Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

What does the future hold? For over two decades I have worked with students trying to answer this question. As a high school counselor, I encourage young people to ask big questions about who they are, what they want, and how they get there. I’ve had the great fortune to help guide students of all backgrounds and circumstances as they search for and apply to college. Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, this process has become increasingly complicated and competitive, and perceived expectations — especially at the most selective colleges and universities — are seemingly impossible to meet. For some students, this has resulted in an arms race, or “Hunger Games” of sorts, to prove one’s exceptionalism. For others, overt racism and systemic inequities have made earning a college degree seem out of reach. Then came a global pandemic, and questions about what the future holds have been confounded by great instability and uncertainty. 

Students applying to college wonder how they can possibly prove themselves worthy of admission given the constant changes and stresses of their circumstances. Some are anxious about lost opportunities, and others feel like they never had opportunities to begin with. Meanwhile, concerns over standardized testing, high school achievement, extracurricular involvement, and other staples of the college application are clouding the more important questions about hopes for the future. Ideally, students would ask: What type of community do I seek? How do I best learn? Who do I want to be surrounded by? What is the best pathway to an affordable degree? Why do I want to go to college? Instead, these reflections have taken a back seat to anxiety over how colleges will assess their candidacy in such challenging times.

There is hope. Today, over 315 admission leaders from all over the country made clear what really matters. Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, released a collective statement, “Care Counts in Crisis: College Admissions Deans Respond to COVID-19” where admission leader endorsers convey what colleges and universities value in applicants during this challenging time. The statement provides students and their caregivers guidance on self-care, academic work, service to others, family contributions, and extracurricular and summer activities. From the most selective colleges and universities that accept less than 10% of applicants, to schools with open enrollment, there is a unified message of understanding and support.

Adrienne Amador Oddi is the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Trinity College in Connecticut. She tells students and their caregivers that while so much has rapidly changed as we move through this health pandemic, “what endures is our commitment, as college leaders, to seeing and knowing you as the people you are. We care for your well-being. We want to keep you safe. We want you to be in our communities and are committed to making them more accessible and inclusive.” She says, “COVID-19 has inflamed the inequity inherent in American society, broadly, and in the college admissions process. It is our urgent responsibility as college leaders to build and sustain a community that not only invites Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color to campus but also ensures these students are seen and safe.” She adds, “This work, to build and sustain community, is the soul’s work. My soul is troubled by the heightened anxiety I hear from high schoolers brought on by the compounding effects of overt racism and COVID-19. Endorsing this statement is one of many steps I can take in assuring students we are here to support you in this journey, and we are here to use our roles to build better communities in the now and for the future.” 

Mary Wagner, Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management & Executive Director of Admissions at the University of South Carolina agrees. She says, “The University of South Carolina was eager to support this statement. Our evaluation process is contextually informed and specific to the student’s situation. Too many students assume everyone else is getting ahead of them because of the pandemic, but it is worth restating that no one is having a ‘normal’ year, and no admissions office is planning business as usual.” Wagner reminds applicants that, “most colleges are looking for reasons to admit, not to deny.”

None of us can predict what the future holds. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should stop working towards our goals. As we do so, we must be gentle with ourselves and each other and strive for a common good that is more just and equitable. This Deans’ Statement sends important messages about what colleges and universities value at this moment, and reflects an ongoing commitment to a more hopeful future.

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More Thrive Global on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis