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College & COVID

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: The unrelenting stress of being in college during a pandemic

One study found that 18- to 23-year-olds seem to be experiencing pandemic-related stress at higher rates than any other adult age group.

An illustration of a woman coping with stress, mental health.
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Scattered due dates, isolating with roommates, and Zoom office hours have replaced the energizing hustle and bustle college students had come to expect prior to the pandemic. Even for someone as self-disciplined as Helen Ruhlin, a senior at Simmons University studying journalism, taking classes entirely online has been a slog. “Knowing there’s a laundry list of things you can’t do because of a pandemic is just so stifling mentally,” she says. Without in-person interaction with her professors and classmates, she’s finding coursework less engaging.

Savannah Majarwitz is also finding online-only college taxing, even though she chose the option at Boston University to prioritize her mental health, feeling she would have a support system at home in Florida if she experienced regular or seasonal depression. As cochair of BU’s student government mental health committee, the international relations major works to increase student awareness of BU-based mental health resources. When the university announced spring break would be canceled and classes would continue, Majarwitz advocated for wellness days to be included in the spring semester.

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Even for those living on campus, being a college student during COVID is exacting a toll. Alice Tisme, a junior psychology major at Curry College, says this semester has been “harder in terms of keeping track of which classes were online or in person.” A resident assistant in a dorm for upperclassmen, she doesn’t venture out of her room much besides getting food or working at the campus library. Though from what she can tell, students living in the dorm’s suites are having a modified semblance of normalcy gathering in small groups in accordance with COVID guidelines set by the school and keeping the music low.

‘71 % of college students are experiencing increased stress and anxiety during the pandemic’

Journal of Medical Internet Research, September 2020

Boston-based clinical psychologist Lauren Imperatore says the year has been tough for everyone. But college students are experiencing the additional stress of entering adulthood during a pandemic. “It’s the unknown compounded by the unknown,” she says. An American Psychological Association study found that 18- to 23-year-olds seem to be experiencing pandemic-related stress at higher rates than any other adult age group. Local college students say their lack of motivation and increased stress have led to decreased interest in their studies, a rethinking of chosen career paths, and a weakened work ethic. According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds reported that they’ve struggled with finding motivation to do work during the pandemic.

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Tisme understands — it’s difficult to “enjoy your last few years with people who you can’t exactly see any more unless you want to risk getting kicked off of campus,” she says. For her, one of the only times she can connect with new classmates face-to-face is in Zoom breakout rooms that typically only last a few minutes.

Imperatore acknowledges that COVID safety rules can lead college students to feel isolated and stressed, so it’s all the more crucial that they follow healthy habits, maintain structure in their days, and interact with others. She recommends cutting back on screen time as much as possible, meditating, and journaling.

Ali Yang, a senior marketing major at Northeastern University doing a remote co-op semester from her Boston apartment, makes sure to move around every morning. She does pilates or takes a walk to get matcha tea before she begins her workday. It helps with “not just my mental and physical health,” she says, “but more so my productivity, because I feel so much better once I’ve taken time for myself.”

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‘32 % of graduate students report PTSD-like mental health symptoms during the pandemic’

Similarly, Ruhlin adds activities like baking and reading books to her schedule to prevent being alone on her laptop for too long. But Ruhlin, who will graduate with loan debt, has other pressing questions on her mind: “Now it’s not even a question necessarily of ‘Can I get a job doing what I love,’ it’s ‘Can I get a job?’”

Pandemic-caused stress can even jeopardize the educational goals of students who are struggling. One-third of undergraduate students in 2020 considered dropping out of their classes, according to a Gallup survey. Emotional stress was cited as a primary reason for 42 percent of them.

Imperatore hopes that once the pandemic finally ends, students will recognize the personal growth they’ve achieved during this traumatic period. “[It’s] amazing how people have coped with and adapted with something so life-changing,” she says.


This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. Katie Powers is pursuing a master’s degree. Send comments to magazine@globe.com