Andy started his first college semester this year, following a zoom-based high school experience. He logged hundreds of zoom hours at home instead of walking to school, meeting his peers, and navigating the social and physical world. The first month as a freshman seemed to be going well. Social life wasn’t great, but Andy thought that he was better off focusing on school work. Then he was sick for a few days and couldn’t go to classes. Nobody checked on Andy or missed him. His symptoms included stomach aches, very low energy, and constantly feeling too tired even to get up and shower. Andy started to go to class again after his father came to check up on him, but, he couldn’t steer his thoughts away from being lonely and unhappy. His parents suggested that he came home for a weekend and talk with his old therapist. That weekend, by Sunday, Andy was determined not to go back to school. The push to try again and the offers for support at school fell on deaf ears. He was too afraid to re-experience that helplessness again.
Andy’s story, in various forms, is more common than we realized at first. The transition to real, live classes and interactions in college had raised more challenges and created more crisis than anticipated. CNN, CNBS, Forbes, and others, all report a record breaking fallout from college life as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than ever, various vulnerabilities translate to isolation and snowball into avoidant behavior and eventually to dropping off. In college, too often these students are overlooked and nobody notices they require care and support until it is too late. These students may have received more proactive support at home, were monitored by their parents and never had to actively seek support when needed. Even when stuck at home during the pandemic, they didn’t feel isolated or alone, since their peers were all in the same boat. Now that seemingly everybody else is active and socializing, it feels more isolating, miserable, and unbearable.
Going back home and forgoing college for the time being is rarely a sufficient solution and can take its own toll. Most common are the loss of sense of competence and ability to cope, alongside feelings of failure and inadequacies. These are not easy to counteract. From being stuck at home, to trying menial jobs, it is very difficult to recover and find a new path, off of the standard college one. At times other forces are also at play, including interpersonal family conflicts and drug abuse.
So what’s next? A few students could turn the semester around and get back into the academic pathway, given more support and coaching, as well as positive social context. Other students may continue trying at school, or turn to lying to their parents about school work almost until the end of the semester, postponing the inevitable.
This might be the time to look for some professional help. The practical side of support includes rethinking the mainstream college pathway, figuring out success-driven experiences like work and traveling, and advancing the self-reliance muscle. The emotional support needed is often beyond the scope of parenting and requires professional mental health counseling. From therapy to coaching and consulting, understanding choices at this time can be crucial. Rethinking the Gap Year option, for example, might be a great way to get back on track while having an opportunity to regain a sense of agency and competency in the world, in a real experiential way. Thinking about a local community college at some point, may prove to be a great path back into the academic world. Education consultants across the US are a great resource for information and guidance at this delicate point in life. Gap Year programs are also an important resource to consider, with appropriate levels of support and guidance.
Based on a significant trend in the past few years, many colleges nowadays encourage their potential students to defer and take a gap year, as statistics show that gap year students are more likely to graduate within 4 years than non-gap year students.
Andy is transitioning now from home to a gap year program abroad. He is going to use this opportunity for some personal growth and soul searching, reinforcing a real life sense of competence, and accumulating experiences to last him a lifetime. He will have much needed support in order to face some of his social and emotional challenges which he had been pushing aside for a long time. By next year he may very well be able to re-enter college more goal-oriented and self-aware with the needed skills to face his challenges.