Spreading their wings

Moving out of the family home is a rite of passage — which COVID-19 has delayed — for many young people

Moving out is a rite of passage that for many, COVID-19 has delayed.


Olivia Beak-Brown had it all planned out. She and a friend had applied to be roommates at the University of Ottawa for the school year starting in fall 2020. It was going to be her first time living away from home and it was going to be exciting. Then in March of 2020, COVID-19 shut everything down. “I was really disappointed,” says Beak-Brown. “I could have gone and lived in residence, but you’d be restricted to your room and all your classes were online, so there wasn’t much point.” Her mother, Margot Beak, was disappointed as well. “I went to college in Toronto and lived in residence,” says Beak. “It was a great experience and I made friends for life. Olivia is studying nursing — just like her grandmother — and I was hoping that she’d get the same opportunity. There was no prom, no graduation — none of the milestones for leaving high school, so living in residence was going to hopefully make up for those losses,” says Beak, who lives in Ottawa.

Although saddened by not having the residence experience, Olivia has plans to rent an apartment with a friend for third year. “It won’t be quite the same,” she says, “but it will be nice to be independent and really making my own decisions.”

Excited, but a bit nervous, is how Emma Charland describes the year she’s about to embark on at Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. “I’m still getting my head around the fact that I’ll be a 14-hour drive from home,” says Charland. “And it will be my first time away from home.  I’m lucky that I have family and friends living nearby in Nova Scotia, but I’m still a bit nervous.” She chose Acadia over Dalhousie to study psychology because she liked the idea of a smaller university and that it would feel less overwhelming. Like Beak, Emma’s mother, Kate Martin-Charland is hoping that living in residence and having that experience will make up for the lost high school experiences.  “I think it’s great that she’ll be there for frosh week and be able to socialize and meet new people,” says Martin-Charland. “We’re all fully vaccinated, and the Atlantic bubble did keep COVID cases down, so it feels pretty safe. We’re sure going to miss her, but we already have her ticket booked to come home for reading week.”

Emma Charland shows off her Acadia sweatshirt.

For years, Chad McKenzie, assistant director of Facilities and Operations at Carleton University Residences has been reassuring anxious parents and nervous students. “I get it,” says McKenzie. “Many of these students have never been away from home on their own before or in a different city, so it can be daunting. And every year, these new students seem to be younger and younger.”

McKenzie says the residences are designed to run and operate like a home environment with plenty of support in place for students. And there are multiple professional staff members who live on campus and support each residence building; counsellors available for students to talk with; a nurse on campus; and even the maintenance team is there to fix anything and be supportive.  “Once parents see the residences, I think they are relieved,” says McKenzie. “They see that the rooms are clean, that the dining hall has a dietitian who can help with any food issues, and that we’ve doubled-down on touch-point cleaning following guidelines from Ottawa Public Health.” The first night in residence is a resources night, so new students get to meet the residence fellows and learn what they need to succeed. He says that by the end of that move-in day, most parents’ concerns are calmed. “And usually by then,” chuckles McKenzie, “the students are eager for their parents to leave.”  

Give your university- or college-bound student a good send off, says Dr. Sarah Pantin, psychologist at Gilmour Psychological Services. “These students missed out on so many rituals in high school like graduation and a prom, so have a party — they deserve it.” Pantin understands that students might be nervous moving away and heading to campus, but this is all part of the normal experience of growing up. “This is just a bigger version of all the transitions that students make throughout their schooling,” says Pantin. “The best thing a parent can do is to be supportive. Remind your son or daughter that you’re there to help make it work. Send a care package and stay in touch — there’s certainly the technology available to do that. And remind them if things aren’t turning out quite as planned, it’s normal too.”  She suggests that students sign up with any health services available on campus, as there is always someone to talk to. “Most students will do just fine,” says Pantin. “They’ll make new friends and the support teams available at universities are there to help as well.

It’s the parents that are going to find it harder to adapt this fall, says Pantin, “because they’ve had their child around at home for the last year because of COVID.”