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  • Writer's pictureDr. Joe Novak

COVID University: One Student's Journey from Loneliness to Meaningfulness

In my daily practice, I work with young adults who have returned to college or were college bound for the first time this fall. Many college students are having an especially difficult time this year and have reported to me the anguish of uncertainty as they navigate the rigors of college during the pandemic. Several of my clients who are college freshmen have expressed fears, anxiety, and feelings of depression about how different their college experience has been compared to what they hoped it would be. Some have had to stay home because their college or university shut down dorms and in-person classes. Others are on their college campuses, but their social interactions are restricted due to COVID-19 safety regulations.

“Edward” (his name has been changed to respect his privacy) is a freshman college student I have had the pleasure of working with. “Edward” wanted to share his story to help other college students who are struggling with self-esteem, lost expectations, and loneliness this fall.

Here is “Edward’s” story:

When universities were announcing their plans for the Fall 2020 semester, I was committed to going to campus (with necessary precautions) if the option was given. The freedom of college that I had been promised throughout high school was something that helped motivate me through my high school years. Ultimately, my university did decide to allow us to come to campus, but it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing once I got there.

Orientation was uncomfortable. While the kids on my floor and I got to know each other here and there, we had to maintain social distancing at all the ice-breaker events which were optional to attend. Even my roommate and I kept our distance from each other somewhat, which led to us not talking as much as I’d hoped we would. COVID-19 precautions were isolating. I found it, admittedly, hard to find a good, safe reason to leave my room.

When classes started up the second week, I definitely felt lonely. My roommate and I only talked intermittently. While the typical beginning-of-class jitters were there, the excitement of meeting brand new people wasn’t. Most of my classes this semester are online, which means a lot of getting on Zoom alone in my room and joining a room of blank video feeds. I spent much of this original lonely period keeping in touch with friends from high school. It was extremely comforting to just hang out with them over a call, without having to worry about first impressions or getting to know a new person. My friend group from high school was a safe haven of sorts, where I could comfortably unwind after classes. Additionally, checking in with my parents gave me a sense of progress and motivation. They never failed to be encouraging and supportive, and were generally understanding of the unique struggles that COVID-19 brings to a freshmen year of college. For that, I can’t thank them enough. Love you guys!

I have now been living on campus for just over a month, and while I’m not a social butterfly, it has gotten a lot easier for me to put myself out there. Most of that ease can be attributed to the fact that everyone is going through the same thing. Almost every single first year student here is new to college, and no one has experienced college amid a global pandemic. It is harder, but not impossible, to get really invested in the higher level classes, to form unique friendships in a less-structured environment, and to feel a sense of belonging despite being socially distanced with one another. This added challenge is something that every first year here can relate to and, in a way, it creates a bond between us before we even meet each other. I’m sure we would all rather have a “normal” first year of college, but there's no doubt that COVID-19 has made the experience so far that much more meaningful.

Edward’s courage to find ways to work through the tough initial weeks of his freshman year and seek out the support system he trusted serves as an inspiration. For those of you who have children who are also feeling the challenges of adapting to college life in the midst of a pandemic, here are some suggestions for helping them make their college experience meaningful:

  • Suggest they reach out to their support system. As Edward notes, checking in with friends they trust, and family, can be helpful to let them unwind without having to worry about first impressions. Encourage them to share how they are feeling, what they need, and what they are discovering that is meaningful. Remind them that positive moments matter.

  • Assure them that they are not alone. As Edward pointed out, friends, roommates, and other college students around the country are “going through the same thing.” Suggest they seek comfort from this fact and use it as a source of strength.

  • Encourage them to establish keystone goals for themselves, including self-care, wellness, friend connections, and course work as goals. Tell them to celebrate their accomplishments and make adjustments as necessary.

  • Help them understand that adapting to rapid change and uncertainty takes time. Suggest they create a routine and rhythm to their day and breathe..., take breaks, and do not be so hard on themselves.

  • Suggest they focus on what they have control over and accept what they do not. Point out that wasting mental energy on things beyond their control is exhausting.

  • Encourage them to think, each day, about what is positive in their lives and what they did that made a difference in their lives.

  • Help them seek help from a mental health professional if they start to feel overwhelmed with anxiety or feelings of depression or emotional pain that does not go away.

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