Irresponsible, selfish, careless.

How frequently are these adjectives used to describe university students as they return to campus? Stories about students recklessly attending house parties, failing to social distance and contributing to the spread of COVID-19 dominate the headlines.

What if there’s more to the story that meets the headlines?

Essma Alfanous is a university student on the front lines of the COVID conundrum: how to set herself up for future career success in a contracting job market while managing the added weight of staying well in the midst of a global pandemic. The only thing that’s changed for university students, she explains, is everything.

What university leaders, public health officials and even parents often overlook is the added pressure of navigating one more unintended consequence. The kind of choice that can lead to lifelong implications. What used to be making smart decisions about social media images, drinking and driving, and safe sex has given way to one more potential threat to an otherwise bright future: suspension or even expulsion due to COVID-19.

Unmasking Reality
A split second decision can change everything. And being captured on camera without a mask in a social gathering is now the gateway to unintended consequences for many students. If an outbreak occurs as a result of the gathering, even the highest performing students risk suspension, expulsion, and loss of scholarships if they’re traced back to the source of the outbreak.

Essma and her classmates have candid conversations about how to come to terms with that harsh reality. “As if trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA, participate in extra curricular activities, manage a social life, network with professors and future employers, isn’t enough,” Essma explains, “now we have the added emotional weight of potentially inciting a public health crisis.” And don’t even get her started on what it’s like to find affordable, nutritious food consistently.

Incoming and returning students are grieving the loss of normalcy as they struggle to merely survive the increased workload, decreased/elimination of wages to pay tuition that offers a diminished experience at the same price, and what appears to be a bleak future with limited prospects for personal growth and career success.

“A sense of community and belonging is what defines the college experience for many individuals,” Essma shares. “The anticipation associated with meeting your roommate for the first time, forming deep connections with the people you interact with during awkward icebreakers at frosh week, never skipping class on the same day so there is always someone to take notes, and cramming until 3 a.m. in the university library the day before a big final are some of the things that give meaning to the collegiate experience.”

One student wrote, “I know for a fact all of my friends in my undergrad are in similar boats as I am. We’re all so stressed out and overwhelmed because we’ve been doing online classes, tons more final projects; as well as moving back home. There’s been so much change as well as these classes being so important for all our future plans and not knowing where internships or jobs stand, not knowing how we’re going to pay for tuition next term. We’re all in different time zones. Some of us have lost accessibility to mental health services. Some of us know people with COVID-19, or have it ourselves and it’s traumatic.”

One Doctor’s Get Well Prescription
As a doctor, Geeta Nayyar, knows that isolation is infectious. She’s become a trusted voice among university students and healthcare practitioners alike in this time of uncertainty. “I encourage my patients to get COVID tested regularly (in addition to social distancing and wearing a mask),” she states. “However, this may not be a reality for most students who can’t afford to take a COVID test or who have limited resources to travel to a clinic. Without a car and the limited public transportation now in most cities, following recommended testing guidelines can be a challenge.”

Her prescription to survive the school year ahead begins with compassion.

“Empathy is the treatment we all need,” she says, “Take a moment to consider how the university students in your life are feeing before jumping to labels or judgements. As physicians, we’re trained to start by asking great questions. And then by observing what might be left unsaid that’s contributing to why the patient is engaging us. Ask your university students if they’re feeling lonely. Overwhelmed. Isolated. Ask how you can help.”

For students who have returned to campus her prescription for a healthy year includes:

1) Maintain social distancing – While university age students are by the far the age group most likely to be asymptomatic, it is important to follow healthcare guidelines as young people are also the most inclined to be super-spreaders.

2) Wear a mask – I get it, it’s been all summer since you last saw some of your friends or you find it hard to meet new people while half their face is covered but wearing a mask significantly reduces the risk of infection.

3) Think twice before going back home for weekends or holidays – Universities can be closed systems for a group with healthy immune systems – many being asymptotic. To best protect your off campus family members and friends, stay in your environment. Try not to venture out into the city or new areas.

5) Take contact tracing and self-isolation seriously (yes, the full 2 weeks) if you suspect you are infected.

6) Be vocal – Use this time to be vocal in student newspapers and student councils. Advocate for a safe and healthy environment where public health is the priority.

7) Take the virtual class if that option is available.

Join the conversation @karenmangia @gnayyar