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Advice for college students

David X. Le, Psy.D.
• August 05, 2020

The end of the summer is when millions of students are preparing to return to college. This is a time that is typically filled with anticipation, excitement and some nerves. This year, college students are experiencing higher levels of anxiety about returning to school. Much of this stress stems from uncertainty about the ever-changing plans for universities and colleges to reopen. Schools are making decisions based on available data and adjusting when new science about the virus emerges — reopening plans range from in-person learning, remote classes or a hybrid model. Even with detailed strategies in place, it is hard to know what living in and through those plans will look and feel like. College students are caught between the desire of returning to in-class or hybrid instruction, despite ongoing concerns around COVID-19, or continuing remote learning while missing out on the “traditional” college experience.

As a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who has worked at university counseling centers and sees many emerging adults as part of my clinical practice at The Family Institute, here is my advice for college students:

This year has been ridden with many losses. Grief is a normal process for students and their parents right now (e.g., not going back to school, job prospects, different engagement with friends, dating, sports, clubs, not having your expected senior year, etc.), though the grief process looks different for everyone. We all mourn differently, but it is important to do so. Balance optimism about the coming school year with realism — your feelings of eagerness tinged with sadness, frustration and uncertainty are all valid.

Embracing flexibility is key when returning to school during stressful times. The college experience is not the same for all students, so there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach when returning to school. If you are heading back to campus, even if your time “on campus” is limited to a virtual space, here are some things to keep in mind as you adapt to the new normal:

  • Safety:  Think about how to best achieve safety for all and work towards a greater good — consider not just your own safety, but also the safety of your friends, family, professors and university staff.
  • Self-Compassion & Empathy:  Listen to yourself, whether it be what your thoughts are saying, how you’re feeling or what your body is telling you. Be kind to yourself and others, the world is experiencing these changes together. If you are in a rut, do something for yourself and/or someone else. The smallest thing can change how you feel and have an impact on someone else’s day — gratitude goes a long way.
  • Boundaries:  Learn how to set boundaries and navigate differences for yourself and with others. Some individuals are worried about the risks of coronavirus, while others think the virus will not impact them. Regardless of where you are on this spectrum, listening, being aware of non-verbal cues and respecting each other’s boundaries is important. For many, it is important to set boundaries with social media, watching the news and talking about the pandemic.
  • Communication:  Whether on-campus, in off-campus housing or at your family home, it is important to communicate boundaries, what you are or are not comfortable with.
  • Mindfulness:  Approach the current circumstances in the present moment and with acceptance. Acknowledge you do not like or want things to be this way, but you can still approach it with openness and in a non-judgmental way, otherwise you are setting up an internal battle with yourself.
  • Be Creative:  Tap into your creativity, whether in how you spend time with friends, work-out, explore a new hobby, study, stay connected with friends and the world, this is the time to utilize your resources.

While it is easy to focus on the negative, I encourage you to work on approaching your thoughts in a balanced way. Rather than thinking in “black-and-white,” how about thinking in shades of gray? Are there any positives? Reframing your thoughts will help you make the most out of your experiences:

  • Rather than dwelling on how attending classes and connecting with friends is different than you would like, think about how you can continue to do so safely and what opens up as a result of approaching these things in a new or unexpected way.
  • Everyone learns differently and there are benefits to remote learning. Online learning provides lots of accessibility and opportunities for students (e.g., flexible scheduling, learning new ways of learning, etc.).
  • The workforce is going to look very different in the future, so think of this time and use it as practice for the future. Networking through LinkedIn, Handshake and Zoom along with job fairs will all look different this year and being comfortable behind a screen is a skill you can further develop.

College is a time when students learn to be autonomous, develop their own identity, take risks and make mistakes. Whether living on-campus, off-campus or at home with your family, set up your environment so it is conducive to learning, benefits your relationship with others and allows you to engage in intentional self-care. Even though you may be navigating your relationships with your peers, professors or parents differently, this is the perfect time to work on emotional well-being and growth. Do not forget to continue to carve out time each day for yourself, whether that means taking a few deep breaths to re-center, collaborating with others on systemic change, exercising or enjoying a socially distanced hangout. Listening, learning and doing is the key to all of this.

David X. Le, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Dr. David Le is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and clinical supervisor at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. He has worked in a variety of settings including university counseling centers, community mental health centers, retirement communities and at a local hospital.