Late nights with your friends. Getting all dressed up in matching outfits. Walking across campus to see everything that can be offered to you. The typical representation of college in movies. The Pitch Perfect trilogy shows a group of girls and their college experience: the late night parties, movie nights with friends, collegiate competitions and performances, hanging out in the quad, forming friendships that will last a lifetime, and the tension with a stranger who happens to be your freshman roommate.  This movie, like many others, is one of the first impressions of what college will be like. After seeing these movies, we begin to build an image of what our own college experience will be.

Fast forward to July 30, 2020. Important Fall Semester Update. The dreaded email from Muhlenberg that would change that experience for all students.  There is no more waking up early to rush across campus, attempting to grab a cup of coffee or tea and a quick bite before your 9 a.m. class. No more hours of practice or rehearsal leading up to the big game or opening performance. No more party hopping or late nights in GQ.  No more weekly meals with your best friends. No more driving to the apple farm to take pictures with your friends. No more smiling as you pass your friend on the way to your next class. The idyllic college life depicted in movies, television shows, and social media was stripped away with no promise that it will ever return.

The 8in x 15in laptop, covered in stickers strategically placed to reflect your personality, the device you used to watch those college movies is now the focal point of your entire college experience. Your new life consists of waking up only minutes before your class to open your computer. Classes, homework, social life, and entertainment all within your grasp. Literally, you can pick it up and it will be with you everywhere. But make sure you are close to an outlet and a strong Wi-Fi signal because otherwise you’re on your own.

Muhlenberg first shut down the campus six months ago because of COVID-19. Current and future students never imagined it would last this long. For the Levin family, a true Berg family with a father and one son who already graduated and a current freshman and senior, this announcement destroyed what would have been a shared experience.  “A lot of tears were shed, and I didn’t want to talk to my brother about it,” recalls Jenna Levin ‘21 of her initial response to the unfathomable news.  Now, Sam Levin ‘24 sits in his East Hall “dingle,” one person living in a double, a single poster on his wall, while his older sister Jenna, an hour drive from campus, sits at her desk at home, experiencing her senior year in her purple childhood bedroom. 

Both siblings, who had been looking forward to sharing their college experience, are feeling the same thing as they come to terms with reality. “I didn’t want to talk to my younger brother about it because I guess I was jealous of him,” Jenna recalled.  “I guess I’m just jealous of, like my siblings because they got like three, four years of normal college and I don’t know what’s going to happen with me,” Sam explained.  Both are jealous of what they do not have and envious of their sibling’s experience. This stretches beyond family dynamics and sibling rivalry. And social media creates a world with constant comparisons of what they are missing—a world where you are faced with constant reminders of what you could be doing instead.

The fear of missing out has always existed, but in 1996 Dan Herman, a marketing strategist, officially coined the term FoMO—‘fear of missing out.’  According to Herman, FoMO is the “fearful attitude towards the possibility of failing to exhaust available opportunities and missing the expected joy associated with succeeding in doing so. Simply put, it is the concentration of attention on the empty half of the glass.”  FoMO develops from both a cognitive and emotional perspective comparing the attractiveness of an opportunity, how important it is, and how normal it appears.  Although FoMO is not a new concept, its presence has been increasing because of the immediacy of social media.  People now can see the consequences of their choices as they occur.

Herman’s research shows that 70% of adults experience FoMO.  It has a wide impact, present in many decisions that people make. There are numerous opportunities for involvement that people want to be a part of, and the variety of options can make it difficult to commit to one activity or be fully present in the moment.  The need for presence often leads to a fear of committing to long term projects because of yearning for instant gratification.  This fear can lead to missing out based on the self-fulfilling prophecy—if you think you will miss out you will. FoMO is not necessarily all bad; it can help drive individuals to make the decision that leads to a life filled with motivation and drive.  However, when not used advantageously, it can leave individuals unsure how to proceed.

