Tuesday, December 7, 2021

How We Decided to Send Our Only Son Off to College Far Away from Home during the Pandemic: Part 1

 Biljana D. Obradović

We began preparing for my only son’s college in his eleventh grade. His high school, Benjamin Franklin, the best public high school in the state of Louisiana, was great in letting us know how to do it. There were all kinds of sessions for parents and visits by different colleges from all around the country and the world. Since I am an immigrant, originally from Europe, we thought about his going abroad, maybe to Trinity College, or to American colleges in Paris or Rome. Some of my son’s friends were thinking of going to Canada. As we travel overseas each year and spend a substantial time during our summer breaks in “the old country,” I knew right away that I would not be OK with our son living overseas on his own for college. There would be too many unknowns.  If I needed to get to him, I could not, and what if he got sick? I just was not prepared for that. He could go for a semester abroad during his undergraduate years, but even though he had never been away from us for more than a few days, I knew that he should go anywhere he wanted to in the US. We are not from New Orleans originally, not even from the South (my husband is from Pennsylvania), so we’d let him go anywhere he wanted to…well, sort of. He, on his own, opted not to even look at schools in California and the West for his undergraduate studies, but would keep that area in mind possibly for his graduate study.

But, to get back to how our son made his college choices….Either our son, my husband or I went to these school college events. We took detailed notes that we shared with each other and our son when we could, when we were not busy teaching Creative Writing and English classes at two different universities in New Orleans. We’re both poets. So it was rather a surprise that, out of the blue, our son got interested in filmmaking, on his own, in eighth grade at the private school we sent him to from K-8th grade. He began to make short stop motion movies with his Legos. He was always creative—not much of a surprise. But making movies?

Why not? We suggested that he could try to get into the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. He prepared a film for the audition on his own and got in, but was on the waiting list, so he had to wait a year. He made another and got in his sophomore year, then spent three years going to both high schools. He knew what he wanted to study in college his junior year. He was always interested in History and Geography, and loved flags…Also both of his grandfathers were diplomats, and his paternal grandmother is an immigrant like me. So, he decided that he would double major in Filmmaking and International/Global Affairs. So now that that was settled, we needed to find colleges that had both of those as majors and/or minors.

The World Wide Web is too wide. We weren’t sure where to look. So, in October 2019, of my son’s junior year I bought a great book on colleges in the US: The Complete Book of Colleges, 2020 Edition: The Mega-Guide to 1,359 Colleges and Universities (College Admissions Guides) published by the Princeton Review. It was very useful, but didn’t have the majors separated….So, I also borrowed a book from the local library which showed universities by the majors. So you could look at Filmmaking and it showed all the colleges in the US (and some overseas) that had the major. Not every university called each major the same thing, so sometimes it was Global Studies, sometimes something else, like International Affairs, but often it was the same thing or similar…We picked a bunch of colleges that had both majors, and that we knew by reputation; after all both my husband and I are college professors. Then we looked at each one in the other book, the one I had bought, and we began comparing, and then on their websites. Some of the universities had come to my son’s school campuses—both of his schools had college visiting them, so he had talked to people from some of the schools we were looking at already. The city also had a big college fair and I went to check it out, got a lot of handouts, lots of information.

Things were progressing smoothly… When my son and I visited my mother-in-law for Easter that year in Philadelphia, my son’s first cousin showed him around the campus of the University of Pennsylvania where she and her two siblings were at college. We had visited some other schools in the past on our own. So we decided to visit the colleges in Louisiana first, right at the start of the school year. There was only one possible school our son would be interested just two hours away by car from us (he could come home on weekends!), and it would practically be free tuition as our son would qualify for the in-state funding for colleges—

Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). But, it was in a smaller city, and the opportunities for filmmaking and for being exposed to world views at the school just didn’t seem to be there…So that was another reason for our son to go elsewhere. Most of his classmates from the private school days were going to LSU. He had wanted to go there when he was four, but definitely not anymore. He was never interested in sports…  

We decided during the winter break that our son and I would go to visit my friends in Indiana at the end of February 2020, so we could look at some colleges in the Midwest. We booked our flights. But in January, something unexpected happened. There was a virus called Corona Virus spreading like wild fire all around the world. A few cases had already been detected in the US. I looked for facial cloth masks on the internet and found a package of three black ones that arrived just in time for us to get on the plane for Chicago. Nowhere else could you find masks for sale. No one except for the two of us had masks on the plane or at the airport. Everyone looked at us like we were total weirdos.

