Since the beginning of the pandemic, students have adjusted to unprecedented remote learning situations. However, normalcy is returning to campus with in-person classes this fall, so students will need to readjust again.
And, some Penn State students said they have certain concerns and anticipations about returning to campus in terms of its impact on their mental health.
Research conducted at Dartmouth College demonstrates a trend among college students and their mental states, according to The Washington Post.
The studies discovered a “soaring” rise of depression and anxiety disorders among college-aged individuals, especially since the “onset of the coronavirus pandemic,” The Washington Post said.
A nationwide survey conducted by a Boston University researcher found similar findings pointing to “mounting” depression and anxiety within the young adult population. In fact, approximately 83% of the 33,000 participating students identified their mental health as negatively impacting their academics, the survey showed.
As the fall semester approaches, members of Penn State’s student body, including Maddie Dong, said they’ll need to adjust to in-person classes and on-campus housing again — which may consequently impact their mental health.
“Hopefully mental health will improve [within the student body] because we do have all in-person classes,” Dong (senior-psychology) said. “We have a little bit more freedom, and I feel like most people are moving back in, which will help with the learning environment and students’ positivity.”
Although Dong said she believes some students’ mental health will improve in the coming months with in-person classes on campus, she said she also hopes people who need help seek it — whether through Penn State’s Counseling and Psychology Services or private resources.
“A lot of people don’t seem to reach out if they need help,” Dong said. “At the same time, I do think morale will boost up a little bit on campus and hopefully students won’t [resultantly] feel as anxious.”
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On the social side — especially in terms of “enthusiasm to go to school” — Dong said she believes the situation will improve tremendously as she said students thrive from normal social settings. Contrarily, she said students may encounter struggles academically.
Although she’s personally eager to return to in-person learning, Dong said the transition could be challenging for some students who liked online learning since classes were typically perceived as “easier.”
“It’s going to be the first time in almost a year and a half where students have to actually study and take exams without the comfort of being in their own room,” Dong said. “The stress of what school used to be [like] could impact students negatively, at least a little bit.”
Adjusting to her old pre-pandemic studying techniques is one area of concern for Dong since she’s utilized new learning methods in virtual settings.
Over the past year, Dong said she’s rarely turned her camera on during Zoom lectures, like many of her fellow students. Consequently, Dong said students have missed out tremendously on social aspects of the learning experience like face-to-face interactions.
“People are going to have to get used to talking now — and even having their face seen,” Dong said.
To deal with her own stress, Dong said she turns to journaling, which allows her to express her thoughts and emotions and have the opportunity to later evaluate them.
“Who’s going to be a better listener than yourself?” Dong said of journaling. “I think it’s a really good way to read your words too because you can go back later, realize you were being irrational but feel good that you got it out”.
Dong said she uses other methods to destress and manage her mental health as well.
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“Besides those tactics, especially journaling, which is my most used tactic, I also call my parents,” Dong said. “I know many students go to college to get away from their families, but sometimes, you just need your parents.”
During the upcoming fall semester, Dong said she plans to share mental health resources and opportunities with other students through her job as a resident assistant.
For new students, Dong said she recommends The Arboretum at Penn State as an optimal on-campus location for stress relief. Not only that, but Dong also said she believes taking a walk — whether in the Arboretum or another place on campus — is just a “healthy” activity.
In order to distract herself when facing a stressor, Dong also said she engages in activities she enjoys or new activities she’s never tried before, which are numerous on Penn State’s large campus.
Stretched across 7,958 acres, according to U.S. News, Penn State’s University Park campus contains a wide range of new opportunities for students to try when stressed or dealing with anxiety, Dong said.
“It’s okay to be alone and do things alone,” Dong said. “I know people are often scared to do those things, but I think it’s a big stress reliever when you’re by yourself with your thoughts.”
Some sophomores, like Emily Bucolo, joined the Penn State community remotely last year — deciding to live at home rather than on campus with coronavirus restrictions in full swing.
As campus begins to return to normal, students will adjust to college life amid unprecedented circumstances, which Bucolo said could be a source of anxiety for many.
