Being a College Student at Home Means a Lot of Family Time

The pleasures of home cooked meals are tempered by cramped quarters and less independence. 

Mark Kearney wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning to log into Zoom classes from his childhood bedroom. By noon, classes are over, and he buckles down for an afternoon of homework and studying. At night, he spends time with his family or watches an episode of the latest Netflix series he’s hooked on.

Though Kearney has been living at home in San Francisco since March, he’s enrolled remotely at Georgetown University, on the East Coast, this fall — hence the early mornings. The sophomore is one of a handful of students SF Weekly spoke with to understand what it’s like to be a college student living at home, rather than on campus, during the COVID-19 era. Some cited health concerns as reason for not returning to their college towns, others deemed it financially prudent. A common denominator among their descriptions of living at home? Routine — and a lot of family time. 

“The routine of seeing the same people every day and going to class by [myself] in the same room every day has been particularly challenging,” Kearney says.

But there have been moments of joy, too — the chance to reconnect with high school friends and extended family, the opportunity to explore the Bay Area in a uniquely tourist-free period. It’s a semester nobody envisioned for themselves when packing up for spring break last March — but, on balance, that hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing.

Financial considerations factored prominently into many students’ decisions to live at home this fall. Harris Rutherford, a sophomore at UC Santa Cruz, decided to stay in the city this semester, explaining that it was impractical to pay room and board during a socially-distanced semester when living at home was free.

Though he’s in the same time zone as his professors, he still finds it more challenging to succeed in remote classes than he did on campus.

“I’m doing online classes and labs right now from the comfort of my bed, surrounded by pillows,” Rutherford says. “But it definitely affects your grades and how much you’re learning. I definitely think it’s easier to learn in class.”

Figuring out what to do with extra pillows is hardly the only hurdle students have faced while learning from home. Technology issues and a dearth of private space made the transition to remote schooling challenging for some. Alina Wan, a junior at UC Santa Barbara from San Jose, said that she initially struggled to adjust her on-campus routine to her family’s needs, scheduling around household meal times and overlapping Zoom calls. The Wans’ WiFi network sputtered trying to support so many devices at once — a problem, she said, they overcame by plugging one computer into an ethernet cable. 

Emily Lo, a senior at UCSB, told SF Weekly that her biggest barrier to succeeding in online coursework from home has been a lack of motivation and structure. In her off-campus apartment, she said, responsibilities like grocery shopping and laundry, plus the presence of studious housemates, kept her on track. But while alternating between Santa Barbara and her family home in San Leandro over the spring and summer, she found that living at home caused her to “regress” into a less-independent version of herself, one with fewer young-adult responsibilities and more caretaking from her parents.

The students SF Weekly spoke to described largely privileged experiences. Their pandemic problems, while no less valid, are not the gargantuan roadblocks staring down some students — especially low-income students and students of color — around the country, such as food insecurity, financial instability, and lack of access to in-home computers and the internet.

This unplanned, extended return from campus has presented unanticipated upsides, too. Lo says that she has appreciated the opportunity to get to know her little brother better, who at age 12 is nearly a decade her junior. Rutherford has enjoyed reconnecting with high school friends who made similar decisions to stay in the city this fall. For Kearney, the best part about living at home again has been his mom’s cooking.

“The food here is so much better,” he says with a laugh.

And all the students — who had spent between one and three years living away from their families prior to the pandemic — commented on the experience of spending so much time in their hometowns since March.

Cities around the country saw a decrease in traffic during spring lockdown orders, and San Francisco was no different. Rutherford said he took advantage of this change throughout the summer, biking to his Potrero Hill job when he might’ve taken public transportation in pre-pandemic times, and riding across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County with friends on the weekends.

“It’s so much easier to navigate the city and see parts that you wouldn’t usually see,” Rutherford says.

By contrast, Wan feels that the pandemic hasn’t afforded her new avenues of local exploration — not for lack of trying, but, she says, for lack of opportunity. She feels that her hometown lacks COVID-friendly recreation options for young people, and says that “if anything, [the pandemic] has reinforced that there isn’t much to do in West San Jose.”

And Kearney, who has sought variety and nuance in a semester defined by routine, remarked on a less-tangible change in the city. In his daily walks and runs, taken to break up the monotony of endless Zoom lectures, he says he’s observed his fellow residents acting a “little bit more guarded and avoiding interaction” since COVID-19 struck — a byproduct of CDC social-distancing guidelines, but also perhaps a symptom of a uniquely 2020 breakdown of communal engagement and trust.

“I did see a new side of San Franciscans that I wasn’t used to, which was interesting.”

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