With “students fighting for their lives,” it is vital that institutions listen to their concerns and provide them with a comprehensive set of tools.
The top. The top priority of college presidents as they entered the fall semester was the wellbeing of their students, according to a survey conducted by the American Association of Colleges and Universities and The Center for University Excellence at American University. This isn’t surprising considering that nearly 90percent of students experience something like stress which is exacerbated by the COVID-19 epidemic.
If campus leaders are committed to following through with their mission to assist students, it is now time to respond and act. Also, ensure that the strategies implemented are effective. “[Studentsare fighting for their lives,” said Mays Imad, an associate professor of biology at Connecticut College, during the AAC&U’s annual conference. “Rather than making assumptions or coming up with grand plans, one of the points we’re trying to emphasize is: Begin by talking to the kids. Pay attention to your students. They are experts on the way we can improve our lives.”
During their time at AAC&U, students of Conn College shared their own experiences and the things they’ve learned at this momentous moment:
- “I struggled with my love of learning and the ability to remember the information.”
- “I felt isolated and had a difficult time with it. My mental health suffered.”
- “I was required to study online far away from the school I was. It’s not a pleasant experience. It’s been quite an up-and-down ride.”
- “Luckily, I had the most solid support system. My coworkers were not as fortunate.”
There are a lot of consequences for institutions who don’t take the proper steps to address this issue and not just on the risk of students committing self-harm but also on the effects they could affect their bottom line. If students have difficulty with academics or feel emotionally or socially lonely, they may choose to quit school, which can drag down their retention and completion rates.
Connecticut College faculty and student administrators have examined ways to assist the most vulnerable and stop loss from happening. They suggest that an integrated campus strategy based on being better “trauma-informed” and “asset-focused” can bring about changes that lift students. However, it’s far more. Institutions need to be dedicated to providing support and education for staff and faculty and the diverse and often marginalized populations and be prepared to invest in mental health initiatives and clinics. “Students tell us that they would like to be more resilient but aren’t sure how to do it. We can do that,'” Imad said. “What is our role on an institutional level to help them reach their goals?”
Students Eilis Reardon, Lovisa Werner, Alyss Humphrey, and Skylar Magee spoke about Connecticut College’s efforts to have better outcomes. They also shared those that have directly benefited them personally. Five themes could help other students trying to make a dent in the ongoing crisis on their campuses.
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The first goal is to help students build mental immunity. Werner stated that orientations for first-year students typically provide basic information about academics, but they don’t address “your biology as well as neurobiology, emotional or physical wellbeing.” Students must be aware of the process of learning and how emotions affect it.
“Invite students to share short testimonies that highlight how they manage and deal with stress. They can also learn from each other on how to identify and manage the stressors,” Werner said. “This could be accomplished through weekly video messages that students communicate with one another. Organize regular symposiums where students, their families, and friends can discover the complexities of education and the ways stress can be affecting students. Collaborate with the student government to host town halls for students to share their experiences. Contact the offices of veteran student services, diversity equity, and inclusion and other offices to get more information on the student population they assist.”
The second goal is to help students control their emotions and lessen stress. Colleges offer a range of therapeutic options (art and music, pets) to help students deal with stress, particularly during exams. Reardon suggests “holding college colloquiums on how emotions are shaped by science and why they are vital to a person’s overall health.” Additionally, she said having a campus place where students can talk about their experiences or do projects to alleviate stress is also essential.
The third step is to make sure that they support your institution offers are geared towards students of all backgrounds. Also, it is crucial to have counselors who can relate to the students they serve. “it was an absolute pleasure to have an individual counselor who looked like myself,” Humphrey said. “It was so refreshing to talk to someone who has similar experiences to mine.”
The fourth is working to de-stigmatize mental health. Students are suffering and are often confronting issues that extend beyond the boundaries of schooling. McGee explained that it is vital not just to have resources to teach students about mental health but also that there are training programs for staff and faculty. She added that since wait times for appointments can be lengthy, a short therapy session lasting between 15 and 20 minutes with an independent resource could be beneficial. The most important thing is to ensure that those therapists and counselors don’t burn out.
The fifth factor is awareness about COVID that lasts for a long time. The consequences, Mays said, are honest and evident in the research she’s conducted – including brain fog and chronic fatigue. She wanted to know the number of students who have COVID and how many may be affected. Michael Reder from Conn College’s Center for Teaching and Learning states that “45 percent of students have reported having COVID. 70% of those who report have said it has occurred at least one episode since November.”
Beyond the advice, Conn College has taken various actions to assist the faculty and students. They’ve held workshops on stress tolerance, extensively advertised by their dean and the president. They’ve conducted seminars on learning, the brain, and stress for their entire first-year class. They’ve asked faculty to develop courses that can be adapted with realistic expectations and provide regular check-ins on students’ health. Everything aims to create a community that is supportive of students as well as faculty.