Gustavus Adolphus College
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the student experience. While the transition to college has always been an opportunity for growth and change, the pandemic has disrupted traditional college experiences and influenced the ability of students to adapt and overcome obstacles. It is imperative that we take the time now to learn from these experiences.
I conducted a research study in the winter of 2021 to explore the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on first year college students’ sense of belonging (Potts, in press). The study showed that new students experienced a collective roadblock to “traditional” college entry which could create developmental barriers and challenges that would linger into a post-pandemic world.
The pandemic and institutional response has created new challenges for first-year students (Patel, 2020; Brown, 2020). Patel (2020) discussed the challenges that institutions faced during the pandemic as they worked to continue providing “high touch” care to students in a “no touch” world (p. 4). Evidence indicates that the pandemic has negatively affected student mental health (The Healthy Minds Network & American College Health Association [ACHA], 2020) in the form of increased levels of moderate-to-severe depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts (Wang et al., 2020; Fruehwirth et al., 2021). A national survey conducted by The Mary Christie Institute (2021) found that 87% of faculty report that students’ mental health has worsened—or significantly worsened—since the start of the pandemic. How will we equip students to respond? How will we encourage students to bounce back from challenges they have faced during the pandemic? I conducted a qualitative study to explore how students were processing their experiences and preparing for what is next.
I conducted virtual focus groups of students about first-year student transitions during the fall semester of 2020. Participants were recruited via email at a predominantly white, small, residential liberal arts institution in the Midwest United States. Three focus groups of six participants each were conducted prior to the start of the spring 2021 semester, and all participants had just completed their first semester in college. Focus group questions focused on the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic had on participants’ experience (e.g., “How has COVID-19 affected what you anticipated college would be like?” and “What has been challenging about being in college during COVID-19?”). This study explored social connections, living in residence halls, classroom learning, and mental health.
Among the 18 participants, seven identified as men and 11 identified as women. Additionally, 11 were White students, four were Black/African American students, two were Latinx students, and one was an Asian/Asian-American student. A higher percentage of BIPOC student voices were represented in the focus groups than are reflected in institutional student body demographics. Pseudonyms were assigned to each participant. All 18 participants lived in on-campus housing.
Data were analyzed using constant comparison analysis as it has a useful application to qualitative data such as that collected via focus groups (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Analysis was also informed by Krueger and Casey (2015), who noted that any approach to focus group data analysis must be systematic, verifiable, sequential, and continuous. The coding process began immediately following the first focus group, therefore establishing a process that Onwuegbuzie, et al. (2009) referred to as emergent-systematic focus group design, where the first group is used for exploratory purposes and subsequent groups are used for verification. The progression through Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) coding steps—open coding, axial coding, and selective coding—resulted in the emergence of several themes centered on developing resilience, as outlined below.
Analysis of the data resulted in the emergence of four key themes related to resilience during the pandemic – experiencing change, demonstrating determination, reconciling losses, and navigating challenges. These themes are explored below and highlighted with quotes from participants.
The college experience is filled with opportunities for change for students, including navigating new experiences, shifting priorities, and the clarification of values. A by-product of students experiencing college during a pandemic is that constant change and adaptation became the norm and a necessity. As a result, shared adversity experiences created a connection to the institution and to peers.
Uncertainty surrounding social and academic experiences significantly altered daily college life expectations for participants. They discussed a willingness to alter expectations, finding comfort in a sense of hope, developing patience, managing isolation, and coping with losses both big and small. Student resilience led to an understated sense of accomplishment about trying to connect with peers and feeling connected to the institution. Jenny, a White woman, said,
This idea that we have to kind of persevere and deal with challenges and figure out how to do it makes me proud of being a [student at this institution]. We have this connection to each other even before we met and we’re kind of in this together.
Sophia, a White woman, said “I’m low-key so proud of how [other students] seem hopeful about getting through [COVID-19]. I feel like we’re doing better here than my friends are at other colleges and we just know it’s going to get better.” Experiencing constant change enabled participants like Jenny and Sophia to develop a tolerance of disruption and gave them confidence in their ability to adapt.
