You have worked for 12 years preparing, studying, testing, and applying. You were hoping for parties, dating, and new friendships. You dreamed of finding a specialty, working with professors, and being launched into a dream job. And then COVID happened. Crap.
COVID changed everything. It robbed you of plans and expectations. All the stories of what you were going to experience in college changed in a week. No more lecture halls or campuses bustling with students. For most, it’s watching class through a screen. Making new friends at college is now difficult through masks and awkward conversations. Or worse yet, you are isolating yourself because you have COVID. You’re far from home, sick, and lonely. And dating? Well, that’s near impossible. None of this is what you expected.
As someone who has worked with hundreds of students in college ministry for over 20 years, first I want to say I’m sorry. The world is broken. There’s nothing like a pandemic to remind us how broken it is. Although you can not change the circumstances you are in, you do have control of your reaction.
Here are ten things you can do to set yourself up to thrive.
1) Grieve the loss.
When faced with the consequences of a broken world, we need to mourn what was, what is, and what you hoped to be. I got a jump start on that these last few years. My mother passed away, as did my friend. And the church I founded and pastored closed. I’ve learned a few things from getting to know grief. It likes to speak unexpectedly. It may be a deep sadness at seeing how empty the campus is as you walk through it or anger that erupts after zooming yet another class. Grief is talking to you.
But here is a warning as you listen: Grief is confusing and often misleading. It comes in waves. I found it’s best to embrace the emotions. Feel them fully so that it can pass through you. What you feel is real, but it’s not the full truth, and you have to distinguish between them. Grief can lie and try to convince you that hope is gone.
2) Quickly accept the situation you are in.
Denial is just delaying the pain. It works at making you feel better in the short term, but it often intensifies the pain later. Instead, accept the new reality you are in. This year is going to be hard and weird. There’s very little you can do to change how your college deals with this global pandemic. Masks and hand sanitizer is our new reality. Embrace reality, and whenever you feel yourself slipping into denial, remind yourself of it. Become flexible to the new situations you are in by thinking of them as new opportunities to grow.
3) Change your mindset.
Although you can’t change this year’s reality being hard and weird, you can change how you think about and react to it. If you find your day is filled with negative thoughts and emotions about all the things you wish you could change, try to lean into what this new reality allows us to do that we normally couldn’t. For me, it’s spending extra time with my family because we all now work from home. I get to go for walks in the middle of the day with my husband, and I discovered my daughter hums whenever she draws. My sons love to scare me and often pop into the backgrounds of zoom calls as a joke. I get to have all these memories and bonding moments with my family that I would have missed if I went to work as normal.
As a student, instead of getting into yet another zoom class, annoyed at its limitations, and wishing you could be in a classroom again, try to change your thinking by being grateful for the education, the professor, or for staying unshowered and in your PJs all day if you want. If you find yourself sad every time you look at what others are doing with their time on Instagram and Facebook, delete the app. It’s not helping your mind and heart. If you don’t want to go that far, think about snoozing someone for 30 days if their posts make you feel worse. Anxiety and worry will not add any value to our lives. It just adds needless extra suffering.
4) Don’t suck at digitally connecting.
If you are in college, you are Gen Z, which means you are a digital native. Most think this means you are going to rock at connecting digitally with friends. But from my experience, it’s quite the opposite.
Although you seamlessly weave your digital footprint from app to app, connecting with others virtually is another beast entirely. Most people’s mindset is to present themself put together as a portfolio or resume of their ideal social existence to get likes and followers. But to digitally connect with friends and family, that requires authenticity and vulnerability. You will need to bravely put yourself out there and connect in a real way with people beyond Insta. Schedule Zoom dates, walks, or hangouts with friends, counselors, and family with the intentionality of connecting.
5) Keep a schedule.
College used to come with a built-in schedule. But with all our normal routines thrown into a blender (thanks COVID), every day tends to bleed into the other. Schedules are different daily, and this is awful for your emotional and physical health. When you struggle to get through the day, it helps to create anchor points of progress. Think about including time to exercise, rest, play, and study time daily, so things don’t build up and overwhelm you. Then try to keep to the schedule as much as possible as things around you seem chaotic and out of control. It will be grounding for your emotional and physical health.
6) Pick a tribe.
