Over the last year-and-a-half, the world has seen unprecedented change in the form of the global pandemic. Almost overnight, all those months ago, countries were thrust into a state of lockdown, eagerly awaiting updates as global media delivered figures, statistics, and suppositions. A series of lockdowns and confusions over rules and regulations worldwide has resulted in closed businesses, contact restrictions for families and social groups, and of course, huge changes in education and learning.
Schools and universities across the globe have had to adapt to new ways of working in a reactive rather than planned way. The familiarity of the classroom or lecture hall has been replaced by virtual gatherings on Skype, Zoom, Teams, and other synchronous communication platforms. Common rooms and break rooms have been left empty in favor of virtual hangouts as students were forced to go home. In many cases, the opportunities of coming to new cities, schools, universities, and even countries were delayed as travel was grounded and educational facilities closed.
The impact of COVID-19 cannot be understated. Although terms such as “new normal” emerged in the beginning of the pandemic, it is perhaps more appropriate to acknowledge the presence of a “new familiar”. Uncertainty and confusion can lead to worry—and even anxiety. The loss of expectations after the shift in traditional ways of learning may even have produced a sense of grief, where grief is about loss, and more specifically, the loss of opportunities.
As the vaccine rollout continues, emphasis has turned toward returning and coming back. But does this necessarily mean that all will be well? After such huge and rapid change, is “going back” bound to elicit celebratory connotations and only these? Probably not. However, while colleges will be opening up gradually over the coming days, weeks, and months, it’s important to note the things that we can do to maintain a stable and safe sense of grounding, and here are a few:
1) Reach out.
Although there will be many rules that are likely to change from time to time, college is a time of meeting new people and finding our place in different groups. This means that socializing doesn’t stop, but it may look different. It’s OK to feel uncertain, fearful, or anxious about things, and it might just be that if you’re feeling off-key, unsure, uncertain, or fearful, others are too. Discuss with new people, friends, or others about how you’re feeling, and make time to share thoughts around socializing. Discussion facilitates awareness, and awareness of how other people are thinking and feeling about the situation can facilitate cohesion. Wherever you are, your school’s wellbeing team will likely include counseling and mental health support, and these resources may be accessible via instant message (IM) or telephone. Faculty members should also be available for discussions around individual learning needs.
2) Make time for you.
Although socializing can be a big part of college life, it’s not the whole. During the lockdowns, COVID-19 has provided a general sense of fatigue. As we carry the stress of COVID-19 and its implications with us, it’s easier to feel burned-out as we are closer to maximum capacity and hitting our window of tolerance. Being mindful of our own limits, capacities, and needs is key to having a sense of the time we need to recover—if you’re needing time to be by yourself to read, write, or even just take a walk, do so! The key to finding balance between being sociable and having enough time for you is finding creative ways to make things manageable (and so you feel safe, too).
3) Establish structure and routine.
When something as turbulent as the pandemic changes the order and structure of our day-to-day lives, thinking about implementing a routine might not be so obvious. The little things, though, can be crucial to building back a sense of stability. This could include planned mealtimes, break times, or personal time. Setting alarms for the same time every day and setting other small goals can be the last things we think about but can have a huge stabilizing impact for us. In these challenging times, this can’t be underestimated.
4) Write it down!
Writing down our thoughts and feelings can be a great way to monitor mood. As we navigate uncertainty, it can be useful to track this journey and to look back and see where changes in our moods have happened. Writing letters to loved ones is another (and possibly more personal) way to keep connected—the very act of pen to paper encourages focus and reflection. It can also be useful to journal at the end of a busy day.
5) Be present.
We can only do what we can—change is all around us, and it can be hard not to worry about the future or ruminate on the past under these circumstances. As much as possible, maintaining focus in the moment can help us to stay grounded. This can be possible with a self-compassionate approach: accepting the presence of worry can help us to manage it, and in pacing ourselves this way, we can learn to accept what we can and can’t change.
For many, the pandemic has been a long break from college life. Others may be attending college for the first time and moving away from home. While it is likely that certain restrictions will remain in place and many other things will change, being aware of how we can support ourselves and each other can help us to take preventative measures in the present moment. Ultimately, this journey is an individual one, and while returning to or starting college can be daunting and overwhelming as well as exciting, it might be important to remember—especially under the current circumstances—it’s OK to not be OK.