We had been to Europe in summer of 2019, first to the “home country” and then to the South of France and then to Paris following the steps of the Impressionist painters.  After we returned, our son got very sick. He had a very high fever for nine days that would not go away and he also a rash on his body. The epidemiologist at the Children’s Hospital looking at his lung X-ray told us he had dots on his lungs. Our son was being attacked by some unidentifiable bacteria. It was a scary time. Everywhere we had gone to in France, there were mostly Asians wearing masks over their faces and gloves on their hands. Did they know something we did not? Once our son recovered and the dots disappeared from his lungs, I wasn’t going to chance anything, so we put on those new, black masks, just in case. When our friends picked us up from the airport, they were shocked to see us wearing the masks, not realizing that mask-wearing would soon become part of our everyday lives. We toured the universities and were the only ones wearing masks at each school. We visited ten universities there.

Those were the last ones we would visit due to COVID restrictions, but we did not know that at the time. We had to do virtual tours from then on as COVID spread drastically. One could not travel anywhere…But we managed and made up our minds eventually. We never visited the school our son would eventually attend before he made up his mind to go there. In fact, we had not flown anywhere (not to Europe, that’s for sure), until he and I got a plane to New York City in August 2021 for him to begin his college on Long Island in person, now vaccinated, but still wearing a mask. We took AMTRAC in June to NYC for his orientation, and to leave seven bags with an old friend from the American school I went to in Greece who lived close by. What are friends for during difficult times then to help each other…Even though I had not seen him in twenty years, he picked us up with his truck, loaded the bags, kept them for two months, and when we came in August helped us move my son into his dorm. Amazing!

All was well…except that Hurricane Ida had other ideas. She appearing suddenly while my son and I were busy moving him in. My husband stayed home.  Ida hit New Orleans on August 29th, 2021, sixteen years to the day of Katrina which had destroyed the first floor of our house and everything in it (including all of our two-year old son’s baby toys), so that we could not live there for a year. I didn’t know what to do. I was in a hotel room by myself when PTSD hit me. Would we lose our house again? Would we lose our jobs? How will we pay for our son’s college then? I was stranded. I could not go back to New Orleans. The airport was closed The power was out.…Who knows how long it would take before I could go back. I immediately called my Indiana friends, and they said to come stay with them. I rebooked my flight and flew to Chicago. I found out from my husband that our house was OK, except for a few living-room leaks, and shingles off the roof, the bent fence. He saved our furniture, rugs, floors, by being there…But the city was not OK and would take a while for things to be OK again. But the levees held this time. We did not get flooded this time.

I suddenly realized we had made the right decision for our son. He was safe (even though two days later Ida flooded basements of three friends in New York and New Jersey, who had kindly offered for me to stay with them, including the friend who had kept my son’s bags). My husband endured 90 degrees heat for a week. I was in Indiana for eight days before I could fly home to the piles of debris in front of our house...

In the meantime, at Midway airport, my friends greeted me wearing masks. Ah, what irony! 

On a train in Chicago on the way to visit Northwestern, February 2020, wearing ,masks

My son’s suitcases for college piled up on the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to his dorm.

Safe with my friends in Indiana walking by Lake Michigan.

Dr. Biljana D. Obradović, a Serbian-American poet, translator, critic, Professor of English, who was recently Head of the English Department at Xavier University of Louisiana, who has a Ph.D. In English from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from VCU in Richmond, VA, has published four collections of poems, most recently Incognito (Cincinnati: WordTech Press, January 2017), two translations of collections of poems—into English from Serbian (Bratislav Milanović; Zvonko Karanović, Sleepwalkers on a Picnic, Dialogos Press, 2020), five into Serbian from English (John Gery, Stanley Kunitz, Patrizia de Rachewiltz, Bruce Weigl, and Niyi Osundare), and two anthologies of poems, the most recent co-edited with Dubravka Djurić, Cat Painter: An Anthology of Contemporary Serbian Poetry (New Orleans: Dialogos Press, Oct. 2016). She has also edited a collection of essays by Philip Dacey, Heavenly Muse: Essays on Poetry (Lavender Ink, 2020). An issue of Atlanta Review, Summer 2021 was devoted to Serbian poetry that she co-edited with Dubravka Djurić and mostly translated herself. She is currently working on a new collection of her own poems and a new translation of selected poems by Dubravka Djurić.