This article was originally published in the August 2018 Princeton Echo.
In American colleges, the academic year has a secret third half. You know about the first two — the fall semester, then the spring semester, both crowded with books and lectures. But then, here comes a surprise: the third half of the school year, the one that arrives on tip-toe in early May and for the next four months suddenly leaves students as abandoned as if on a darkling plain.
The reason is that colleges want to use dorm rooms for their summer programs. So undergraduates are expelled from campus and become academic refugees. They gather everything they can carry and fly all over the world to their original breeding grounds, where they will wait like migratory birds to fly back to their college rooms in September.
What’s more, they are not allowed to leave behind their year’s worth of accumulated debris. So armed with assorted garbage bags and laundry baskets, I am led into the haunts where our son has spent the past year with his three roommates. We collect his orphaned shoes and unmatched socks, take his books back to the library, and drag the second-hand couch with its sagging cushions out into the courtyard. Other funeral pyres of chairs, desks, and love seats are spontaneously rising across the campus. On the sidelines, cleaning crews hired by the university stand poised to scrub a year’s evidence of student life from the walls and floors.
Soon we are back on the street. That was the school year that was. Until September. Most students have worked hard and are ready for some fun in the nice weather. But here comes the real challenge of the Third Semester. Until now, their lives have been structured and ordered by their academic classes and activities. They did not have time to be bored.
No more. So most of them go home first. It’s often pleasant — for a day or two. But not everyone relishes the prospect of living with his or her parents for another four months. And parents are not eager to find a child regressing into puberty — sleeping late, emptying the fridge, ducking the chores.
In addition, not everyone can return to an accessible parental home. Sometimes it is in Syria or Afghanistan. Or there is no money for the flight. Or they worry they may not be allowed to re-enter the U.S. Some have summer jobs or studies in Mumbai or Seattle, where they will immerse themselves in a another life. Others just hang around, hopping from one summer job to another, trying to earn enough spending money to stay afloat
Quite a few students forget to arrange storage space for their personal belongings. As a result, you see them wandering through town like coolies, toting all their worldly possessions on their backs. Because we live near the Princeton campus and have a garage with extra room, there are a regular knocks on our door from our son’s friends. One is from a somewhat confused Connor, oddly wearing the bottoms of his Christmas PJs. He is leaving the next day to visit his mother, then he goes to see his father in Brazil, and then flies on to Madagascar for an internship. He has no idea what he is signed up for in Africa. Something involving photos in a nature park. Can he leave his lava lights, stereo, and computer devices with us? With a wistful look at the badminton net in our lawn, he tells us he worries about the summer. So long without his friends. So far away. And, worst of all, maybe he will have no internet connection in Madagascar.
Imagine, a migratory bird without his WiFi to guide him safely home.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.