Off Campus: How College Students Are Adapting to the New Academic Norm of the Pandemic

college students

Last week, we shared an update from US-based parents managing school closures during the pandemic. Many find themselves balancing home-schooling with family care and careers. Interviews showed how these parents are struggling, managing, and relying on technology companies to deliver easy-to-navigate educational platforms.

Parents were clear that they were worried about their children’s social development. This led to another question for us: what about college students facing abrupt school closures? COVID-19 has prompted school and campus closures at over 3,000 higher education institutions in the US, affecting over 22 million students as of this writing.

I interviewed a sample of college students from private and public schools across the US. As a part of the interview, each shared a selection of images reflecting their current emotional reality. All now find themselves either living back at home with families or quarantined in off-campus housing with roommates. I hoped to learn how they’re navigating this new development and managing their social, academic, and personal development.

Cultural Context – Losing out on the college experience

In post-WWII North America, “starting college” has come to be a developmental milestone, signifying a break with a child-like past and the beginning of a new stage of maturation. The increased availability and acceptance of online college degrees and non-traditional college journeys have altered the higher education landscape. But the post-secondary experience continues to serve as an archetypal “Hero’s Journey” in our popular culture.

Though narratives vary, in film and literature college is frequently depicted as a catalyst for personal growth:

  • The beginning of lifelong relationships or friendships (Peter’s Friends, The Big Chill, Before Sunrise)
  • The rejection of traditional (sometimes arbitrary) authority (Animal House, Old School)
  • Self-discovery and identity formation (Good Will Hunting, School Daze)

These narratives were beneath many of the stories I heard. The experiences the students have had in their (still unfinished) college careers contained many of these implied journeys. As they processed with me, shared stories of leaving friends, partners, and promising sports seasons behind, two key axes emerged:

  • My self / Others: Navigating implications for themselves (as individuals) is balanced by the recognition of the need to be aware of the broader community they live in, including their families, the student body, and society at large.
  • Immediate responsibilities / Ethical and moral responsibilities: Students struggle to remain aware and responsible of their day-to-day obligations (schoolwork, for example) while situating themselves in the broader ethical awareness of how much worse things are in China and Italy, for example.

These overarching axes are interrelated and point to a core set of questions students are asking of themselves and others.

As they navigate these questions at the heart of their experiences, four key themes emerged from students I spoke with.

1. Their social loss is greater than their education loss.

Students I met were confident that their schools had provided them what was needed to remain academically on-track. The bigger loss is social.

College for most acts as the nexus for new and expanded friendship networks through exposure to new people and participation in extracurriculars like Greek Societies, sports teams, and performance groups. These have all been abruptly cancelled, and their stoppage is compounded by shelter-in-place mandates.

“I’m missing out on the time that we could all be spending together. I won’t necessarily get this back.”

Students I met mourn this loss. They struggle to maintain satisfactory connections with friends over FaceTime or Snapchat. They miss being able to physically hug friends and share space. And given the relatively short duration of traditional colleges, some recognize that “time is short” and that they are missing chances to experience a core piece of the university reality.

2. Students are learning responsibility without structure.

When I spoke to students, most were in their second week of distance learning. This offered a chance to talk about how they’re adapting their routines and handling workloads. Without specific times to be at class, on-campus distraction-free zones like libraries and coffee shops, and the cancellation of extracurriculars, students face a glut of time and a dearth of required activities.
“I have so much free time now that I don’t know what to do with it all. I don’t know what to do with all the time I have on my hands.”

This introduces the need to impose their own structure on different class requirements, translate time zones for Zoom classes, and centrally manage due dates, assignment requirements, and dispersed information sources for classes. For many, this is the first time they’ve had to bring order to chaos on this scale, and the stress is significant.

3. Technology is indispensable – but not a replacement for what’s missed.

Gen Z has been called the “digital native” generation, and students turn to a variety of tech resources in an attempt to stay connected with friends. In addition to Zoom lectures and YouTube classes, students I met rely heavily on FaceTime and Snapchat for in-the-moment connections and updates from friends. Instagram gives them a peek into friends’ homes and daily routines and Zoom allows for larger gatherings and group conversations. These tend to be light on substance and heavy on chit-chat and moment-by-moment updates.

For diversion and to alleviate boredom, streaming media is the hero. Students report binging on Netflix or Xbox gaming, which is particularly popular because they can chat with friends who’re doing the same thing. This is the closest students get to regaining intimacy and connection, and all recognize it’s insufficient. While they’re grateful, they miss physical touch and simply sharing the same space.

4. Students are gaining a more expansive understanding of the college reality.

Without those “distraction-free zones” and the variety of social and academic resources available on campus, students express a new awareness of their on-campus reality. Each student I met voiced a new appreciation for something they’d taken for granted: their physical space, for the beauty of the campus quad, the closeness of their friendships, the variety of day to day activities, being close to professors, etc.

For some, this is a new reality, with the college experience comprising the entirety of the facets they now lack access to. And all look forward to celebrating the return of that reality when they get back to class and are re-connected with friends and their college community.

Students are painfully aware that COVID-19 measures won’t end soon

Students I met can’t imagine a full return to the prior “normal.” They anticipate that some form of social distancing will become a norm. They doubt that large-scale gatherings will be commonplace anytime soon. They expect that their schools will be more focused on health and cleanliness of all spaces in the future.

They are mourning. They miss structure, their social networks, and a sense of daily variety. Many living at home miss their on-campus lives. In narrating their images that reflect their reality, they use words like “disappointment,” “distance,” “overwhelmed,” and “stressed.” When pressed, they describe feeling “confined,” “isolated,” “angry,” and “bored.”

Yet the students I met are hopeful. They feel more connected to their college community and to the global community than they have before. They are weathering this pandemic with a recognition that they have to adapt, and most feel highly adaptive and up for the challenge.

To see how Maru/Matchbox is keeping a finger on the pulse of how students, businesses and consumers are managing in the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 research hub.

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