A student on a video call with a professor and a textbook.
Photo: Dylan Ferreira via Unsplash

By Simon Ginet

Restaurants are open. Parks are full. Masks have virtually disappeared. But the pandemic definitely still happened. As the world crawls back to some degree of normalcy (whatever that is), it is sometimes possible to forget that the better part of the years 2020-2022 even occurred. At times I have marveled that the whole experience seemed like a dream (an extended fever dream, perhaps), and that there is no way it actually happened.

But it did.

And it provides an explanation for why things that have come a little easier to an older generation may be puzzlingly difficult for a younger one. A significant consequence of the pandemic is the effect it had on students, students who are now looking towards college.

The college application process has never been particularly easy. There are essays, tests, recommendations, financial documents, plus the uncertainty of the process and the soul-searching of determining where exactly one wants to go. But at least when I was applying to school, we had a wired-in structure that put us on this track from the first day of 9th grade. Not everyone was talking about college at this age. I didn’t start thinking about it until 10th or 11th grade. But teachers were, counselors were, school administrators were, parents were, and the system was designed to move us along the path to college, whether we were thinking about it the whole time or not.

The concern of these educational figures did not disappear with the onset of the pandemic. But the daily structure did. And the question of “what do I want to do in four years?” was replaced with “what exactly is going on?” and “what am I going to do today?” This might explain why students are struggling with motivation, even confusion, with regards to their futures.

I was not exempt from the educational tolls of the pandemic. I spent the last 14 months of graduate school virtually. When the whole thing ended, I was not thinking about the future so much as getting through the present. This is the effect that a global crisis can have on the psyche. Slowly I started to put some pieces back together, make my way into the workforce, and take the time to think about what I wanted with my life and what my future might look like.

This group of college and workforce-bound students may not all be coming out of the blocks raring to go. The tolls on mental health are not insignificant. Students lost access to their friend groups, their sports, arts and their other extracurricular activities. This loss created a certain hole that bordered on (or crossed the border into) the traumatic. Students may not be war veterans, but having a significant form of clarity and structure dismantled so quickly does have a strong debilitating effect. This is especially true when loneliness and other mental health issues are at play.

What I know for sure from the last few years is that I never could have persisted through it all without the support of my family. I imagine it was difficult for my parents to watch me struggle, to hear about 6-hour Zoom classes, overwhelming assignments, and social confusion. They must also have sensed that absence of curiosity about my future. I imagine it is difficult for you to watch your children struggle, too. My parents showed up when I needed them, and shifted their focus from “what do you want to do after?” to “what would help today?”

Let’s take heart from the fact that we’re on this path, and on it together.

Keep working on the support. We’ll keep working on the essays. And we will work our way towards a future that we can share and be proud of, even if the students don’t see it yet.

For feedback on this piece or any questions about what it was like to be a pandemic student and a post-pandemic graduate, feel free to contact me at simon@astartingline.com.