• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Student Anxiety in a Pandemic

Any ideas for best ways to support anxious students when we're all off campus?

August 6, 2020
 
 

In the Before Times, we did a survey of students to see what kinds of supports might make the most difference for them. Drawing on the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab and the #RealCollege movement, we focused especially on student basic needs, such as housing, food, transportation and textbooks. Although Monmouth County is an affluent area, we found significant needs in all of those areas, which helped spur the development of the campus food pantry.

But the single most common answer came as a surprise. When asked to identify the greatest barriers to their success, students cited anxiety more than anything else.

Obviously, anxiety can be both a symptom and a cause of economic distress. But it’s also its own thing, worthy of attention in itself.

We haven’t been able to repeat the survey since the pandemic hit, but I’d guess that levels of student anxiety are even higher now. Combine family members or friends who are ill, the loss of many student-level service-sector jobs (such as waiting tables) and the forced migration to online learning, and even students who might normally be fine may be struggling. And students who were already struggling before may be in even more precarious states.

But in a pandemic, it’s much harder to provide safe havens.

Colleges were never meant to be replacements for the welfare state. As Pam Eddinger, the president of Bunker Hill Community College, put it on Twitter, every time a college sets up a food pantry, we see another sign of a basic failure of public policy. That’s not because the college is wrong to do it; it’s because it shouldn’t have to. But in the absence of anything resembling a rational economy, we owe it to our students to do what we can to help them succeed.

At least when students are on campus, we have some control over the environment. As a commuter college, we don’t have dorms, so the control is limited to certain times of day. But we can -- and do -- supply access to an on-site social worker, a food pantry and some quiet spaces.

When we’re on campus.

To invert the classic groaner line at conferences, this is really more of a question than a comment. We know that students are likely to need tremendous support around issues of anxiety this fall, and we know that other than those in a few specific programs, students mostly won’t be on campus.

Yes, it’s possible to offer counseling over Zoom, and we do. But surely there are other ways.

Inside Higher Ed disabled comments, so I’ll ask wise and worldly readers with ideas about ways to support students with anxiety during the pandemic to respond in whichever way they’re most comfortable: Twitter (I’m @deandad), email (deandad at gmail dot com), a letter to the editor or Reddit (reddit.com/r/DeanDad). I’ll be happy to share the results in Friday’s post. Thanks!

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