For many college students, the return to in-person education has signaled a welcome change. Even still, many students still carry with them a profound sense of loss from the past year.
This fall has seen a revival of the university experience. What were ghost towns for the past year and a half have become college towns once again, with students bustling to and from classes, dorms and local restaurants.
For many students, this return to in-person education has signaled a welcome change from 18 months of remote learning, during which they combated a combination of social isolation, environmental difficulties and Zoom fatigue.
Isata Sankoh, a junior at Hampton College, spoke fondly of a return to traditional school festivities such as orientations and homecomings, in addition to necessary academic programs like study groups and clubs.
“I’m very excited to get those back and just feel the school spirit and the love that’s going around,” Sankoh said. “Everyone looks so happy to be back on campus, everyone’s waving to each other.”
However, many students still carry with them a profound sense of loss from this past year, one which stubbornly persists despite the welcome changes of reopening.
Afiya Rahman, a sophomore at Harvard University, spoke to the effects of virtual classes on her ability to focus in classes, even amid a return to a more engaging in-person format.
“I think my attention span has lessened a lot over the past few years,” Rahman said. “My school self is almost gone. I think that mode has almost disappeared because there’s no barrier between school and home now.”
Her experience has been shared by many who feel anxious about returning to a version of school they had forgone for over a year.
“I’m mostly nervous to switch back into a classroom setting that feels so uncharted,” said Katie Elliott, a sophomore at Virginia Tech who is now experiencing college in person for the first time. “It brings a lot of nerves and anxiety: Do I still socially interact well with my peers? Can I keep up with the fast-paced environment of someone physically talking to me that I can’t go back and rewind? Am I ready for the stress of where I’m going to sit in the lecture hall?”
“Do I still socially interact well with my peers? Can I keep up with the fast-paced environment of someone physically talking to me that I can’t go back and rewind? Am I ready for the stress of where I’m going to sit in the lecture hall?”
While these new considerations pose a significant challenge on their own, there are additional obstacles for students who identify as first-generation or low-income (FGLI). Elliott (last name withheld) is one such student who now must balance in person activities with working to support herself.
“I come from a lower income background, and being put somewhere that’s expensive, and having the stress of books and rent and food and gas and emergency expenses—it’s a lot because once I have to come into the new realm of being in person again, I’m going to have a stricter schedule against me that will not give me more leeway to work. Money has been a huge concern of mine,” said Elliott.
Elliott mentioned having to make certain social and academic sacrifices amid reopening. On a Friday, for instance, she would have to prioritize work over a paper assignment or a football game in order to pay her rent.
For students who must support their college experience by working, even finding jobs—let alone balancing them—has become a difficult task. Jessie James, a sophomore at Mississippi State University, has been searching for a job to reduce the cost of his education; as an individual with asthma, however, he has found difficulty securing a position without putting himself at risk of contracting the virus.
In addition to navigating the immediate stresses of balancing work, school and extracurriculars, students may still carry with them the mental strain of the past year and a half. Nance Roy, the director of health services at the Jed Foundation, added that the economic and social hardship of the past year has created a layer of adversity that does not easily evaporate with a change in place. Accordingly, a study in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology found that young people who have lost loved ones or financial stability due to COVID-19 face especially high risks for psychological challenges as school continues on.
Young people who have lost loved ones or financial stability due to COVID-19 face especially high risks for psychological challenges as school continues.
“The pandemic isn’t over. But even if and when it is, your trauma doesn’t just miraculously go away the day everyone is vaccinated and there’s no more spread of the illness,” Roy said. “It takes time to recover.”
This ongoing trauma, both within FGLI families and more broadly among the student population, has already led to an increase in young adults’ reliance on mental healthcare.
“I know for me personally, therapy and seeing psychiatrists have been a part of my life now that never were before,” Sankoh said, “and I think that I can greatly attribute that to the pandemic and virtual schooling and virtual activities, and just missing out on some of the more healthy aspects of our lives.”
