When COVID Crushes Your College Dreams

No matter what your plans for fall semester of 2020 were, it’s likely that they’ve been completely upended. You might be registered classes that are completely or partially online (and maybe still paying full tuition for them). You  might be going to campus, but in a reconfigured and unpredictable environment, with single dorm rooms and socially distanced everything  (and one that might cause you anxiety). If you were planning to take a gap year, your travel plans or internships are on hold. If your family’s financial circumstances have been impacted by the virus, you might not be able to afford college at all now. 

Whatever’s happening for you, it’s not what you had expected. Just a few months ago, you thought this summer would be about spending carefree time with friends and family, getting to know your future roommates online, and shopping for your dorm. None of that is happening. If you’re experiencing disappointment, stress, anxiety and depression, you’re not alone. 

Accept that there is nothing you can do. Whatever your feelings about COVID and the issues around returning to campus, it’s not within your control. You can’t control the virus, and you can’t control the challenging choices about everything from returning to campus to tuition costs that college administrators have to make. This is tough. Right now, the things any of us can control are very limited, and where we do have choices (should I take a gap year? Should I take the health risks of returning to campus?) we might not like any of them. Accepting this isn’t easy, but it will lighten the turmoil you’re probably feeling. In these crazy times, that overused idiom, It is what it is, is worth keeping in mind.  

Acknowledge your disappointment, frustration, fear and anger (or whatever emotions you’re experiencing). True, you’re going to have to handle this unprecedented situation as a grown up (because none of us have any choice). That doesn’t mean you have to deny your emotions. Getting them out into the light where you can see and name them is an important step in managing them. If you’ve got unpleasant feelings swarming around inside, take time to figure out what they are. Talk about them honestly with people you trust.

You’ll be surprised at how much getting it all out there can help. But don’t expect that you’ll be able to express your feelings once and they will all go away. They’re going to come back over and over as we navigate this unprecedented time together. But when they do, they will have less power to unnerve you each time. You’ll know how to deal with them. You’ll also know from experience that however unpleasant and intense they can be, they will pass. Soon, they’ll come back with less frequency, and one day, whether we return to “normal” pre-COVID life or not, they’ll eventually be gone for good.  

Do what’s right for you. The concept of “choices” right now may seem ludicrous. You may not have many, and you may not like the ones we have, but there are still some you’ll probably have to make. You might have to decide whether or not to take a gap year, or to take a semester off. You might have to weigh the pros and cons of returning to campus when doing so could pose considerable (and potentially life-threatening) risk to yourself and others, including those you care most about. You might have important financial considerations to weigh, such as whether you’re willing to pay full tuition for online instruction, or if you should withdraw from your college altogether and attend community college or reapply in the future (when life will hopefully be somewhat more normal).

Whatever choices you have to make, make sure that they are based on what you truly want and feel. Think things through. Trust your instincts. Try not to let your ideas about what you “should” be doing or what others are doing have too much influence on your decisions. Do what’s right for you, not what you think others want or expect you to do. Do what you need to feel safe and happy. Your college experience is yours to own.

Embrace the opportunity. Yes, this is an incredibly uncertain time in your life. No matter how old you are, we’re all suffering from at least some level of worry and frustration. You’ve probably already noticed, though, that there have been some upsides, such as more time to pursue the things you love, the “blessing of boredom” that might inspire you try to new things and flex your creativity, and more time with people you care about (okay, if you’re on Week 20 of living in your old bedroom, this may also be a drawback at times). On a global level, it’s also having some positive impact on the health of the environment, and might be leading us to think about our spending habits.

A less apparent benefit is the opportunity it’s giving us to pause, reflect, and possibly reconsider what we want in our lives, and the steps we can take to make that a reality. Oftentimes, we make fast decisions or move forward with education, careers, relationships, and just the ways we live our daily lives without pausing to ask ourselves whether they are right for us, and are truly bringing us happiness and opportunity, and helping us grow toward being who we want to be and creating our best lives. This strange, unexpected “pause” of COVID has opened up the chance for us to do that (and, in some ways, might be forcing us to). 

It is what it is, and while “what it is” isn’t great, it doesn’t have to crush you. Choose to look at this time as one of possibility, and decide to emerge from it, whenever and however that happens, with more confidence and resilience, and the knowledge that you are making choices and living your life from a place of self-awareness and strength.

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