Trying to prepare for the future has never felt more impossible for college students. With most classes online, life for many students feels limited to the size of a single room. In that setting, the future feels too far off to plan.
Fortunately, this odd semester will soon end, and students can look forward to exiting their isolation. Between going home for winter break and crossing fingers to return to in-person learning, it seems like things should look better for students shortly.
However, the effects of such a long time in isolation can still impact students after they’ve reconnected with family and friends.
According to Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index from January, 61% of American adults are lonely, and college-aged young adults are even more lonesome than people over age 72. Being a population already prone to loneliness, it is no surprise that the CDC reported in June that younger adults were among the demographics disproportionately experiencing hardships with mental health, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation.
These challenges will not magically disappear when students come out of isolation, and that change in and of itself will likely be a difficult transition for many.
One crucial way to help is to encourage students to use the counseling services available through the school. But what else can you do? What can you say to help students prepare for the future of the next couple of months?
Here are four ways to support students and help them prepare for the upcoming transition:
Being around people again after so much time in isolation will be jarring for some students. Many will instinctively look forward to spending as much time with others in-person as possible, especially when it’s close family members during the holiday season. But that’s a significant change from their current extent of in-person social interactions.
Remind your students that the upcoming transition isn’t going to be an on and off switch. They want to be around loved ones again, but that can get exhausting after such a long period of isolation. Emphasize that it’s OK to take a break from socializing when it gets too much.
On the other hand, families may not be fully aware of how isolating the semester has been for college students. And it can be difficult for students to ask for attention and time from their loved ones, especially if other household members are under a lot of stress.
Unfortunately, many students could face periods of quarantine when returning home and worse yet, there may be family and friends they cannot see at all after returning home. This can be frustrating for everyone.
Encourage students to admit their feelings to themselves and to permit those emotions to exist. It’s a heavy and complicated time. Processing emotions allows students to see solutions clearly and work on healthy coping mechanisms that build important life skills.
As much as situations that look and feel like pre-pandemic life feel amazingly comforting, students must keep in mind that it’s not going to be the same. Nothing can truly revert to the way it was a year ago.
For upper-level students, it will feel remarkable to get to return to learning in a physical classroom. However, remind them that the university will likely still require students to social distance and wear masks on campus during the spring semester. And with that, there is no certainty traditional classes will resume on all campuses.
Additionally, many first-year students who weren’t on campus this semester are particularly excited. The possibility of returning to in-person instruction means they can begin building social connections. But some may need the warning that large gatherings like parties, big club meetings, and some types of events on campus still aren’t options. Helping students set realistic expectations for what leaving isolation will look like is necessary to prepare for the future.
College life can be overwhelming for some students. For these students, isolation created a unique opportunity to focus on their education without pressure to dress their best and function in society. Exiting that relaxed and safe position is challenging.
Coming out of isolation will also apply pressure to students for increased productivity, especially for graduating seniors ready to prepare for their future. Searching, applying, and interviewing for jobs and graduate programs can’t be done from bed–at least not successfully.
Rejoining society and diving into the job search isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Recognizing the importance of those goals but not having the motivation can be hugely demoralizing to isolated students.
Reassure them that they don’t have to push to reach their maximum level of productivity immediately, and they can work in social events a little at a time. It’s far better to give what they can and make baby steps of progress, than burnout and make no progress at all.
There are a number of small steps students can take to prepare for coming out of isolation that will ease their transition.
To help students look after their mental health and practice an eventual “return to normal,” encourage healthy habits. This 1,2,3,4-Step process is easy to remember and apply:
That last one is particularly essential for students to prepare for the future and take care of themselves in the present. The aforementioned Cigna report found that heavy use of social media can leave users feeling even more lonely and isolated.
That’s why authentic communication and conversations with others over video chats, video calls, email, or text is so meaningful. It shows students that they still have human connections and reminds them that there is still a world outside of this semester of isolation.