By P.J. Morales
Garrett Geidel was fed up.
What started out as a spring break trip back home to Camden, Delaware in March 2020 had become one of the longest years of his life. Not only had the UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore lost the remainder of his first-year college experience to the COVID-19 pandemic, he also hadn’t seen his friends in months. And with the virus still raging in August, the prospect of an in-person second-year experience didn’t seem realistic either.
Still, Garrett tried. He and his friend John Meah, also a sophomore, got a suite in Morrison Residence Hall and moved in before the semester began, determined to squeeze every last drop of fun out of the reduced-capacity, socially distanced campus. But a couple weeks and a couple virus clusters later, even those hopes faded.
But Garrett was determined not to go back home. The thought never even crossed his mind.
What did cross his mind was Sussex County in southern Delaware, where he had lived and worked the previous summer in an ice cream shop. After a conversation with his parents, the dream plan started to come together.
“My parents were like, ‘we would much rather you guys go live there,'”Garrett said. “‘You can still be separate from your families, but we won’t have you pay rent.’”
It would be a hard sell to Garrett’s friends. They could spend the semester in a house with four of their closest friends, rent-free, minutes from the beach and with no parental supervision whatsoever, or they could stay home.
Okay, so maybe there wasn’t much haggling.
“I pretty much right away wanted to do it,” Garrett’s friend, Thomas Harley, said.
From dream to reality
When all was said and done, Garrett, John, Thomas and two more sophomores — Guillermo Molero and RJ Jain — made the trek to the rural mid-Atlantic for the semester. Thomas, Guillermo and RJ, all from South Florida, had stayed home when the semester began, fearful of a campus shutdown. All were desperate to be with their friends, though, so the yeses came quickly.
But Garrett’s parents weren’t without their concerns. When Garrett said it’d probably be five people sleeping in a house that only comfortably fits three, they expressed doubt, but eventually gave in. There were also the normal parent worries: “stay focused on school” and “this isn’t a vacation.” But the hardest one of all? No alcohol — every college student’s worst nightmare.
Once all the doubts were ironed out and a dry household was ensured, everyone booked their flights, and by mid-September, there they were: five kids from across the country, all UNC students, living in a shack in Delaware.
And what a small shack it was, especially for five college guys.
‘Just a matter of living habits’
RJ was the lucky one with his own bedroom, though it was originally designed to be an infant’s nursery. Guillermo and Thomas shared a bedroom, while Garrett and John shared the master bedroom. Garrett pushed his king-sized bed to the side, giving John just enough room to have a small corner setup, which he claimed was fine.
“I don’t take up very much space,” John insisted.
The space John was much more concerned about was not in the bedrooms, but in the kitchen, which was too small. With limited space and differing tastes, the guys quickly learned how to utilize every inch of cupboard and cabinet. Between pizza rolls, frozen meals and pints of ice cream, even the freezer became a warzone.
Thomas, admittedly, was also not as organized in the kitchen as he should’ve been, much to the chagrin of his housemates. After some time, though, he was able to adjust to everyone’s individual ways of living.
“Those are the types of things you work out as you live together for longer and longer,” Thomas said. “Sometimes it’s harder to work through stuff when you’re friends, because you don’t want to make it a personal thing. It’s just a matter of living habits.”
There certainly was a lot of potential for conflict. Each person had different class schedules, eating schedules, daily routines and preferences. But they quickly learned the best way to resolve conflicts was to be upfront and honest about them. Because of that, no friendships were lost.
“We understood that it was going to be different, especially not having lived with these people before,” Guillermo said. “We made an active effort to be understanding and communicate more, which is why I thought there weren’t any major issues.”
A new normal
Instead of a semester filled with debauchery or conflict, things in Sussex County were almost normal. In a way, they had to be.
Each person had a demanding course load, so they couldn’t always spend time together. At the exact same time, they were always around each other, so they had to find ways to let off steam alone.
Thomas found a gym nearby that was offering masked workouts and went there almost every day. Garrett took near-daily walks around the neighborhood. Guillermo became a film junkie, and John began a self-taught crash course in baking.
Of course, the adventures they had together were the truly memorable ones.
“One Friday, I had this exam that I had 24 hours to take, and I kind of waited till the last minute,” Garrett said. “I knocked it out, and it was probably midnight, and the guys had just finished watching a movie. All I said was, ‘I’m going to the beach, anybody coming with me?’ We probably wandered back into the house at 3:30 a.m.”
Just as the house had come together, it slowly began to empty. RJ went back home in October, Guillermo in early November and John just before finals began. Today, the house in Sussex County, previously filled with the noise and body odor of five college guys, sits vacant once more.
It wasn’t an easy semester. Even from their idyllic cottage, the mental tolls of remote learning and isolation hit the guys hard. Garrett had a “pretty academically rigorous semester.” John, between applying for internships and dealing with classes, “hated every day.”
But being there made it easier. For five stressed, cramped college students attempting to make the most out of a lost semester, being around friends made all the difference.
There’s nowhere else they would have rather been.
“I was definitely happier than I would have been at home,” John said. “It wasn’t the same as a typical college experience, but there was a semblance of one.”
Edited by Addison Skigen