Returning (Or Starting) College Life During COVID

This time of year will always be special to me. Attending the University of Central Florida for over 8 years and 3-degree programs, I had many starts to the Fall semester. While most universities follow the same schedule of having a Fall, Spring, and Summer semester system, anyone who goes to higher education institutions will attest that the Fall semester is the most challenging start. There are some obvious reasons to this. Freshmen tend to start their college journey in the Fall, attendance in the Fall is often the highest of all year, and it coincides with the younger school children returning to school which creates more general stress (and traffic) in the areas around colleges. There is no shortage of stressors going on for young adults during this time of year but adding the complications of the pandemic can make it seem too much to handle.

Whether you are a parent of a first time or returning college student, or a student yourself, there are some lessons that can be learned even at the start of the semester that will serve you well these next months and years. Having the unique experience of previously being employed as an advisor as well as a financial staff member at a university has definitely shown me that mental health care is essential and impacts all of these “starting school” areas. Let’s look at some common issues that can occur at this time of year for college students, particularly during COVID times, and then some methods to handle this stress.

School…on your schedule

Switching from K-12 school to college comes with a challenge wrapped up as a great benefit. You make your schedule! While there are some limits due to class availability, for the first time many young adults are creating a schedule for themselves. Being able to have a more flexible and customizable schedule is exciting but it comes with many pitfalls and traps. Many people, including myself, allow this flexibility to cause us to lose our routine. Proper routine is mentioned in many of the blogs on this site as a very important part of good mental health. This is no accident, there is tons of evidence that routine and consistent schedule lead to less anxiety and depression. So it is important to try to both make a schedule that seems enjoyable but also create one that has an overall structure that will be consistent and manageable.

COVID adds another dimension to this issue. Classes have been purely online for more than a year now, but on many campuses in-person classes are starting again. Creating a schedule now has to balance one’s comfortability and feeling of safety in attending in-person classes. There are still a lot of online courses offered but you may find that they either require you to be logged in at times you can’t make, or even more common, online schooling just doesn’t fit many people’s ways of learning. It is important to create a schedule that is full, has the classes you need, can fit a good routine for your mental health, AND makes you comfortable in terms of the COVID complications. That is a lot to juggle. It is doable though when one sits down and really thinks about all these factors. For many students, the scheduling period is already over, and classes have started, so the focus should be on developing the routine and practicing stress management if COVID exposure for in-person classes is a concern of yours.

New Style of Academics

Many young adults who are just starting college have a general idea of what it is like to be responsible for their own homework and keeping up their grades. College is more than just being responsible though, it is working around the fact that the knowledge you will be responsible to learn will be delivered in very different ways, and your assignments will be very diverse in their expectations. You also will be expected to work together in groups, but with the added complication of having to make plans outside of class time. Now we add the COVID dynamic into all these expectations, and one can see how it may seem overwhelming. To keep on top of academic requirements and make the grade you want, young adults will need to be focused but also use some studying and efficiency techniques. Some of the best ideas I saw both personally and with others lead to academic success were:

  • Have set “homework time” in your personal schedule. It can vary during the week, meaning not being the same time or the same amount of time every day, but have those hours set aside as if it were a work schedule.
  • If you are a visual learner, or an audio learner, or someone who learns by doing, understand that not every class will facilitate your learning style. Take information from classes and ask professors/teaching assistants/academic coaches at your college for ways to translate the info into your way of learning.
  • Groups projects are annoying but are also an opportunity to learn how to work with those who are less than ideal coworkers. Do not take the entire project on yourself, but make sure the division of labor is clear from the start and document your own contributions.
  • COVID will likely cause certain assignments and tasks to be altered to be safer and fit better into the world we live in. Be attentive to how your professors are managing expectations in a COVID world.
  • Expecting to do 6 straight hours of schoolwork is unrealistic. Make sure you are breaking your study/homework time up into comfortable and realistic timeframes. A helpful thing to consider is that most people find doing a single task for more like 2-3 hours extremely difficult without at least a 30-minute break.

 What To Study?

There is a much larger discussion to be had about our societal standard of demanding that 16-19 year-olds to know their future career. Accepting that it is a topic far too complicated to discuss here, we must acknowledge the pressure that this puts on young adults starting college. Are there ways to manage this seemingly impossible demand? There are some ways that young college students can engage in their early academic career that keeps themselves open to new experiences while also working within the system that is set up. Most college curriculum focuses on general education courses in the early semesters. Being open minded during these courses are crucial to finding the proper career path for one’s interests and personality type. If you came out of high school feeling sure your future is in mathematics or science, do not simply take your English and Composition courses as something to pass without taking any interest in. Remember that declaring a major can be changed, although sometimes with the possibility of delays in graduation, but it is more important to be true to your interests than to be expedient. Electives in college can be tricky and time consuming, but they also can be a great chance to have your eyes opened to interests that you have never been exposed to before. There are tools that counselors can use to help you take your innate personality traits, your interests, and your learned abilities and give a roadmap that leads towards areas of study that can turn into great careers.

While the educational structure may make young adults think that everyone has their area of study and career picked out either in high school or immediately after. Talk to those adults around you who are further in their life journey and most young adults will find that almost no one was sure of their future at this time. It is okay to explore options, and while there is a lot of pressure to waste no time in college, there are ways to be open to new knowledge and interests and still use time efficiently.

If you are entering college for the first time, returning after the shutdown, or are looking to better understand and support someone in this situation, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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