Take a moment and enter my time machine. Fragments of time swirling and stardust flying. We find ourselves in the throes of March 2020. Life as we once knew has shifted to deserted store aisles as we frantically search for toilet paper, adjust to life with face masks (and what I endearingly call “Gray’s Anatomy acting” with Muppet arms and dramatic eyes), and attempting to succeed at life, work, and learning through increased screen time. I can still feel the adrenaline rush of the quick transition from the before-COVID-19 times to what has become our current reality of “six feet apart” and chapped hands from excessive use of hand sanitizer.
Imagine that, in the midst of all this, you’re between 16–20 years old and navigating critical social-emotional milestones, and unfortunately missing the traditional rites of passage that would prepare you for postsecondary education (such as your graduation celebration). Your landscape has been completely uprooted, and life as you know it has completely become a life unknown. You are a stranger in a strange land, yet you are expected to participate in life as if nothing has happened in the context around you. And then suddenly you’re thrown into applying to colleges and attending in person, when most interactions with other humans over the immediate few years have included your highly stressed family and other teenagers who don’t know what to do to make or maintain friends at this point in time, either. Yeah, that seems like that is bound to go… really… well.
Postsecondary administrators (and I’m assuming parents or support people of college students) have noted that there is something a bit different about the first-year students since the pandemic has taken root. They report higher levels of mental health concerns, especially anxiety, decision fatigue/paralysis and inability to make perceived simple decisions such as what to wear or eat, decrease in time management and study skills, and lack of understanding of social expectations such as responding to emails or attending classes in general. And with some skills atrophying, it is no surprise that grades have also plummeted.
So what can administrators, parents, families, and others do to support new students as they enter and navigate their collegiate careers? Are there certain aspects to be aware of in the environment to help colleges become more student-ready? The following are some tips and concepts to consider moving forward to help provide the appropriate level of trauma-informed challenge and support (Sanford, 1962).
How Parents and Family Members Can Help
- Begin the conversation about college with your youth early.
- How are they feeling about applying to a college?
- Does it make sense to attend somewhere nearby and live at home?
- Attend a community college or a four-year?
- If they’re not feeling ready, maybe talk about what taking a year or two off might look like and how to navigate as a circle of support.
- Public or private school?
- How do they learn best? Online? In-person? Hybrid?
- If you can, should you start talking to admissions counselors or book a tour?
- Make sure to ask about financial aid.
- Practice the skills needed to succeed once they attend college.
- Create a family calendar and have your youth add their appointments and important class assignments to it.
- Have your youth practice choosing their outfits and meals daily. It might seem silly, but these habits will support their transition.
- Practice conversations about a variety of topics. Ask your youth how they might feel about certain things or areas of conversation and work on those areas with them.
How K–12 Teachers and Administrators Can Help
- Connect with recently graduated alumnx and have a panel about their experience in the past 2–3 years. Do they have advice for students applying or considering attending college? What would they want their peers to know?
- Can you work with an Upward Bound and/or TRiO program in your local area to schedule tours or information sessions to support students in their development?
- Begin to set clear expectations with students about attending classes and submitting their assignments to help them as they transition to college.
- Include vital skills into your curriculum, such as time management, email, 1×1 conversations and presentations, facilitation, etc.
- We know that testing is not the most accurate measure of knowledge or skills. Often they are tools that have been extremely biased against students of color. However, when students have been registering for college courses, they have not accurately chosen the appropriate level for their skills. Begin having conversations with students about how to articulate their skills with their academic advisors. Practice these actual conversations if you are able and write this in students’ letters of recommendation.
- Support students by helping them fill out financial aid applications and add them to their calendars for annual renewal.
How Postsecondary Educators and Administrators Can Help
- Colleges need to focus on understanding that our work cannot be business as usual. We have been operating as corporate machines that are not trauma-informed and not within a disability justice framework. Educators and administrators cannot safely practice when they have been actively experiencing trauma from their context (e.g., COVID-19, anti-Black violence, anti-Asian violence, etc.)—and neither can students. In order to be more student-ready campuses, we must audit our environments and become more inclusive from our foundations to the theoretical policies. This pandemic reflection process includes a variety of questions to ponder in order to improve our practices within the context of the pandemic and beyond.
- We are not post-pandemic. We are not post-COVID.
- We owe it to students to be clear about this and to center the students who are most minoritized to keep them safer in terms of public health issues and support their degree process. This is an equity and inclusion issue. Allowing students to pay their tuition and then letting them drop out is not an option at this point. It is our duty to help students build the appropriate skills to succeed as lifelong learners—and at this point in the pandemic, the ways our colleges have worked are not serving many students, staff, educators, or administrators. We need to recognize the need to recognize our own biases and coloniality in our work.
- Develop and communicate clear expectations for students regarding conduct, behavior, and engagement in these pandemic times.
- They have been navigating in a seemingly dystopian environment. It is only fair to create conditions that help them succeed—and in order to do that, we must be direct and clear.
- Partner with other institutions to help create pathways for students in their learning.
- Perhaps this is the time for students to start at one college and finish their time at another. Partnerships make sense.
We must take care of each other, you all. I believe in us.
Thanks for continuing with us on this journey.
hc lou (she/her/hers)
- Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success
- The Psychological, Academic, and Economic Impact of COVID-19 on College Students in the Epicenter of the Pandemic
- Disability Justice Primer: Skin Tooth and Bone Book
- A Pandemic Reflection Process
- Learning reconsidered: A campus-wide focus on the student experience.
- Trauma-informed care on a college campus
- Coping flexibility, potentially traumatic life events, and resilience: A prospective study of college student adjustment
- Credo Consultant: Moving the Needle
- Three Learning Domains
- Suddenly Online: A NATIONAL SURVEY OF UNDERGRADUATES DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC
- Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A guide to develop trauma informed practices