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With the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the nation, the college experience has been turned on its head. A growing number of universities are opting to hold the fall semester online. Those accepting students in person have extensive rules and restrictions in place that drastically alter campus life.
For college students, the pandemic is churning up feelings of disappointment, fear, and anxiety. How can you make friends when social distancing is the order of the day? What do you do if your roommate ignores safety rules? How do you focus on academics when you’re bombarded with news about the scary state of the world?
“It’s a matter of taking one day at a time,” said Beth Jacobson, director of Community Response and Education for NewBridge Services. “College students will need to work on acceptance so they can make the most of the experience.”
College freshmen are, of course, the 2020 high school seniors who missed out on proms, sports seasons, high school musicals, and team competitions. They had to settle for virtual graduations and delayed in-person ceremonies.
Those headed to college campuses must now figure out if they’ll be subject to quarantine upon arrival, how much stuff they’re allowed to bring, and whether their parents can help set up their dorm room (not so in some cases). They are left wondering if they’ll be sent home in a matter of weeks if there’s an outbreak.
College students staying home and taking courses virtually may find it isolating; it’s often the moments between classes that friendships blossom. Even campus-bound students may find it harder, without traditional start-of-year, ice-breaking events.
“Adjusting to college life will certainly have its challenges,” said Jacobson. The solution, she said, is for students to strengthen their resiliency.
College students may find it comforting to know they aren’t alone in this new frontier of college life, Jacobson said. “Every college student in America is dealing with the fact that this is the new normal for now,” she said.
While colleges are offering fewer in-person events, Jacobson urges college students to explore what opportunities are available. “Most schools will have ways for students to connect, even if they’re virtual,” she said. Clubs may meet online or, when the weather allows, outdoors with social distancing. Socializing around a common interest can make conversation flow easier, she noted.
Jacobson also urges college students to keep in touch with loved ones, by phone, video conferencing or traditional mail. Handwriting or typing letters “lets you put your thoughts and feelings into words, and that can be cathartic,” she said. (Parents may want to send their kids with self-addressed envelopes and stamps, Jacobson suggested.)
The pandemic may flame fears of getting seriously sick, of carrying the virus and infecting others, and of losing career options after graduating amidst a faltering economy. Jacobson suggests young adults add calming techniques to their daily routine.
Colleges, including Rutgers University and the County College of Morris, offer online resources for practices such as mindfulness, deep breathing and guided imagery, and other mental health tips. NewBridge has created a repository of information on its website, including guidance on how to practice several forms of meditation. NewBridge also offers telehealth counseling sessions. (Call 973-316-9333 for an appointment.)
Like letter writing, journaling is a safe outlet that helps people process their thoughts and feelings, she noted.
“I suggest college students start a gratitude jar when the semester begins, and add to it daily,” Jacobson said. “Any time your spirit flags, read your gratitude entries and feel inspired,” she said.
Mental Health America offers free online screening tools, to help people identify problems they may have with depression, anxiety, addiction and other mental health problems.
Exercise, good nutrition and sleep are always the front line of well-being, and they are extremely important for young adults coping with everyday stressors in the midst of the pandemic. YouTube and smartphone app offer plenty of exercise regimens. Gyms and community groups now run group classes out of doors.
Healthy eating can help you cope with stress, Jacobson said. Eat plenty of lean proteins, fruits and vegetables, drink water throughout the day, and avoid excess sugar and caffeine, she suggested.
The value of adequate sleep cannot be overstated. Teens up to age 18 need 8 to 10 hours of sleep, while older young adults need 7 or more hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts suggest keeping a regular sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine late in the day, and getting off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
“It’s so important for college students to establish healthy routines, stay connected to family and friends, and practice relaxation techniques,” Jacobson said. “Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the pandemic will not last forever.”