With the COVID-19 pandemic taking a toll on students, personally and academically, many of them are modeling how to respond to the new normal.
So many of us in higher education, and across the world, are exhausted, frustrated, and anxious. Two years ago, everything started to shut down—initially for only two weeks, maybe three—so that we could "bend the curve" to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control and return to normal life.
In those first weeks, which became months, we learned that technology could enable virtual learning in many remarkable ways. But even with all this technology, students still struggled to make real connections with their professors and with each other. And everywhere, all the time, was the risk that the coronavirus was out there, ready to get you if you were not careful or if you were just unlucky. Now, even with vaccines, COVID-19 surges continue as we enter year three.
On another level, however, something interesting is happening in higher education. With the COVID-19 pandemic also taking a toll on students, personally and academically, many of them are modeling, for the rest of us, how to respond to the new normal. In the last week of my class in December 2021, I asked 110 undergraduates:
"How would you say the COVID-19 pandemic has changed you as a student and as a person?"
Students stated a variety of ways in which they had matured during the pandemic. Many offered some version of "I've learned how to manage stress and independence." They reported becoming much better at learning independently and developing important life skills. They noted that they are now more aware of the impact of their actions on other people and that they have new appreciation for friends, family, school, and being in nature.
Other students were much less positive. Academically, they reported: "Online learning is really hard—and I am not good at it." They're delighted to be on campus and in person, but they also had to adjust to going back to the classroom. Some students replied more personally: "I'm anxious and sad." "I'm pessimistic and cynical." "I'm burned out." "I'm stressed out." "I have new and worse mental health issues."
Still other students offered a mixed response. Several said something like: "I am a better person but a worse student." Although they considered themselves to be sophisticated social media users, they know that they spend too much time with it. One insightful student reflected that the impact of the pandemic on students was "huge and may not be fully understood for years."
How are students managing all this? Overall, students are coping with their exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety in some healthy ways: through self-care, openness, and empathy.
Students are making a deliberate choice for self-care. For many students, "self-care" may have been considered an indulgent luxury before the pandemic. They heard people telling them: "You should be in school full-time and doing an internship and working at a job and conducting research and volunteering and and and. . . . If you are resting, if you are not interested, don't worry, there is always someone else, ready to work harder, work faster, get ahead. They will win and you will lose—so you better keep going."
But students seem to have made a conscious decision that go-go-go is no longer the only route. Students are saying "no" to things—things that are not essential or not rewarding, things that might advance their careers but not their lives. Students are focusing on healthier relationships, nutrition and exercise, and positive attitudes. Some of my students, for example, began taking—or teaching—Zoom yoga classes. Others incorporated long walks in green spaces into their busy schedules.
Flowing from self-care, students are now being more open with their instructors. They'll say: "I didn't have time to do the assignment"—offering no excuses or apologies (or drama) and willing to accept any consequences. They speak candidly about their own health. "I didn't come to class with my cough. I didn't want to put anyone at risk." Or: "I got tested. It's strep, not Covid." In response, instructors don't need doctors' notes: we are more trusting, with bonds forged from our common threats and from our students' trust in us.
Students are increasingly open about their mental health as well. Sometimes this goes back to self-care: "I just needed a day off." Other times students offer unapologetic candor about specific mental health diagnoses—information that instructors don't need and that students might once have thought carried real stigma. "I am being treated for anxiety"—or depression or ADHD or bipolar disorder. "I'm a recovering alcoholic and drug addict." "My therapist said . . ."
Students are also more open about other parts of their lives: "My dad lost his job." "I came out to my Mom." "My boyfriend dumped me," "I'm failing chemistry." Expecting no judgment or special treatment, they simply think it's now normal to share.
Finally, students are responding to the new normal with empathy. Instead of scrutinizing the decisions of others—especially on social media—they accept each other's decisions more generously and with support. Students know that there is a lot they don't know about each other: lives, backgrounds, struggles. Students may not understand Alex's priorities or Sasha's choices, and that's okay. Let Alex be Alex and let Sasha be Sasha.
We can't know whether these lessons will last beyond the pandemic. The next cadre of college and university students—struggling today through their own middle and high school journeys—will have been through pandemic-era online learning at a much younger age. But for now, all of us working in higher education can learn from how students are responding to the new normal with self-care, openness, and empathy.
Jim Quirk teaches in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, DC.
© 2022 Jim Quirk. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.