Lone wolves die… alone. Everyone needs a tribe of people that are for them and support them. For most, college is a time of extreme busyness and loneliness. While being the busiest time of our lives, students often complain of feeling the most lonely they ever have. And now COVID has only made it worse.
The only remedy is to find a group of friends that encourage you and inspire you to be the best version of yourself. Stick with those friends. Build into those friendships. Fight to be a part of their lives and let them into yours with authentic and vulnerable connection.
And if your tribe is struggling to connect, remember, while everyone is grieving what COVID has done to our lives, we each deal with grief differently. For some, it may come and go quickly. For others, they may ignore it completely. Some will argue if it should even be here, and still, others will embrace it and let it lead them. All those reactions will have different results in our lives. Don’t compare or judge people. We are all dealing with wounds. Instead, handle grieving friends with care. Or better yet, offer to listen. Relationship is the bandage we all need.
7) Plan adventures and try new things. Combining socially distancing ourselves with the seemingly endless zoom calls, life can feel pretty monotonous. Our minds want to solve all the problems, and often that means we have trouble with paying attention, with clarity of thought, and with sleepless nights. Our minds need a break badly. There is no better way to rest the mind than to give it a break by playing. As students, you love to play, but likely don’t prioritize it or prioritize unhealthy ways of playing. The kind of play I’m talking about is doing something that gives you life, where time seems to slip away, and where you don’t even think about the stresses of your life when you do it. For some, it’s hiking, kayaking, playing with kids or dogs, frisbee golf, golf, or biking. The list is endless. What you are looking for is the loss of time and worry, and the increase of joy and peace. Make it a priority to try different things until you find the right adventure with those results in your life.
8) Ask for help.
As much as we can be intentional about our time and our mental thought, life throws us curveballs, and thoughts within can get confusing and misleading. With big emotions, we become less wise. We need community to give us feedback, encouragement, and wisdom as we are walking through a valley in life. The bravest thing you can do as you are struggling with life is to ask a trusted friend or family member for help. At times there needs to be a professional to help guide you through really tough situations. There is no shame in seeing counselors and/or doctors to get the help you need to make it through a difficult season.
9) Rest well and take care of your body.
You may be surprised to hear that depression is talked about in the Bible. One of my favorites is the story of Elijah’s depression in 1 Kings 19:1-18. In it, he was afraid and ran for his life and went into the desert and sat under a tree and asked God to kill him. God is the ultimate physician and knows us the best, and you know what he did to treat Elijahs’ depression? He gave him shade to sleep under a tree. Then he told him to get up and eat and drink. Then he took him on a long walk to a new adventure.
God will not leave you in your suffering. He pursues you, and will treat your condition, and moves you to a new place if you let him. But in kindness and mercy, he told Elijah to first rest and eat. Often we feel better with those two things taken care of.
10) Connect with God daily.
God promised there would be difficulties in this life. He has become a man and suffered through them. He created you and knows and loves you the most in all creation. It is the best thing for you then to connect with him and let him restore and guide you. If spending time with God is new to you, I recommend starting with the book of John. It tells the story of Jesus’s life from the perspective of his closest friends. After reading a section, think about what it means for your life today. What does it say about God and what he thinks of you? Then spend time talking to God about all those things in prayer.
If you need a community to help you along, try the Crossroads Anywhere app. On the app, community reads scripture together, and people like me journal so others can see how we process the scripture we just read. There’s even a place to ask for prayer. Make this a habit in your life, and I promise you growth. We are all broken people in need of healing from our Father.
If you apply those ten things to this academic year, although it will not be what you wanted or expected this year to be, you will thrive despite the adversity you are in. You will look back in a year or two and see growth and an increase in your endurance and strength. God will not waste these years but is using it to prepare you for the next challenge.
A note to the parents who might be reading this, your student is dealing with an incredible amount of change and loss. I’d imagine it’s a cause of stress for you to watch them struggle. A word of caution: be careful not to solve their problems for them. Great difficulty produces endurance and strength. They will grow and become stronger for going through this weird and difficult season. Most importantly, your job is to be a sounding board and a safe place for them to come to and rest as they get ready to tackle the next challenge. Help them rest, laugh, and play. Listen well to their grief. Repeat what you hear, identify with their problems when you can, but do not fix them. Encourage them to remember how strong and capable they are. They will do greater things if you let them conquer their own battles.