Higher Ed at Its Best: Helping One Another Survive and Thrive Through a Pandemic

Woman has mask on at computer desk while holding up sign that says, "We can do this."

I’ve been a professor for nearly 30 years, charged with teaching hundreds of students about psychological development. They learn how humans adapt to physical, cognitive, identity, and social changes at every stage in life—from newborn babies to young children, and all the way to old age. In the stage of young adulthood, individuals separate from parents, establish intimacy with friends and partners, start independent living skills, and prepare for careers. For many, college is a launching pad for these challenges.

Throughout our lives, “normative” developmental tasks are ones we all face, such as puberty, romantic relationships, or becoming parents. They might be stressful, but we expect these changes—we welcome them and we move forward with our lives. “Non-normative” events, on the other hand, are uniquely challenging situations where there isn’t a script to follow—nor is the impact on an individual’s life trajectory clear.  

So along comes COVID-19, and for many young adults, it feels as if they’re going back in time: parents are doing more laundry, kids are asking for the keys to the family car, dinner is served at a specific time each night. For a student used to dorm life and thrust back into the family home dynamic, the changes can be daunting—no summer camp counseling job or internships, and certainly no large get togethers or frequently hanging out with friends. The COVID-19 pandemic is the best example I can think of for a “non-normative” event, especially for young adults.  

“Non-normative” also describes the experience that universities are having right now. Potential loss of revenue threatens the survival of financially precarious colleges and universities across the nation. Hundreds of experienced and highly regarded professors feel like clunky beginners as they redesign and deliver their courses online. Colleges and universities are also faced with the need to adapt and evolve, without a script!

I believe our students are an untapped resource, and our institutions—particularly faculty—can enhance students’ development into adulthood. In these extraordinary times, the following five suggestions should be considered for keeping colleges as destinations for higher learning and preparation for adulthood:

Invite students to participate fully on COVID-19 task forces, budget, student life, and retention committees. Recruit from a variety of programs and levels via safe distance or video meetings. In a non-threatening, egalitarian and professional setting, ask students how they can remain satisfied at your college. Listen carefully and be prepared for ideas that might be surprising or even painful to us.

  • What can our college do better?
  • Do you like ___, and why?
  • How can we change ___?
  • What is working really well?
  • Is there anything we are currently doing that seems goofy or disastrous?
  • Hypothetically, let’s say it’s your job to make our college more successful compared to others. What would you do?

Along the way, our young adult students who crave social connections can initiate friendships with others, while cultivating concrete professional skills.

Be explicit on how course activities may directly tie in with career preparation. I’m not a trained career coach, but I bet we can all see in our respective subject areas how students can apply what they are learning to a digital format.

  • For example, my Psychology students apply their knowledge in an internship to develop a text-based form of peer-to-peer support for mental health issues. It’s called HearMe, a free emotional wellness and peer support app that connects users to trained volunteer listeners for a real-time, text-based chat.
  • Put students to work in business courses! Maybe they create snazzy marketing campaigns to attract and retain students—even during a pandemic.
  • Don’t neglect “soft skills,” or the “emotional intelligence” required in all work settings. Model emotional regulation, effective listening, poise, and patience for your students. When I goofed up my class technology for the 20th time and oozed frustration, I stepped back and gratefully received a solution from one of my freshmen. Bear in mind, this pandemic has made all of our emotions fluctuate. Provide gentle and explicit guidance to your students as they communicate with each other and yourself in small and large group settings.

As we fumble around in pursuit of the best ways to teach online, ask our digital-savvy young adult learners about ways they make it work for them. I reflected on my teaching evaluations from the fall semester when students urged for more interaction. I got myself some extra training on how to use breakout rooms more effectively, and this fairly traditional professor now integrates YouTube material in class thanks to her freshmen!

Do we stereotype college students as “purveyors of COVID?” It’s easy to feel suspicious of our students, and I’m pretty sure they can feel the same way. Pay attention to such messages. We want our students to feel welcome, accepted, and appreciated.

  • Young adults’ impulse to connect with peers might seem irrational and exasperating, but I assure you it’s normal. In their late teens and early 20’s, people are egocentric (we were, too), making it tough to appreciate how socializing under less-than-safe conditions is a real threat to others.
  • Guess who is working at the grocery stores, coffee shops, and restaurants? Walking our dogs? Delivering packages and restaurant food? Young adults! While we get frustrated with young adults’ socializing and stretching COVID-19 precautions, keep in mind that there are so many young adults who are responsible and helping to make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable.
  • Highlight images of students who are careful with social distancing. Display these models of mask-wearing in social settings, restaurants, and backyard gatherings. Make it look cool and fun, and reward and compliment students for their socially responsible behavior.

Mentor our young adults. As stated above, a critical developmental task in our 20’s is to separate from parents and establish independent living skills. Adult developmental theorist Daniel Levinson emphasizes the role of mentors during this stage.[1] Personally, I will forever be grateful to the mentors I had in college, and I admit it’s one of the most satisfying parts of my job today. How are we formally or informally guiding our students? With or without a global pandemic, let’s be intentional about forming these connections with our students. Surely, this is a formula for mutual success.

This pandemic is a non-normative event like no other—so while we protect our health through social distancing and remote education, let’s make this “non-normative” crisis the new norm! We are all “students” during this time, finding ways to cope and eventually thrive. As faculty, we should all learn from our students, support their development, and together exemplify the true meaning of higher education during a time of immense challenge and change.

Linda McKenna Gulyn, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. In addition to college teaching, her research focuses on coping with stressful life events, especially Autism Spectrum Disorder.


[1] Levinson, D. J. (1986) A conception of adult development. American Psychologist, 4, pp. 3–13. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.41.1.3.