How College Students Are Telling Their Stories of COVID-19

How are young adults coping with the challenges of the pandemic?

Posted Oct 01, 2020

I can hardly believe it has been six months since college students across the country packed up their dorm rooms and went home to complete their spring semesters remotely. COVID-19 has disrupted our lives, to say the least, and we are still struggling to figure out how to get back to normal—or even what the new normal will look like.

Some college students remain at home, engaging in online classes and educational experiences, others are back on campus wearing masks and practicing safe social distancing, whereas still others face even greater disruptions and challenges and were unable to return to school for the fall semester. How will these students fare? How can young adults, just emerging into independence, cope with these challenges and create meaning in ways that allow them to build purposeful lives? This is the question we are asking in a multisite study of college freshman: How can we best understand what these young college students are facing and how can we help them to flourish?

Not surprising to those of you who have read my blog, my colleagues and I are focusing on stories. My fellow researchers, Jordan Booker at the University of Missouri (who is posting a related blog post on his own Psychology Today blog, "Journeys in Development"), Monisha Pasupathi and Cecilia Wainryb at the University of Utah (the University of Utah also provided the seed money for this project, so a big thanks!), Kate McLean at Western Washington University, and Andrea Follmer Greenhoot at the University of Kansas, are collecting stories from college freshman, asking them to tell us both what their greatest challenges facing COVID-19 have been as well as what they have learned about themselves through this experience. 

We first asked 633 freshmen in April and May 2020, just as the pandemic was closing down the country, to tell us these stories through an online survey. We also asked them lots of questions about their home and health situation, asked them to complete standardized measures of depression, anxiety, and well-being, as well as questions about their academic progress. We returned to these students in August, as the Fall semester was in planning, to ask them again to tell us these kinds of stories, and to assess their current situation and well-being. We will continue to monitor these students throughout the academic year, but we are already seeing several themes emerge from their stories that will help all of us teaching and working with college students to better understand what they are experiencing and what they need from us. 

The good news is that many of these students are coping well. There are many stories of strength in the face of challenge, of learning new skills and committing to new values: learning to manage their time, learning they enjoy their own company, learning that they are resilient, and learning how much they value their family and their friends. But there are also heartbreaking stories—stories of being lonely and isolated, of facing severe health challenges and even death among loved ones, and of feeling lost and anxious. How can we understand these differences and, even more so, how can we help these more distressed students?

One thing that is emerging from our preliminary data analysis is that those students who elaborate more on their thoughts and feelings are showing higher levels of depression and anxiety than those students who do not do this. This might seem counter-intuitive in that we know that openly discussing emotions has a positive impact on mental health, but in another way, these findings make a lot of sense. These students are not simply expressing emotions, they seem to be ruminating, engaging in cyclical and unending questions about negative events and consequences; they seem unable to quiet their negative emotions, and remain enmeshed in worry about their lives and their futures. So how does this help us understand how to help them? 

First, clearly we need to understand the valid anxiety that young people are facing right now. Their worlds have been turned upside down just as they were starting to build their independent lives. But we must also help them understand that, although their future is uncertain, it is also a hopeful one for them. We know, from our own stories and the stories of our parents and grandparents, that hard times are endured and overcome, and good times are always around the corner. The stories that have sustained us and our families through the generations must be told again and again, so this young generation frames their own stories as stories of resilience. We must provide the models and the stories from the past that help our emerging generation understand that the present does not define them but, rather, that their future stories are still to be written.