Social isolation, health and financial fears, political upheaval and natural disasters are fueling the rising anxiety among college students returning to school online and in-person this fall.
Students are feeling the stress of having to social distance at the same time they are trying to maintain old relationships and kindle new friendships, says Asia Wong, director of student health services and the University Counseling Center at Loyola University New Orleans.
“Campuses need to create opportunities for in-person engagement that feel safe,” Wong says. “For me, the two words around student engagement that are different than in the past are ‘safe and intimate.'”
At Loyola, students have participated in socially-distanced bingo games and other events while the university’s student organization fair was held online with chatrooms for individual clubs.
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But campus life during COVID also requires to students have “courageous conversations” about personal safety and behavior, Wong says.
“You used to fight with your roommate about doing the dishes, and now you’re having conversations about what party did you go to last night or who did you bring home.”
Administrators can support these discussions by giving students a safe space to report unsafe situations—such as a party they may have attended—without fear of reprisal or feeling like they are snitching on friends.
Should students form COVID pods?
Some campuses have suggested that students to form small COVID pods while other colleges are asking students only to take masks off when they are with their roommates.
Administrators should make it clear the large gatherings, such as homecoming, will likely be canceled but should return next school year.
“This is the year for administrators to encourage students to form small, close, deep friendships, and say ‘This is not the year for you to go to giant tailgating events.’ We have to put those on pause,” Wong says.
“Schools having a hard time with this are obviously the schools where most of the social life revolves around superspreader events,” she adds.
For students in New Orleans, she uses the example of the lure of Mardi Gras and the bars on Bourbon Street. Risk reduction behavior means conveying the idea to young people that COVID is a marathon not a sprint, she says.
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“We’re telling students, ‘You’re here for four years, you’re going to get three more Mardi Gras,'” Wong says. “We hacve to say ‘Skip Bourbon Street for a minute. It’s still going to be there. We have to stay away so there’s something to return to.'”
As for dating, Wong has seen students going on socially-distanced walks and connecting virtually. COVID-era rules such as prohibiting guests in residence halls are likley putting a dent in the more promisicous “hook-up” culture that had taken hold on some college campuses.
“An unseen side effect is people taking a little bit more time to get to know each other,” Wong says.
A silver lining?
Many students are worried about spreading COVID to family members or falling ill themselves. And some students are also experiencing guilt over leaving home during troubled times.
Loyola’s home state, Lousiana, was hit by a major hurricane so far this summer while the West Coast is being ravaged by wildfires.
The university also saw an increase in student requests for teletherapy when protests erupted across the nation over the the killing of George Floyd.
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Loyola’s director of student affairs has been sending e-mails every week updating students on events that are impacting their hometowns. In a normal year, the director might only send a few such emails a semester, Wong points out.
Finally, students are suffering anxiety over paying for college when many families are facing job losses and other financial hardships caused by the COVID pandemic, Wong says.
A silver lining may be that the current group of students will be more tightly bonded by the COVID experience in a similar way that students came together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Wong says.
UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.