“My biggest worry is rolling up to campus as a sophomore and still not knowing what to do and where to go,” Bucolo (sophomore-public relations) said via email. “I will be right there with the freshmen learning how to navigate campus and probably using Google Maps to find my buildings for at least two weeks.”
Bucolo said she’s “anticipating a rocky” start while readjusting to in-person classes since she — like many other students — has only participated in remote and web classes since March 13, 2020.
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Transitioning from remote learning to in-person instruction will take time, as students have grown used to the virtual learning format, she said.
“Everyone is in the same boat as me, so that makes me feel better,” Bucolo said. “There’s less pressure because I know everyone else is also transitioning back.”
Despite apprehensions about campus life, Bucolo said there’s a lot to be positive about.
“I’m most looking forward to simply just experiencing new things with new people, whether that’s in my dorm, at sporting events or in an academic setting,” Bucolo said. “This past year has communicated clearly that nothing is a rite of passage — and nothing is ever guaranteed — so I’m ready to capitalize on that mindset during my next three years at Penn State.”
Besides students in the sophomore class, who will be adapting to their first normal Penn State experience, freshmen are also at odds.
When freshmen initially move into their college dorms and away from their lifelong friends and families, they can experience negative mental health situations — like anxiety and depression, according to CNBC.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, incoming freshmen, including Alex LeCrone, may face additional stressors during the fall semester. However, many students said they’re keeping a positive outlook for the future.
“After a year of [craziness with] school, I’m excited to go back to an interactive — and more normal — setting of learning,” LeCrone (freshman-music education) said. “I’m excited about leaving and starting a new chapter of my life, but it’s a little scary too.”
LeCrone said many first-year college students face unique struggles as they adjust to on-campus living, but she said she’s most worried about three specific aspects of college life.
“The biggest challenges for me are [learning to be] okay with not being perfect, hanging out with all new people and trying to stay motivated to do everything I need to [in the new environment],” LeCrone said.
As the pandemic remains at the forefront of many students’ minds, LeCrone said she’s personally not overly concerned due to vaccine rollout. However, she said she believes the pandemic could be a source of anxiety for some students.
“I’m vaccinated — and so is everyone I love — so I’m not concerned that much with COVID,” LeCrone said. “I recently [caught] a cold though and forgot how terrible those are.”
LeCrone said she believes students should find ways to maintain their mental health — whether that be through consultation with a therapist or simple precautionary measures taken to reduce anxiety and increase positive moods.
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To manage her own mental health, LeCrone said she participates in “a lot of grounding and breathing exercises” whenever her nerves start to get to her.
According to Medical News Today, evidence proves deep breathing exercises to be effective in lessening feelings of anxiety and apprehensiveness that typically develop through the body’s “fight or flight response” in times of physical or emotional distress.
LeCrone also said leaving stressful situations behind — even momentarily — and hosting get-togethers and meaningful conversations with others can help people’s moods and outlooks.
“Once you can prove to yourself that you can conquer your mental barriers, then anything is possible,” LeCrone said.
During high school, LeCrone said many students juggle a packed schedule filled with never-ending obligations — from part-time jobs and school, to extracurricular activities and buzzing social lives.
Along with students’ long list of priorities during high school, she said they simultaneously deal with “little freedom” from adults in their lives, which prohibits personal growth.
Consequently, LeCrone said she hopes college students — especially those who complete rigorous academic schedules — are supported by faculty and the Penn State community “understands that [students] are all individually unique and complex people.”
“Penn State has already shown more interest in my mental health than my high school did — and I haven’t even moved in yet,” LeCrone said. “Having a community where everyone is valued and [made to feel] important does so much for an individual’s mental health already. I know if I ever need help, there are so many places and people I can go to.”
LeCrone said attending college has finally given her the opportunity to enroll in courses that connect to her interests.
“I hope that [focusing] on what I truly love to do will benefit my learning experience and my mental health,” LeCrone said. “This is the first time I’ve ever been excited about going to school.”
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