College Life in the Viral Age: Updates from Campus

Dear Community,
We hope that you are well and adjusting to this viral reality. Here is an update on college life as we see it.

Student Life

The most important work we’re doing right now is connecting with students who feel lost. We’re talking to more students much more often. With all the demand we’re experiencing, we have decided to open up our services to students across the country, not just in the Boston area. Students are landing at home coming from the structure of collegiate life to a complete lack of structure. That is a problem for our students and their families.

Our Learning Specialist, Jamie Hare emphasizes that, “As the game keeps changing, we are addressing anxiety but also the changing of assignments and testing methods, changing syllabuses, class times…and have increased the frequency of our online meetings and phone calls from every other day to every day, sometimes more. Many of these calls are focused on mental health rather than academic success. Through relating to people as people, our student-coach relationships relieve anxiety and tension so that when we do get back to talking about school, it gets a little easier.”

Renewal Activities

We are encouraging students to take some time for self-care, to temporarily step away from social media and the news. We are recommending that they don’t check their email for a couple of hours – we’ll go through it together and handle it as a team. We’re also emphasizing what we call renewal activities – like vigorous walking, hobbies, social connectivity, or even playing online video games with friends online. Animal Crossing is a popular video game that requires each player to care for anthropomorphic animals. It is a huge stress reliever that emphasizes empathy and altruism—both important contributors to well-being.

Moving Online: Advantages

“My belief was that virtual services had only ancillary benefits without an in-person relationship, but what we’re finding is that the value of connection is the most effective use of the virtual environment,” our founder, Grant Leibersberger said. “We have been able to be quite effective creating resonant relationships with our new enrollees even when in-person is not possible.”

In the universe of educational support strategies, Focus Collegiate has always embraced the use of technology. Text prompts, online scheduling apps, and virtual shared documents are among our many online support tools. This familiarity with online communication is helping our students become a little less dysregulated.

While the social dynamic of college life has been radically altered, there are some advantages to online learning. The tendency for engaging online is to take yourself to a quiet space to minimize distraction, which is actually what our students need already. In an online environment, there are fewer moving parts to get to classes and meetings, thus increasing student bandwidth for productivity.

Psychotherapist and author, Dean Olsher, writes on the beauty of earbuds in online communication, “Being able to speak directly into someone’s ear grants us a kind of intimacy that is not possible in our in-person relationships. Technology offers us the gift of human connection that we need to survive. If we give some thought about how to best adapt it to our needs, we can be there for one another when we need it most.[1] (He also writes a very useful how-to guide to online communication in Psychology Today.)

Staying Motivated

“One of the hardest things about online learning is helping students maintain their motivation. One of the things we can do to support their motivation is to give them some choice, some agency, and some autonomy,” Justin Reich assistant professor in the comparative media studies and writing department at MIT summarized in his March 24 interview “Online Learning: How Colleges and Universities Are Teaching Students Virtually” on WBUR Boston’s On Point.[2]

As an organization, we are very encouraged by this interview because choice, agency, and autonomy are the foundations of our evidence-based model. We believe the ability for our students to create and articulate a vision for their future, develop a plan to work towards that vision, and exhibit the openness and flexibility to practice new behaviors is central to their success. By creating structure and accountability within the context of trusting, resonant relationships, we help students stick to their motivation for their self-designed learning agendas.

While the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic might temporarily obscure a student’s vision for their future, we also believe it creates tangible opportunities to build upon the foundations of student agency.

The State of Play at Colleges and Universities

Everything is very fluid right now. Some schools have proposed resuming by the end of April, others are less optimistic and have cancelled in-person classes until the end of the semester. We are all moving to an online delivery format, but schools are approaching this change in different ways. Some added an extra week to Spring Break to allow professors and students time to adjust and prepare, others leapt into the new online paradigm without any buffer. With or without the extra time, some professors had or are having difficulty making the transition successfully. Frankly, the learning curve has been quite steep for every academic institution. We are translating the transitional experience for every Focus Collegiate student regardless of institutional capacity.

The other side of the coin is college admissions for the fall. Coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns have deeply affected college-bound high school students with school closures and the cancelling of large gatherings, including campus visits, admitted student weekends, and admissions tests. Most SAT, ACT, and standard college admission tests have been canceled for May and June. MIT announced that it will no longer consider SAT Subject Tests as part of the application process starting with the 2020-21 admissions cycle.[3]Things are in flux. New announcements are published every day, even every hour.

Many colleges and universities are extending Pass/Fail options to their grading systems. Harvard Law School for example, just announced that it will adopt a mandatory credit-fail grading policy for the Spring 2020 semester in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.[4] As the bigger schools chime in with similar announcements, many of the smaller schools follow their lead. Those schools that resist the change to Pass/Fail are being bombarded online by student protest. This situation is also in flux. Our students benefit from flexibility in this area.

All of this uncertainty is having a significant impact on students whose stress and uprootedness is exacerbated by the disappointment of having to return home unexpectedly. Students and families are finding it difficult to get back into the swing of the semester and their lives. We are all being asked to do things we have never done before. Handling unprecedented change is disquieting for everyone, doubly so for students with complex learning profiles or who already experience anxiety or depression.

Decision Making in a Time of Uncertainty

Our main message for students (and their families) is, “Do not stress about what happens today. Dial it back and wait to see what happens as the schools try to figure things out.” Right now, we are at the mercy of the institutions. We need to ride this out together and see what happens. This is not the time to make life-changing decisions about the future.

Right now, we are here to support students in their daily activities. When the time comes to make those bigger decisions, we will be here to assist. By making plans and adjustments, we help students develop new behaviors, thoughts, and perceptions. Our well-defined relationships are integral to helping them find new pathways to success. It will take time and practice, but that is why we’re here. 

Focus Collegiate



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