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Finding Coping Strategies in the Aftermath of Covid

jamie_shushan
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A recent student advising meeting really got me thinking. Although there is hope that we may be turning a corner with Covid (or just getting used to this new normal), there is also a Covid aftermath many are facing right now. An aftermath that is a result of the impact of two years of unexpected life changes, disruption, and anxiety. Like so many, my student started college expecting the “old,” or pre-pandemic normal, but about the time he was feeling somewhat acclimated on campus, March 2020 came along and college became defined by Zoom. It is hard to fully digest this. His college life turned into Zoom...how could that be???

And the impact of this sudden and profound change meant he was changed forever. Class engagement through Zoom was particularly challenging for him. It was harder to concentrate, harder to participate, harder to ask questions, harder to connect with classmates, harder to motivate to do work, harder to study with the ever present distractions of technology, harder, harder, harder. Two years later, this student is doing everything he can to figure out how to change his college habits, to better manage his time, improve his study strategies, pull away from distractions, and also pull up his grades so he can get off academic probation.

Before saying more, I do want to acknowledge that colleges did what they could to figure out this new and unchartered territory of fully virtual learning environments. And nuggets of good news emerged, with some students thriving even better in this type of class setting. But I want to focus on the aftermath for those trying to pick up the difficult pieces of an unexpected college life.  

In this aftermath, there is grief. Grief in what could have been and then the shocking reality of what actually happened. Grief in an expectation of college life that was dashed in merely a few days. Grief in the extended period of disruption that meant months and years of different, not just days and weeks. In the speediness of life, many have not taken a moment to acknowledge, let alone feel, this grief. I hope anyone reading will take some time to reflect on the grief that might still be lingering, maybe with a friend, counselor, mentor, or through journal writing. It’s okay to be angry, sad, and feel frustrated. Sitting in the grief rather than ignoring it can often help us let go of those difficult feelings and truly put the past behind us, or at least provide an opportunity for some healing.

Another challenge in the aftermath of Covid is lingering anxiety. College anxiety is already ever present on campuses as students manage new college expectations, challenging coursework, being away from home for the first time, balancing school, work and family life all at the same time, etc. Many of us have to manage underlying levels of anxiety to begin with. Then you add Covid to the mix and anxiety can really invade the mind and body.

My anxiety escalated during this period and took me back to my sophomore year of college when anxiety took over and I almost left college. It was an incredibly difficult and lonely time, but thanks to the gentle urging of a college instructor, I found my way to a mental health counselor and a career counselor who became a lifelong mentor. These essential supports made it possible for me to share my struggles with a classmate who was going through a similar experience and felt ashamed that she too couldn’t seem to “handle” college. I found that regular river walks and rehearsals for a singing group (my personal versions of meditation) made a big difference in helping me turn the corner too. Why share this? Well, I recently realized that these very same strategies helped tame my Covid anxiety – consistent mental health support, seeking help from my mentor, honest friendships, walks outside with a new puppy, and joining a church choir. 

How lucky was I to have a college instructor who could really see what was going on for me? That one compassionate conversation helped me lift the mask I was wearing (that everything was fine) and find my way to essential resources I didn’t know much about and was honestly too proud to seek out. I could then face my anxiety instead of hiding it and recognize that I was suffering and getting low grades, not for lack of effort, but for lack of understanding how I could really help myself. I became open to learning new strategies for coping, which meant I was better able to handle college work. It’s not always easy to know what students need, but honest check-ins can allow them to be more vulnerable and see that they not only deserve the help, but that it is essential to figure out what works given the many resources and options out there. This could mean they too find lifelong strategies that make new challenges, like Covid, easier to manage. And improving health and wellness frees up mental space for college students to focus more fully on what is happening in the present.

And so I want to bring us back to the present. By finding ways to stay more present in each moment of our lives, I think it is easier to actually manage what life hands us and remain resilient in the aftermath of difficult situations. And college life in all its excitement and all its challenge hands you so much to manage. The ability to be more present can help with critical thinking, concentration, deep learning, studying, relationships, self-care, and much more – all things that feed into college success and enjoyment. My student has fortunately found a good support system and as a result, he is staying more present to how he can make positive changes for himself. I have told him to take pride in all that he is handling in the aftermath of Covid, and I hope you all do the same.

About the Author
Jamie H. Shushan is Associate Director of the Crimson Summer Academy (CSA) at Harvard University where she works to increase access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and helps them succeed once they arrive on campus. In her work at CSA and beyond, she teaches numerous classes focused on college success, engages students in career exploration fieldwork, and serves as an advisor and advocate for students at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Jamie earned her Master’s degree in Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2006, where she served as an academic and residential advisor for first-year students and worked at the Office of Career Services, participating in counseling, student outreach, and program development. Before joining the Crimson Summer Academy, she worked with the Associate Vice President for Higher Education in the Office of the President, assisting with a number of presidential initiatives and priorities including the creation of the CSA.