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Empty Nest Syndrome

As millions of students head back to school, they leave a sigh of relief, hope and faith in their wake.

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Angela Gala, Cole Gala, 2008
Sunday Morning / September 10, 2023

She never cried when her son went off to school. She was far and away too excited for him to engage, learn, and take flight into a new world called kindergarten. She thought, maybe, something might be wrong with her? Why wasn’t she mourning her toddler’s transition into the public-school system with abandon, trepidation and tears?

Covid hospitalizations have spiked across much of the U.S. for the first time this year, just as 20+ million college students are returning to school. Hospitalizations have jumped 16% in the U.S. over the past week, according to the World Health Organization, “and there were over 1.4 million new Covid-19 cases and 1800 deaths around the world in August.”

Covid has and continues to sit comfortably among the greatest pandemics of all time. There have been 770 million documented cases of Covid recorded since 2019, according to the WHO, and nearly 7 million deaths across every nation of the world. Even as U.S. President Joe Biden reminds us, “the pandemic is over,” First Lady Jill Biden went into isolation this week.

“With Covid-19, we’ve made it to the life raft,” epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch said. “Dry land is further away.” In fact, sending our children back to school during these historic years continues to present a confounding challenge.

That I May Serve

All rites of passage for teens — high school prom, graduation, sports, activities and avocations — were decimated during the Spring of 2020. In her son's case, rowing season was suspended indefinitely thus deterring the oldest intercollegiate sporting event in the United States. His senior classes in physics, math, and all other prerequisites for a college engineering degree were cancelled. Commencements in 2020, in particular, saw all seniors around the U.S. given an option to either pass or fail in their final semester, bypassing a rite de passage into the college admissions process.

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Virginia Tech Crew

Virginia Tech, renown as a research university in Blacksburg Virginia, is the first four-year public institution among the 11 former confederate States to admit black undergraduates. At the time when the Commonwealth of Virginia enforced Jim Crow laws — racial segregation in public and private schools — Virginia Tech was proudly enrolling the first black students. It can fairly be said their motto “Ut Prosim” has been guiding their alma mater for nearly 150 years with the mantra, “That I may serve.”

While the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in June, they effectively eradicated affirmative action programs in college admissions across the nation. Chief Justice John Roberts opines in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard:

Harvard and UNC have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.

Yet 26 million people of all color joined the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, turning the combined interracial protests into the largest civil rights movements in history. In fact, the protests precipitated a worldwide debate on policing, racial injustice, and numerous legislative proposals and legal challenges to affirmative action.

As she packed up her son’s belongings, oscillating between emotions of joy and concern, she grew intospective. To wit, her son’s safety > academic challenges > mental health > and ongoing pandemic related social challenges weren’t out of her control at all, but rather now in his capable hands. For eighteen years, the job had been about equity: treating each of her three children according to their circumstance. In Blacksburg, equality would be calibrated by free exercise and liberty.

Empty Nest Syndrome

All parents are susceptible to the Empty Nest Syndrome: a feeling of grief and loneliness associated with a child leaving home for the first time. The American Medical Association confirms that the Empty Nest Syndrome isn’t a condition but a phenomenon, and psychologists explain the emotions are typically driven by a fear of the unknown, and the inability to control their young's environment.

Symptoms of empty nest syndrome can include depression, the loss of a sense of purpose, feelings of rejection worry, stress, anxiety and fear over their offspring's welfare. Parents who experience Empty Nest Syndrome often question whether or not they’ve prepared adequately for their flock to live independently.

Fear is not merely an abstract emotion induced by a perceived danger or threat, it’s a physiological response that leads to behavioral change. “If you’re worrying something will happen — don’t let it,” her husband always said, and she’d admit to a time or two conflating emotional reactions with measured response.

Throughout the years, she’d often ruminate in worry about something until sharing the possible scenario with him. His words were a call to action. A reminder to get to work. She called them ‘Eureka Moments’ every time he said them, and when their young went off to kindergarten she realized that they’d done the work; gave them what they could; taught them what they knew. There was no need for tears.

Four years on, over 100 U.S. colleges and universities still require their students to be vaccinated for Covid-19 in order to attend classes, according to data compiled by a college advocacy organization, and of the 1,200 four-year schools measured, 101 academic institutions across 19 states currently still have mandates in place for the coming academic year.

No College Mandates, who compiled the information, describes itself as a “group of concerned parents, doctors, nurses, professors, students and other college stakeholders working towards the common goal of ending Covid-19 vaccine mandates.” The data comes four months after the CDC announced the end of the federal Covid-19 public health emergency.

As students return to campus for the forth time since the pandemic began, colleges and universities are still confounded by the protocol. The newest Covid-19 booster is expected to be available in the United States next week. Moderna, Pfizer and Novavax are targeting the XBB.1.5 omicron sub-variant.

The New Deal

When the Spanish Flu and Great Depression passed one another in the first half of the 20th century unemployment rose to 23%, the GDP fell 15% worldwide, and the pandemic infected 500 million people throughout the world. Statistics and circumstances eerily on par with the present day. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal rebuilt from the rubble a staggering infrastructure into the most powerful economy on earth. But he also intended the nation to be the most inclusive. In a letter to his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, he writes:

Let there be no forgotten men, no forgotten races.

Despite the disproportionate way in which Covid-19 attacked people of color, its legacy merely highlighted their inequality. White college-educated Americans saw their jobs recover quickly into remote work and their wealth balloon as the stock market and housing sectors soared. Many racial minorities, particularly low earners and those without a college degree, fell unemployed and into poverty.

If FDR navigated the nation through the Great Depression, Biden shepherds the post pandemic era. “When the Inflation Reduction Act was passed a year ago, inflation was at 8.3 percent,” Biden said on August 16. “It’s now down to 3.2 percent, and it’s gonna go lower and here’s why. Because there’s two things we should give our children. One is roots and the other is wings."


They passed like ships in the night. In December 2019, the very first headlines of a strange virus originating in Wuhan China was coinciding with her husband’s final bow from a long and courageous battle with cancer. Though his death presaged the early hours of Covid-19, then little more than faint news alerts from faraway places, she realized that courage wasn't the absence of fear. It's was the will to persevere in the face of it.

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Angela Gala, Cole Gala at Virgnia Tech 2021

The riggers of work, society and education are still adjusting to a world that saw 7 million people perish, schools shutter, and economies careen toward recession and one very particular class. “If you're worried something will happen — don’t let it,” he said, and with that she smiled and in the indomitable spirit of motherhood conceived, bore, and beheld the spirit of man.
For Angela Gala

Wife, Mother, Thought Leader

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