing with roommates. Many topics and tips can be applied to learning from home.
Where to shop
Bed, Bath and Beyond has an inspired new section dedicated to helping parents and college students redesign childhood bedrooms as remote learning spaces:
Bed Bath and Beyond (College at Home); nwsdy.li/bbb