A Long Way From Anywhere

College and the coronavirus.

Posted Oct 08, 2020

Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
Source: Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

The transition from high school to college ranks as one of the more challenging changes in the turbulence of life. And the global pandemic has made it that much harder.

It’s telling that, according to the 2016 UCLA Higher Education Research Institute survey of first-year students, “87% said that while high school prepared them academically for college, it did not provide any skills on how to socially and emotionally adjust” (Figueroa, 2020).

Now, the game has changed with typical uncertainty, apprehension, and anxiety colliding with a virus-borne multiplier effect that leaves many young adults in crisis on campus, or, as the case may be, off it. Comparing before (pandemic) and after data can be useful in fully comprehending the burdens young people face.

TIME magazine reported, “In spring 2017, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had ‘felt overwhelming anxiety’ in the same period” (Reilly, 2020).

Three years later, their 2020 successors may benefit from information and resources made available by The Jed Foundation. Jed says, “For most young people, everything has changed in a short period of time. Students have been asked to leave schools and dorms abruptly, and many are having to adjust to online classes. It’s normal to have a variety of feelings in response to this transition” (Jed, 2020).

New data released by Active Minds suggests what those feelings may be, revealing that 20% of college students report their “mental health has significantly worsened” during the outbreak, with 74% citing “maintaining a routine” as a challenge (Active Minds, 2020).

In a September 18, 2020, article in the Greenville News titled, “The ‘Uncertainty’ of It All: 3 Clemson Students, COVID-19 and a Semester Like No Other,” writer Zoe Nicholson profiles the experiences of first-year student Morgan Gregory and two others, each navigating the tough terrain of the coronavirus. Nicholson reports, “The pandemic left Morgan sitting on her parents’ couch — in her pajamas — in Greer for the first four weeks of college, using Zoom to listen to her first-ever college lectures … using Snapchat and group-texts to try to make friends” (Nicholson, 2020).  

At nearby University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the University of Alabama, outbreaks of the coronavirus had administrators scrambling to reconcile typical college life with protecting students, faculty, and staff.

The Atlantic article by Adam Harris, “What Did College Leaders Think Was Going to Happen?” recounted the following (Harris, 2020).

On August 16, dozens upon dozens of students wrap around the barrier in front of Gallettes, a local haunt in Tuscaloosa. It’s the end of formal sorority recruitment at the University of Alabama. One student smirks; his eyes are covered by sunglasses, but no mask conceals his mouth. There are four, maybe five masks in the crowd of roughly 100 people packed tightly together …

The university released data on its first batch of COVID-19 test results eight days later. Between August 19, when classes started, and August 24, 562 students tested positive. A few days passed, and another batch of results was posted—this time 481 students tested positive over a three-day period ...

For months, local news outlets, including student newspapers, had been pointing out flaws in the university’s plan to reopen campus for in-person classes during the pandemic. Institutions like the University of Alabama are built for close contact—the undergraduate population is composed of 38,000 students who study together, eat lunch together, play beer pong together—which makes them highly susceptible to mass infections. But even on the simple measures, such as suspending Greek activities, several institutions fell short.

As of September 10, more than 2,000 infected students had been identified with more than 600 sanctioned or suspended (AP News, 2020).

Boston’s Northeastern University expelled 11 first-year students for attending a party in a Westin Hotel room used for housing. An article in News@Northeastern reports, “The students (and their parents) were notified Friday that they must vacate the Westin within 24 hours. … [and] have been informed that they are no longer part of the Northeastern community for the fall semester” (Thomsen, 2020).

A freshman from another Boston-area college faced a similar kind of adversity, having lost the right to live on campus for violations of new restrictions, including having too many (brand new) friends in his dorm to watch a sporting event on television.

He told me that, in a statement to the disciplinary team, he explained, “On September 2nd, students came over to my suite with the intention of enjoying the game. There was never a point where we intended to have a party or any type of mass gathering. There was no loud music, no drinking games, and no large alcohol source. Yes, alcohol was present, and that was a mistake on our part.

“None of us thought we were violating protective orders. We had all just been tested and were negative. In our minds, we were just hanging out.”

This young man’s account reflects the view of developmental psychologists who have warned that the pandemic confronts students with a “no-win” scenario for which they are fundamentally unprepared. They arrive on campus with few, if any, friends and, by design, are extremely sociable. Add the desperate quest to find their peer group, a lingering fearlessness, and a typical lack of experience with serious illness and death, and you can appreciate the disconnect.

More recently, Middlebury College in Vermont shipped home 22 students for coronavirus-related infractions, just shy of the 23 students ejected from Syracuse University in August (Finn, 2020).

Others would follow.

The bottom line? First-year students beginning their college journey in 2020 face ever-changing rules and increasingly rigid restrictions, leaving them feeling isolated, disconnected, and disappointed. Many opted out on their own, fleeing living arrangements resembling confinement, including limited outdoor time and meals delivered to their rooms.

For dismissed and suspended students, it may seem like “one step forward and two steps back,” sitting at home, again. Still a long way from anywhere.


Active Minds. (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on student mental health. April 2020 Survey Data. https://www.activeminds.org/studentsurvey/?sm_guid=MzM4MTg0fDI4ODczNDE4fC0xfGdpbGxpYW5AYWN0aXZlbWluZHMub3JnfDI2OTMwNjZ8fDB8MHw3NjIyMzAzNXw5NTF8MHwwfHwzMTQwNzI1 (4 Oct. 2020).

AP News. (2020).  Alabama college students sanctioned for COVID violations. September 10, 2020. The Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/tuscaloosa-alabama-us-news-virus-outbreak-6dd0512c3a8f4f6193366105ac5188a5 (4 Oct. 2020).

Figueroa, S. (2020). Beyond academics: first year student success requires mental & emotional well-being. August 3, 2020. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. https://www.naspa.org/blog/beyond-academics-first-year-student-success-requires-mental-and-emotional-well-being (4 Oct. 2020).

Finn, J. (2020). Middlebury College removes 22 students from campus for violating Covid guidelines. September 22, 2020. VTDigger. https://vtdigger.org/2020/09/22/middlebury-college-removes-22-students-from-campus-for-violating-covid-guidelines/ (4 Oct. 2020).

Harris, A. (2020). What did college leaders think was going to happen? September 9, 2020. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/09/college-coronavirus-outbreaks/616069/ (4 Oct. 2020).

JED. (2020).  COVID-19 resource guide for students, teens & young adults. The Jed Foundation. https://www.jedfoundation.org/covid-19-resource-guide-for-students-teens-young-adults/ (4 Oct. 2020).

Nicholson, Z. (2020). The ‘uncertainty’ of it all: 3 Clemson students, COVID-19 and a semester like no other. September 18, 2020. Greenville News. https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/local/2020/09/18/college-covid-clemson-how-3-students-navigate-semester-anxiety/5802367002/ (4 Oct. 2020).

Reilly, K. (2020). Record numbers of college students are seeking treatment for depression and anxiety – but schools can’t keep up. March 19, 2020. TIME. https://time.com/5190291/anxiety-depression-college-university-students/ (4 Oct. 2020).

Thomsen, I. (2020). Northeastern dismisses 11 students for gathering in violation of COVID-19 policies. September 4, 2020. News@Northeastern. https://news.northeastern.edu/2020/09/04/northeastern-dismisses-11-students-for-gathering-in-violation-of-covid-19-policies/ (4 Oct. 2020).