Participants acknowledged that there were not directions for being a student during a pandemic, and that sense of the unknown led to self-determination and internal motivation. Larry, a White man, said,
No one could have predicted this is what [college] would be like, and I know we can’t predict the future, but it makes you realize you must take control of your own situation if you want to get something out of this [experience].
Larry’s determination to seize the reins of his own experience was echoed by Signe, a White woman, when she said,[It is] so easy to think about how it’s all going wrong, and you fall into a pit of sadness. You must figure out on your own how to be grateful for the chance to do things, even if it’s not ideal.
Ella, a Black woman, and Oren, a White man, both commented that losing focus and getting distracted during virtual classes and meetings. As a result, self-discipline and self-motivation were needed. Students felt compelled to control what they could even when so much in the environment was beyond their control.
However, finding control was no easy and was something students had to do repeatedly. Serena, a Black woman, said, “You have moments of motivation but then times when you are like paralyzed and can’t get things done… It’s so hard to figure out how you’ll feel each day or even each moment in a day.” The lack of control and motivation was a new experience for students but provided perspective on how focusing on what they could control motivated them to adapt.
In addition to determination, students discussed losses they experienced. Andrea, a Latinx woman, shared,[As high school seniors], we missed out on some of the stuff that makes you who you are going into college. But we all have that in common, so I think it maybe gives us a perspective that helps us manage how we feel about it.
Allen, a White man, added “I didn’t get to go to prom and my [graduation] was virtual, so having to follow some extra rules here doesn’t actually seem that bad if it means I can still be in college.” The losses made participants aware of what the loss of milestones or rites of passage felt like, which eased the burden of an altered college experience but—more importantly—provided them with tools to rationalize and negotiate loss to move forward.
In addition to senses of loss, participants felt that their transitions from high school to college during the pandemic put them in a unique position. Anna, an Asian woman, said, “I think… the upper-class students struggled way more than we did. They knew what college was like before. We’re just rolling with it because we’re just happy we get to be here.” Calvin, a Black man, concurred, saying,
Wearing masks, doing social distancing, not having visitors allowed on campus, and all those other rules can be frustrating and feel, like, heavy. But it’s basically all we know since we’re new here, so I feel like we are getting used to it more than [returning] students.
Students acknowledged that the pandemic was incorporated into other transitions they navigated as they started college.
Students’ experiences during their first semester reified their commitment to succeeding in college. Irene, a White woman, expressed optimism despite loss, saying,
The things that were taken away from us are the things that kept us here. Not being able to have friends visit, not easily being able to go to parties, not having sports… it sucked not to have that, but it’s the reason we’ve been able to stay [on campus].
Because students did not have another first-year college experience to compare to theirs, they navigated the challenges while maintaining a focus on persistence and achievement.
Participants noted the strain that the pandemic was putting on their mental health, mentioning their feelings of stress, anxiety, isolation, and depression. Emily, a White woman, said “I was so excited to start [college], but after about two weeks of realizing how life would be here I kind of like just hit an all-time low where my mental health had never been so bad, and I was crying all the time.” Casper, a White man, was faced with a similar low point. He said, “I struggled a lot. I was always good with mental health but after the excitement of starting wore off, I just got buried in all these feelings. I suddenly just worried about everything, here and with my family.”
Not all student challenges were the same. Students of Color in the focus groups talked about racialized resilience at a PWI. Students said that their racial identities were at the center of overcoming systemic as well as pandemic obstacles. Calvin, a Black man, said,
I knew from the start [of college] that I wouldn’t always feel like everyone else here because I’m Black. So, everyone else is worried about just making friends and I’m like all worried about whether I can ever even fit in here.
Fitting in surfaced for Ella, a Black woman, as well. She discussed the significance of being asked to limit close contacts to groups of four to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. She said,
We had to basically choose and prioritize who our friends could be. So, I basically ended up with other [Black] girls in my dorm because it was easier, but then it was hard to figure out who else [on campus] was there to help me and who would make sure I was doing okay.