Movies and media provide some sense of college life, but family and friends also share stories from their college days and aid in creating those expectations of what your experience should be. “It’s supposed to be you work during the week and you work hard and get your school work done and then on the weekends you are able to kind of let loose and go to parties and have fun in that sense,” shares Isabella Metzger ’24.  However, the campus guidelines limiting social gatherings made it difficult for Isabella to feel like she was having the college experience.

John A. Johnson, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, explains that as humans we have expectations.  Many students had expectations for what this year would entail for them and when those expectations failed to meet the reality, they felt robbed. Johnson writes in Psychology Today that most of us understand not to expect something that is completely crazy.  “Most of us are sane enough to realize that expecting a cup of coffee to materialize from our thoughts is unrealistic,” he writes.  But when something we think should happen, like spending a semester on campus hanging out with our friends, doesn’t happen, “we feel shocked, morally indignant, and resentful. Expectations are premeditated resentments,” he says.  They get upset because a seemingly normal expectation to spend a semester on campus suddenly was out of their control. They miss out on this idea in their head. Because they never had the chance to accomplish these goals, they are left with a sense of emptiness.

As much as students want to return, the school wants to continue to recruit students. High school students may spend years researching, traveling, touring and interviewing for the chance to find their home. When students find Muhlenberg, in person or online, there is a visual ideal that is presented to them that many fall in love with. The vibrant red Adirondack chairs spread across the perfectly manicured lawn of the college green frame Victor’s Lament. In the background, the signature red doors pop out against the brown and beige, window filled buildings. There is a consistent flow of students stopping to talk and hang out with their peers on Academic Row, Seegers Union, and Parents Plaza. Students schedule extra time to get to class, knowing they will see their friends and fall into a conversation. This is part of what makes Muhlenberg College the lively campus—the community—that students have become accustomed to. This is the picturesque campus that students dream of when they commit to their home for the next four years. The hustle and bustle of college life now put to a halt. The buildings now empty and stuffy as their red doors remain closed with no students in their doorways propping them open, inviting air circulation as they wait for their classmate still a building away. The sounds of the Haas bells echo even louder, replacing the two thirds of students prevented from returning instead of being the score to the four year movie deal that is college. The school that once was as active and vibrant as a pinwheel in a hurricane now a kite on a windless day, kept in motion by the few students lucky enough to hold the strings.

During a pandemic, FoMO is a little different.  Neuropsychologist Jennifer Wolkin describes FoMO as a comparison of what everyone is doing to what you are not doing instead of the comparison to an extravagant life.  There is more to this new FoMO; when we are stuck alone in our homes during a pandemic and seeking social connections, the lack of that social interaction causes FoMO. Even more, author Melissa Gratias,  who wrote a children’s book on FoMO, asserts that people experience FoMO for what they are not able to do or what they would have been doing if circumstances were different.  For many college students this is an amplifying factor for their FoMO. Many students think about their past years and all the milestones they are missing out on—going to parties and bars with their friends replaced with their childhood bedrooms and their parents in the other room.  Or how the many juniors who were planning to be abroad are now stuck in their hometown instead of touring the world engaging in a different culture.  What is difficult is the inconsistency. “If all my friends were home I’d be okay. It’s the fact that they are not at home,” Jenna exclaims.  There is a different experience of FoMO when you are comparing it to an experience you are unable to have.

Many of the students’ feelings are due to factors outside of their control. And when we feel like we can’t control our own lives, Johnson explains that this can lead to feelings of anger and resentment.  “I am sad I missed senior toasts,” Jenna said with remorse. “I was looking forward to that.”  For three years these students watched seniors celebrate their momentous milestones and now their own are disappearing without any acknowledgement.

Once the shock had settled in about the semester and students began to come to terms with their new reality, their sense of FoMO shifted. “Honestly I don’t know if I would want to be on campus right now because it’s so different,” said Jenna.

“In the beginning I was like I am so jealous they are having so much fun and it’s a normal college experience,” reflected Marissa Steiner ‘22. “And then all their friends got COVID and I was like actually I’m really not jealous anymore.”


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