Imagine this: the clock ticks closer to 11:00 pm, and you have a high stakes deliverables due first thing in the morning.  Between sharing cramped quarters with your family, the battle for bandwidth, and your grocery store shift, your resolve weakens. Waves of anxiety start to churn like a storm a storm at sea. Fear. Frustration. Fatigue.

Have you been there?

For Essma Alfanous a university student, daily anxiety and isolation are as constant as homework. High stakes deliverables – like a paper worth half her grade – only begin in earnest after the rest of the world has gone to bed. Within those quiet moments, her mind begins to wander. “Going through college in isolation has been lonely,” she describes as her wise eyes peer resolutely through her wire frame glasses. “I miss talking with my friends, but I’m not sure they can relate to how I’m feeling. Even though we’re having a shared experience, we’re each having a totally unique experience.”

How could an experience designed to be universal and connected feel so unique and isolated?

A candid conversation with a close friend brought Essma to an epiphany: we’ve all lost something due to COVID. And yet we’ve all lost something different. “Some students have lost access to vital campus resources like internet access and quiet study spaces, which significantly impacts their ability to perform,” she describes. “Others have lost tutoring services. Access to affordable food. And a consistent support network.”

The pandemic disproportionately affects first-generation and minority college students

First generation college students are 50 percent more likely to have a delayed graduation due to COVID-19 than students who have college-educated parents, according to a National Bureau of Economic Research study. Half of Latino students and 42 percent of Black students have changed or canceled their higher education plans because of the pandemic, according to a Strada Public Viewpoint survey released in June.

The pipeline of minority students considering a college education is also at risk. A recent survey from SimpsonScarborough reveals forty-one percent of minority high-school seniors say it’s unlikely they will attend college at all in the fall or “it’s too soon to say,” compared to 24 percent of white high-school seniors.

“The biggest danger that higher education faces as a sector is the loss of gains that we have made over the past 20 years in access to a college education — with all of the accompanying benefits to individuals and our entire society — for first-generation and minority students,” says Ted Mitchell, President of the American Council on Education.

Essma and her friends feel the shift from “Let’s beat the odds” to “The odds are stacked against you.” Pressure to perform compounds. “We’re worried we are going to continue to lose on every front,” she enunciates. “We’re worried what we’re losing in education, we’re going to also lose in future earnings and the ability to thrive in the world.”

A Support System is the Best Medicine

Dr. Geeta Nayyar has become a trusted voice among university students, parents and healthcare practitioners alike in this time of uncertainty.

“For this “young and invincible generation” they are feeling anxiety, depression and uncertainty about the future far before their time,” she reminds.   “One of the most important things university students can learn at this time is that health is wealth. Stopping to take care of yourself, your family and your community will hopefully stay with them for a life time.”

For struggling students, Dr. Nayyar recommends reaching out to campus mental health & wellness centers and scheduling virtual coffee chats with professors to invite students to talk about any issues they may be facing. Connection is healing at any age.  Belonging to a virtual community supports mental health.  “Most importantly, we must not discount students who are facing mental health challenges,” Nayyar says.  “We can all be a part of the cure.”