For most of us college students, we have a few different ideas of what "home" means to us. For me, my hometown in Connecticut is the place where I grew up, went to school, and made my childhood friends. It has been "home" for all of my almost-21 years, but I had never really felt like I belonged there. On the other hand, I have found a second home in Williamsburg, VA., where I go to school. Over the past three years, Williamsburg has become a very special place to me, and I consider it to be my second hometown. After all, I spend 8 months out of the year there, have made my best college friends there, and have truly established a place in the community through my job, service, and patronage at all of the local coffee shops. During this time of year, I'd be finishing up classes, trudging through finals season, bringing projects to a close, and spending as much time as possible with my friends I likely won't see until the fall (going to a state school means the majority of my friends live in VA., and it can be hard to get together when we're all at home).
This year, though was supposed to be different, even before Covid hit. I, and many other college students were planning to spend this semester abroad, expecting to have one of those essential college experiences we had been preparing for for months, if not years. I have studied Chinese for 10 years, and this year I was planning on traveling to China for the first time ever. This trip was 10 years in the making, and I was so ready for the trip I thought would just put the cherry on top of my college experience. By mid-January, I was planning for my departure in February, having applied for and received my visa, bought my plane tickets, planned for my host family, and chosen my classes. In a twist that looking back I know was inevitable but in the moment was completely unthinkable to me, two weeks before I was supposed to leave and on the day I got back from visiting my friend in Spain, I got an email that changed my world. My program was cancelled.
Obviously, this was crushing for me. This experience that comes once in a lifetime had been taken away and there was nothing I could do about it. I had gone from planning to have China as my home for the next four months, and with the sound of that message being received, it disappeared before my eyes. After a few days of straight crying, I was told that I had to decide what to do with my semester within the next two days. I could go back to W&M, which was not even an option for me (not only would it be bad for my mental health, but I didn't have housing, classes had already started, and I would somehow have to get to VA from CT, move in, and start classes within the next few days), stay home for the semester and start my internship early, or do an alternative abroad program in London. Ultimately, I decided to go to London, a city I love, and do the similar program that had been created by my study abroad company.
Three weeks after that, I was in London, settling into my dorm, bonding with my new roommate and the 13 people on that program, and adjusting my expectations and plans for the semester. I started taking only Chinese classes in London (which is as bizarre as it sounds), as it was supposed to be the same China program but in London, started to going to local fitness classes, finding cute cafes, exploring my neighborhood, and going to my favorite places, as well as new places in the city. I made plans with a close friend who now attends university in London, and who I haven't seen in about 6 years, and booked my first travel excursion on the first weekend I had free.
Three weeks after I arrived, I was on the plane back to NYC, with the whole world having changed in what seemed like the blink of an eye. I had just settled in to London life, but before I could even begin to fully enjoy it, I was going home. Plans that were made were cancelled, I never did the traveling I had set up, and all of my new friends and I had to leave without ever really bonding. Let's recap: I'm from CT, go to school in VA, was supposed to be living in China, actually lived in London for three weeks, and now am back at home in CT for the foreseeable future. I've been home for just over a month, and I am just now beginning to feel less unsettled. My 21st birthday is in three weeks, and while I was planning for it in China, I was getting excited about it in London, but now will likely have to celebrate in quarantine in my home.
While I am very lucky by a long shot for the situation I'm in, I think that this feeling of displacement is completely natural no matter what situation we're in. As humans, we are creatures of habit and when that habit or lifestyle gets disrupted, we feel very unsettled and shaky. Especially for college students, so many of us have many different places that we call home, and to be away from that place of comfort can make us feel even more uncertain about this situation. For those of us planning for and expecting to make a new location our home for the next few months, our sense of place can be even further shaken up. Obviously, I have no solution to this--if I did, I'd be shouting it from the rooftops (at a 6-ft distance)--and I think that is just fine. But knowing that countless others are feeling the same way (as many of my friends are) sure helps me feel that I'm not in this alone. None of us are.