Andrea, a Latinx woman, described how her identities as a Student of Color and a first-generation student impacted her experience. She said,
It was hard for me to try to get information to my parents. They are not great at speaking English and I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so they already weren’t sure what to expect. [COVID-19] just made things so much more complicated right away when I left home.
The additional obstacles that Students of Color had navigate created a burden that white students did not experience. Their identities required them to develop additional resilience.
The challenges of entering college during a pandemic altered how students persisted. The expectations that students in this study had about how college should look or feel were challenged. As a result, students identified challenges they had to overcome. The COVID-19 pandemic created stress and anxiety among students, inspiring them to employ resilience and navigate uncertainty. Participant responses about mental health during the pandemic reflected findings from extant research (Borkoski & Roos, 2020; The Healthy Minds Network & ACHA, 2020; Browning et al, 2021).
Student affairs administrators and educators are likely familiar with post-traumatic stress (PTS), which refers to the on-going psychological and physical effects that occur after a trauma has ended (American Psychiatric Association, 2020). PTS is an issue that many students will face once we move beyond the pandemic (Li et al., 2021). Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) is action-focused growth that stems from trauma (Almedom & Glandon, 2006; Infurna & Jayawickreme, 2019; Levine, et al., 2009). Keith Edwards (2013), a noted student affairs educator who often focuses on positive psychology, wrote in a blog post,
Post Traumatic Growth is not about putting a good superficial face on bad things, but comes from deeply experiencing trauma and finding learning, discovering new things about yourself, gaining new insight on the world, experiencing growth, and gaining increased resiliency as a result.
This aligns with the experiences of students in this study who talked about discovering, experiencing, and learning—not just loss—during their transitions to college.
Participants in this study did not explicitly use terms like grit or resilience but specified characteristics associated with those traits that were vital to their ability to transition to college. Participants demonstrated Dweck’s (2008) growth mindset by exhibiting their ability to adapt and learn changes with effort and are not set in a fixed state. Participants described the challenges they and their peers faced as they transitioned to college and acknowledged that if they could just get through the complexities created by the pandemic, they were confident that they could adapt and succeed.
Participants faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in their first semester of college with optimism, confidence, and creativity, which are Duckworth’s (2013) cornerstones of resilience. Despite missing end of high school and beginning of college experiences, participants valued the experiences they did have. They focused on how persisting through the current situation would lead to a better experience. They acknowledged that by not knowing what they were missing, they were equipped to move through their first year of college.
Resilience is interpreted, developed, and shaped in unique ways depending on students’ identities. The nuanced development of resilience based on identities and on specific interpretations of experiences frames resilience in an important light. As Nicolazzo and Carter (2019) noted, the notion that the dualistic construct of resilience – that “one has resilience, or one does not” (p. 77) – is problematic. Viewing resilience and grit as individualistic endeavors shifts the onus of development away from the institution (systemic inequities, etc.), placing it instead on the individual student. That approach incorrectly assumes that all students have the right tools in the toolbox and just need to figure out how to use them to demonstrate resilience. It is important that individual experiences – particularly based on identities – are considered when discussing resilience-building for students, particularly as institutions continue to respond to the effects of the pandemic.
Attenberg (2020) asked whether we are focusing on fixing the right problems when we teach resilience. Rather than focusing on building protective factors, she encourages us to focus on factors that disproportionately hinder the growth of marginalized students, like systemic racism, poverty, and inadequate educational and social supports. Students of Color in this study spoke explicitly to these types of issues as challenges based on the identities they hold.
Implications for Practice
The findings of this study illuminate the need to reframe educators’ ways of thinking about student transition and resilience. Participants identified the need to develop resilience to manage the complexities of life during the pandemic. Educators must work to foster resiliency skills in students as they continue to navigate the pandemic and begin their post-pandemic experiences.
