News

'A New Way of Life': Returning to College During COVID-19

socially distant gathering on college campus

Verywell / Alison Czinkota

Key Takeaways

  • It's important to find ways to socialize that prioritize staying healthy, such as gathering outdoors or chatting via video call.
  • Setting up a dedicated workspace and being patient is key to having a productive semester.
  • Students should prioritize time for daily self-care.

As the fall semester quickly approaches, college students in the U.S. may feel a mix of emotions while trying to determine how to socialize, handle changing academic formats, and prioritize their mental health. College is already a demanding time for students, and the coronavirus pandemic has been a new and unexpected stressor since the spring.

According to a 2020 study, college students reported increased anxiety and depression during the onset of COVID-19 compared to similar time frames in past academic years.

“This is not an event to tweak, it’s a new way of life to create," says Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., executive director of Innovation360, an outpatient counseling service in Dallas, TX. "Be mindful that there is a bug out there and you need to take appropriate precautions—socially distance, wash your hands, and sanitize the surfaces—but you absolutely can have friendships and experiences and learning opportunities that are wonderful."

What This Means For You

As you return to campus this year, patience, resilience, and sound self-care strategies will be critical to enjoying the college experience, even during what may feel like the worst of times.

Social Life

With safety measures in place, spending time with friends may look different this year.

Have the COVID Talk

Everyone has their own comfort level with in-person interactions. FOMO, or fear of missing out, might make students feel pressured to attend events or gatherings that compromise those comfort levels.

“I think the key to this is being really honest, upfront, and direct with your boundaries. ‘Hey look, this is what I’m OK with and this is not OK with me.’ That way, people really know where you stand,” says Annie Miller, LCSW, a DC-based psychotherapist who specializes in sleep, trauma and teen therapy. At the same time, she says "we have to balance being careful and mindful [of the virus], but not living our lives in fear."

Similarly, Miller suggests that roommates talk to each other about who they are willing to let into their living space and how often to sanitize common areas before moving in together.

Don’t Sideline Your College Experience

Try to figure out ways to socialize safely amidst restrictions, whether that's via socially distanced group get-togethers or Zoom game nights and happy hours. Sit outdoors at your favorite local restaurant, if your state allows, and enjoy a meal with your friends. If you aren’t comfortable going out, order takeout and have a socially distanced picnic. You can even make a list of outdoor places to explore near your campus.

“Adjust, don’t compare. When we start comparing, we aren’t as creative… [Comparing] will rob us from enjoying this experience and this moment,” says Gilliland.

Set Conversation Boundaries

When it comes to conversation starters, COVID-19 has become the new weather—it’s hard not to discuss what’s going on in the world. But if all the COVID-19 chatter is causing you heightened stress or anxiety, talk to those around you about limiting conversation surrounding coronavirus.

“Anxiety is contagious. I’ve had more than one client say, ‘Man, I can’t wait to get back to campus’ or ‘I’ve just gotta get out of this house because my dad is so anxious about this virus,’" says Gilliland. “It may be your [friends and family] you have to step back from a little bit or have a conversation with and say, ‘Your anxiety and fear is not helping me.’”

Course Work

Colleges and universities are changing how they will hold classes this semester almost daily. Regardless of how you receive instruction, there are a few tips that can help you succeed.

Separate Your Sleep Space From Your Workspace

Given the need to transform your living space into a place for both relaxation and schoolwork, it’s necessary to establish a dedicated work-from-home environment—particularly one that is separate from your bed.

“It is important that it’s separate both for the purposes of sleep but also because it’s mentally a separation. That idea of going to class and sitting in class helps you concentrate better [and] gives you an association with, ‘I’m in class, I need to concentrate,’” says Miller. 

Gilliland suggests having a communal calendar with your roommates’ schedules so you know when they will be attending virtual classes or need quiet time to focus on their studies.

Be Patient With Yourself

Understand that it will take time to adjust to virtual learning—not everyone learns the same way online. If you learn best by talking through things, set up a virtual or socially distanced study group, or get a tutor to help you with tougher subjects. 

Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D.

It’s not the same class in a different location. It’s a different experience of learning. Don’t be surprised if you struggle in ways that you don’t typically struggle academically.

— Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D.

One way to help with the adjustment is to designate a set time dedicated to schoolwork. Take breaks throughout the day, whether that be getting a snack or going on a walk. Reward yourself when you finish an assignment.

