The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trying to find your people when all the people are gone

The campus at Northeastern University in Boston is a ghost town as Petula Dvorak’s son tours the campus.
The campus at Northeastern University in Boston is a ghost town as Petula Dvorak’s son tours the campus. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
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BOSTON — "This is where students would relax and study in between classes," I tell my son, sweeping my arm toward the great, green and totally vacant expanse of Harvard Yard.

“Imagine all the students in there, in a robotics lab or the AI lab,” I tell him, outside the dark and locked-down computer sciences building at Northeastern University.

And on we went, trying to make some educational, forward-thinking impact on the teen’s already-lost summer.

But it wasn’t a campus visit as much as it was a canvas visit.

Everywhere, cities are ghost towns and college campuses look abandoned. With boarded-up buildings and dark storefronts, empty benches and quiet quads, every place was a blank canvas where we wouldn’t be soaking up a vibe, but rather imagining life.

This meant that any kind of touring is a gamble. Will it be inspirational? Or even more depressing?

“No, I don’t care, Mom,” my kid said when I warned him that he’s not going to get a real feeling for any campus under these circumstances. “I just need to get away from my room. I need to know I’m not always going to be in that rooooooom.” Okay, then.

The drive alone — yes, it is possible to double-mask at turnpike bathrooms — was exciting enough after five months of lockdown among the same four humans and 20 trees. And we’d surely find some new country roads to try out his new learner’s permit.

Thought the DMV was bad? Now try it during covid-19

While we’ve been masking and sanitizing and distancing in honor of physical health and community well-being, the mental health of our kids is fraying.

The academic folks know this.

“Self-care is of high importance, especially in times of crisis,” wrote a group of academics from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in a letter to high school kids signed by more than 200 college admissions folks across the nation.

“We recognize that many students, economically struggling and facing losses and hardships of countless kinds, are simply seeking to get by,” the letter said. “We also recognize that this time is stressful and demanding for a wide range of students for many different reasons. We encourage all students to be gentle with themselves during this time.”

For us, lucky enough to have income and good health, it meant a careful trip to encourage forward thinking.

I mapped out a drive and checked hotels online for their covid-19 policies. I’ve dragged my kids to some serious fleabag hotels. “All we need is a bed and a shower,” they repeat after me, on some road trips where they dared screw up their faces at the wood-paneled, green-carpeted wonders we checked into.

But we upgraded to a fancier place that bragged about vigorous cleaning and even installed virus-killing UV-lighting in its HVAC system. Whoa.

“Mom. They have a robe and slippers here. I’ve never had a hotel robe,” the teen nearly squealed in a voice I hadn’t heard for months.

Yup, covid-19 pricing means you can have a fluffy-robe room for a plastic cup and paper-band-around-the-toilet-seat motel rate.

My Class of 2022 kid is really lucky when it came to the college thing.

The Princeton Review says that “visiting campus, talking to current students and trusting your gut instincts: the personalities, politics, and interests of the student body” is the key to finding the right fit for a college.

But most of America’s colleges closed their campuses just before the acceptance deadline for incoming freshman. That means the college-bound Class of 2020 got the raw deal in this pandemic. Now, those freshmen are still getting the shaft as they try to get the vibe and personality of a campus they gambled on through a computer. Every day, another college announces an online-only fall.

My son is in an in-between grind year as a high school junior. It’s a little early for campus visits, but anxiety about the future is not lost on these kids, and I wanted him to have a tangible feel for a post-covid life.

I wasn’t the only one with that brainstorm. I quickly found out that at least two moms in my circle made the same escape with their bored and wilted 16-year-olds this week.

They were in Virginia, where the College of William & Mary, Virginia Tech and James Madison University were verdant ghost towns. One mom said the University of Virginia was more populated.

“It’s not the usual student bustle, but there’s lots of people active related to the medical center,” she said. “It’s hard to see freshmen-aged folks. Everyone seems older.”

In-person college tours are suspended, of course. Most colleges have virtual tours supported by student-led virtual tours and discussions. Nice, but still not the same.

Can’t tour college campuses? There are other options.

No college in the area matched the gung-ho innovation of Becker College in Worcester, about 35 miles outside of Boston, where prospective students can get a car parade tour.

“The tour will be hosted via Zoom (so you can listen & follow along in your car) and presented by Admissions staff & one of our student admissions ambassadors,” its admissions office said on the college’s website. “You can listen and ask questions from the comfort of your vehicle! At this time, driving tours will showcase the exterior of the buildings only on both campuses.”

Alas, our tour dates missed the conga car line, but scanning the bar code on the window of the admissions office helped download a map and a virtual walking tour of the campus that sprawls across a residential neighborhood.

We walked, alone. A squirrel crossed our path.

The teen sighed at Walking Tour Stop 2, while looking into the window of the sleek student lounge — complete with old-style arcade games — where the digital media classes were once held. “I just want to find my people. I miss people.”

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

‘Vacationing while brown’ happens, this time at an expensive beach house

Ocean City doesn’t need senior week to host plenty of reckless behavior

‘Brown lives matter!’ protest triggers counterprotesters — and bigotry

Outside America’s big cities, they’re saying his name, too

He was finally ready to ask for help. Then the pandemic hit.