Educators working with first-year students should create environments that foster engagement and connection through the utilization of resources. Imad (2021) noted that institutions must help students connect stress, trauma, and learning while focusing on mental health. Some suggestions for practitioners include:
- Counseling Centers and campus partners must develop strategies to assist students in managing isolation, loneliness, interpersonal relationships, and social media. An American College Health Association survey (2020) indicated that 41% of undergraduate students experienced moderate to serious psychological distress and increased to 50% at the onset of the pandemic. Browning et al. (2021) found 85% of college students surveyed experienced elevated levels of distress during the pandemic.
- Collaborations between Counseling Centers, Health Service Centers, and Peer Education programs can help students navigate trauma, anxiety, and stress through resilience skill development resources. For example, Carleton College offers Happy Hour, a program designed to teach students skills to help them flourish. (https://www.carleton.edu/health-promotion/mental-health/happy-hour/)
- Faculty and instructors need to focus on students’ classroom adjustment. Students may need help adjusting to norms and expectations of college classrooms. Instructors can also address mental health issues by encouraging open dialogue and sharing resources.
- Student Affairs professionals should partner with faculty to develop and implement courses related to resilience. Gustavus Adolphus College offers courses called Bouncing Forward and Resiliency Rebound that introduce tools, concepts, and principles of resilience and positive psychology. (https://news.blog.gustavus.edu/2018/01/29/sirois-explores-resiliency-with-gustavus-students/)
- Educators in the classroom and student affairs must assist students in connecting PTS and PTG. This requires allowing them space and opportunity to develop post-pandemic resilience skills.
Student affairs educators should recognize moving beyond the pandemic may create dissonance and confusion. Students who started college during the pandemic have not had the same college experience as upper-division students. For first-year students, the stress and anxiety of navigating a pandemic may have limited how they interpret what possibilities exist at college. It will be a challenge to engage students where they are. These opportunities speak to multiple ACPA/NASPA Professional Competencies, including Advising & Supporting and Student Learning & Development. Specifically, student affairs practitioners might focus on:
- Advising & Supporting: Enhance inclusive active listening to fully understand students’ anxieties or concerns; recognize the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on marginalized or underrepresented communities; work to create inclusive spaces for those affected; facilitate individual decision-making and goal setting; (re)teach students about campus resources and opportunities.
- Student Learning & Development: Existing student development theories do not account for the pandemic experiences of students today. As a result, we must create, adjust, and adapt to meet the needs of students. Use the adapted practices implemented during COVID-19 (e.g., Zoom meetings; online training modules; asynchronous content sharing, etc.) to expand methods of teaching, training, and practice in the future.
Finally, students of color in this study did not talk about community-based practice but focused instead on what they did as individuals. Developing more community-based work and resources is an opportunity for innovation in student affairs. A community approach may be a vital aspect of resilience development in a post-pandemic world on many campuses and is worthy of further investigation.
The traditional first-year student experience was dramatically altered for new students because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ripple effects of our pandemic response may be felt for years to come. The opportunities and challenges ahead for all of higher education – but in particular the experience of newer students – will be monumental. Students will undoubtedly experience dissonance and discomfort as they unlearn the behaviors they were taught during the pandemic, and educators must be intentional in providing opportunities for students to process and reflect on their experiences. The pandemic has created a burden for many students that may have lasting effects on various aspects of their lives, both on campus and away. Therefore, it is imperative that educators acknowledge and help address pandemic-related trauma by providing resources and tools that will equip students to develop resilience. The findings of this study indicate that students are primed to develop and strengthen resilience skills in a post-pandemic college landscape.
- What opportunities can be created on your campus to listen to student concerns about a return to “normal” in a post-pandemic world?
- How do issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion intersect with building resilience among underrepresented/marginalized students on your campus and how do you help mitigate disproportionate challenges those students may face?
- What types of assessment might be conducted on your campus to understand gaps in student development to adjust student services to appropriately meet the needs of students in a post-pandemic setting?
- What partnerships/collaborations can occur on your campus to assist students in recognizing and developing resilience skills?
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Charlie Potts is Assistant Vice President for Student Life at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. He earned his MA and EdD at the University of Minnesota. His research interests include men & masculinities, social media, and mental health.