“I think we need to be patient with not expecting ourselves to be productive right away. Know that it may take a little while. I think [patience] will actually help people to get there faster than being hard on themselves for not doing it perfectly right away,” says Miller.

Your Professors Are in It With You

Gilliland has been teaching college courses for 30 years. Just like the initial transition to virtual learning was difficult for his students, it was also hard on him as a professor.

“We are all, including you and including your professor, part of this story which means your therapist, your doctor, your professor feels just like you and is struggling just like you,” says Gilliland. “I have no idea how they are struggling but they are trying to figure out how to do this so it’s as close to the experience of college as possible.”

Ask what each professor’s office hours are and how they are holding them—via Zoom, email, or limited in-person meetings. Communicate academic or personal concerns upfront so you and your professor can figure out necessary accommodations.

Mental Health

However busy you may be, it's important to set aside time to take care of your mind and body throughout the pandemic.

Establish a Routine

On top of the normal college stressors, COVID-19 has added new factors to balance, making it more likely to neglect important things like sleep and exercise.

“There is no way any student goes to bed, looks at their phone and sees the battery and says, ‘Eh, I’ve got half a charge, that’s good enough,’” says Gilliland. “If it doesn’t have a charge, if it doesn’t have the energy, it isn’t going to get through the day. We are the exact same.”

Sleep has a host of benefits from improved memory and focus to balancing mood and emotions. Miller suggests that students try waking up at the same time every day to get their bodies into a routine. "Even if you go to bed later than normal the night before, getting up at the same time is going to ensure that you start to get on a schedule. Letting yourself sleep in starts to push the boundaries on that and it’s a little confusing for your body to get used to,” says Miller. 

After you wake up, do something that will help you start the day, such as exercise. Exercise is proven to help you sleep better, keep your mind sharp, and reduce your risk of depression and anxiety.

Set Aside Worry Time

Many students might feel overwhelmed, stressed, and anxious about being on campus.

Annie Miller, LCSW

I think we have to balance being careful and mindful [of the virus], but not living our lives in fear.

— Annie Miller, LCSW

Miller suggests students set a time each day to focus on things they need to get done, plan for, and potentially even worry about.

"Tell yourself, ‘When that time period is over, that’s it, I’m not going to think about it right now. If I have things that come up, I’ll write them down and put them on a list for the next day’s worry time,'" says Miller.

Allow Yourself to Breathe

Another good way to help manage back-to-school and coronavirus stress is meditation. Research suggests that meditation may help with psychological distress, coping ability, anxiety, depression, and anger.

“Physiologically, breathing slows our mind and our body. Headspace has been an app that a lot of young adults love, Unplug is another one, [and] Calm; there are a lot of good apps. Those have really good research behind them for helping us to slow our system overall when we do it once or twice during the day,” says Gilliland.

College will look different for students across the country. Remember to take care of yourself by having socially distanced get-togethers, setting up a work-from-home space, and establishing a solid sleep schedule and exercise routine.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Huckins JF, Dasilva AW, Wang W, et al. Mental Health and Behavior of College Students During the Early Phases of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Longitudinal Smartphone and Ecological Momentary Assessment Study. J Med Internet Res. 2020;22(6):e20185. doi:10.2196/20185

  2. Lee SA, Mathis AA, Jobe MC, Pappalardo EA. Clinically significant fear and anxiety of COVID-19: A psychometric examination of the Coronavirus Anxiety Scale. Psychiatry Res. 2020;290:113112. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113112

  3. Nadworny E. NPR. Colleges Spent Months Planning For Fall, But A COVID-19 Surge Is Changing Everything. July 22, 2020.

  4. Almarzooq ZI, Lopes M, Kochar A. Virtual Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Disruptive Technology in Graduate Medical Education. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020;75(20):2635-2638. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2020.04.015

  5. Rajkumar RP. COVID-19 and mental health: A review of the existing literature. Asian J Psychiatr. 2020;52:102066. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102066

  6. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Healthy Sleep Basics.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benefits of Physical Activity. Updated May 8, 2020.

  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. Updated April 2016. 

  9. Dwyer MJ, Pasini M, De dominicis S, Righi E. Physical activity: Benefits and challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2020;30(7):1291-1294. doi:10.1111/sms.13710