Many universities—including Morgan State University, the State University of New York, and Northern Kentucky University—are strengthening their in-person mental health programming to accommodate a likely influx of students upon reopening.
Amid these environmental and psychological concerns, students and university staff face the looming danger of the Delta variant, which threatens a return to remote education even as vaccination rates rise.
For James, the continued spread of the pandemic remains a constant concern: His own sister tested positive for the virus just days after he left home for the fall 2021 semester at Mississippi State University. He fears what he sees as a disregard for the virus on campus, with many students neglecting to mask properly and one of his own professors staunchly opposing the vaccine (Mississippi State University does not mandate vaccination like some other universities do).
“Being at Mississippi State, especially a university that’s in the South, a lot of people usually brag about not being vaccinated and wanting to spread COVID. [They] will have ‘COVID parties’—this happens off-campus, particularly—but a lot of students usually go to those, and it would be a lot of students from my dorm,” James said. “It’s very, very frightening to me.”
Across multiple universities, a return to such in-person activities among students has led to COVID-19 scares. Harvard University identified 94 new cases of COVID-19 within its first week of welcoming students back on campus, a finding which has prompted the school to increase testing frequency from once to thrice a week. A number of other universities have similarly tightened their protocols following outbreaks during the first few weeks of school.
These outbreaks, as well as the heightened efforts of universities to contain them, have led to a feeling of caution and worry among students.
“The looming presence of COVID is still here,” Rahman said, pointing to anxiety around parties or large social gatherings.
Rahman and other students mentioned a fear of even harsher COVID-19 protocols reminiscent of the past year and a half.
“There’s definitely a lot of anxiety going around. Everyone thinks there’s always a chance that we’re going to get shut down,” Sankoh said. “You don’t want to be the reason that it gets shut down, you don’t want to be the one to catch COVID.”
From a mental health perspective, Kyle Carney, who co-founded Mount Auburn Counseling Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the Delta variant has pulled the rug out from under the feet of students who have yearned for a sense of normalcy after so long.
“There’s something about when one feels hopeful that one’s out of the woods, and then all of a sudden those hopes are dashed. That’s a profound loss, and it stirs up previous losses, so that from a psychological perspective is a huge variable going into this year,” said Carney, emphasizing the fear of “going back in the shadow of pandemic.”
Muskaan Arshad, who is beginning her first year at Harvard University, shared this sentiment.
“I would feel really, really sad if we go back online and lose this essential experience as freshmen in college,” Arshad said. “That’s really scary because I really want this freshman experience to go well, and I want it to go ‘normal.’ Like after two years, I just want some normal.”
While a transition to in-person education combined with the specter of a renewed pandemic present a difficult landscape for students, Roy emphasized that there are still measures universities can take to protect the wellbeing of the student body. First and foremost, she mentioned the need to expand academic support programs to those who have slid behind during the past year and a half due to varying economic and social conditions. However, she also stressed the need to think beyond traditional academics, which constitute just one part of the college experience.
“Institutions, in addition to thinking about bolstering their academic support services for students, also need to be thinking, who among the students need ongoing financial assistance, food, housing, and potentially financial assistance beyond food pantries and things of the like, because there may well be far more students who are in that position,” said Roy. Such provisions would help students like Elliott manage the double burden of classes and finances.
More than anything, mental health experts have advised that everyone—administrations, faculty and students alike—think of the pandemic as a marathon rather than a sprint, with miles remaining before the end goal of a return to normalcy. Both the continuation of the pandemic and the underlying trauma of the past 18 months will continue to make their effects felt for some time to come.
“Everyone is just wanting to have a collective sigh of relief—‘Oh, we’re back in school and everything’s gonna be okay again’—when in fact, there are people who are still struggling significantly and will continue to do so,” said Roy. “So we need to be mindful that whether the Delta variant continues to surge or not, the impact of the pandemic isn’t going to be going away anytime soon.”