Transitioning to college life from a pandemic high school experience

Carmichael Hall, a first-year residence hall, is pictured on Oct. 18, 2020. Emma Boersma / The Tufts Daily
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Members of Tufts’ Class of 2026 were high school sophomores when the COVID-19 pandemic left the educational world scrambling to find new ways to teach. The class has just concluded their first semester of college, which for many students also marks the first return to regular school life since the pandemic.

For first-year Kaitlin Aquilino, the transition from high school to college was initially rough.

“During the pandemic, you were given a lot of opportunities to do things over because situations were different for everyone,” Aquilino said. “I think it’s been a little bit harder trying to switch from online to offline again … and get used to quizzes and exams here.”

In high school, Aquilino faced challenges with the virtual learning models that originated from the pandemic.

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“There were some lectures where I would just space out completely, and I would not know what was going on,” Aquilino said. “I think [high school teachers] made courses a little bit easier, and the classes more forgiving, [but] that [has] not really transferred [to] college [that] much, … so I think [the pandemic] has impacted learning.”

At Tufts, Kirsten Behling, the associate dean of the Student Accessibility and Academic Resource Center, noticed a significant increase in students’ utilization of the center’s offerings this year.

“Students are accessing these resources throughout the semester, which is a bit different than in the past when we saw our highest utilization of the resources around midterms and finals,” Behling wrote in an email to the Daily. “Broadly, we have seen some students challenged by the return to the in-class experience and in the workload associated with their courses.”

The pandemic challenged colleges to adapt to a new virtual environment and the changing student needs that came along with that. For the StARR Center, these new conditions served as an opportunity to alter their academic support models.

“Based on student need, we have increased our tutoring and study group sessions and added flexibility in the format of appointments (in-person and online),” Behling wrote. “We are supporting many first years as they navigate the demands of attending class in-person, taking an exam, or writing a paper for the first time in more than two years.”

For first-year student and Tufts Community Union Senator Caroline Spahr, the transition to college was unexpected.

“My older high school friends … transitioned [into college] during the pandemic [and] that was really rough for them, so I was kind of expecting a lot worse,” Spahr said. “In comparison to them, it’s been a lot smoother [and] … a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

Spahr attributes her quick adjustment to college to her experience of moving from the suburbs of Pittsburgh to central Pennsylvania in middle school.

“I still remember what it was like to totally move and uproot my life and move it somewhere else,” Spahr said.

Spahr credited the skills she was forced to acquire from this move as what has helped her adapt to college life.

“I was definitely not grateful at the time, but looking back … it definitely was a good experience to have,” Spahr said.

For many students across the country, the pandemic not only altered their physical learning environments, but also placed limits on the content of their classes. Spahr took AP Biology during the pandemic and noted the absence of labs. Missing out on hands-on learning experiences made it more challenging for Spahr to apply and engage with course material.

In addition to academics, Spahr also missed out on her high school’s culture club and the events the club would have typically run throughout the year. Shortly after coming to Tufts, Spahr jumped at the opportunity to become involved with the in-person clubs and activities offered on campus.

“I definitely got more involved in a bunch of different things that I wasn’t involved in [during] high school. I was not a member of any student government [or] treasury … and now that is kind of like my life here,” Spahr said. “It’s [been] an opportunity to branch out and actually get hands-on experience [with extracurriculars].”

According to Spahr, the TCU Senate is currently working on a couple of projects to aid first-years in their transition to Tufts. TCU Senator Jose Armando is focusing on improving orientation week so students can better connect with each other and begin to develop a sense of belonging on campus. TCU Senator Donovan Sanders is working to improve the pre-major advisor assignments for students after observing that many first-years were matched with pre-major advisors outside of their departments of interested departments.

Amid the impacts of COVID-19 on school life, there was also a decline in student mental health levels during the worst of the pandemic. Julie Jampel, the director of training for Tufts Counseling and Mental Health Services, explained that these effects continue to take a toll on student well-being.

“We always have … first-year students who come in because it’s a difficult adjustment,” Jampel said. “I think the pandemic has added a big layer to that. … There’s a very big range [of students seeking CMHS services], but I think it’s safe to say that the pandemic is still there and … still a motivator for seeking mental health treatment.”

During the pandemic, CMHS responded by creating virtual counseling sessions and student support workshops. This year, they are renewing their in-person appointments while keeping their virtual sessions. Jampel believes that virtual sessions allow for more hesitant students to reach out to CMHS while also facilitating access for students who may not feel like leaving their rooms.

“We’ve implemented online scheduling for new appointments, which is something students have been asking for a long time,” Jampel said. “The pandemic has shaped our readiness to do that because a lot was online already. … The priority has always been to try to reach and help as many students as we can; that hasn’t changed. The specifics of how we might do that is what is changed.”

Erin Seaton, the associate chair of Tufts’ education department, teaches two undergraduate courses: School-Based Mental Health, as well as Identities in Education. Seaton has observed several common mental health threads that students have generally faced over the pandemic.

“[As] somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about student mental health, other people have joined me in that conversation in ways that never happened,” Seaton said. “I think others have really become attentive to how much mental health and well-being is critical for students’ academic success [and] their experience on a college campus. … I think for students, too, there’s a greater openness to talk about health and well-being.”

During the pandemic, the disparities between students became more apparent with virtual instruction. Students who had other responsibilities at home or did not have a quiet space to learn faced additional challenges when courses suddenly moved into a virtual environment. Moreover, Seaton noted that along with the transition into a global health pandemic, the world experienced a racial injustice pandemic.

“Students struggled through … a global health [crisis] and — in the U.S. — a real kind of racial trauma,” Seaton said. “That’s something to hold on to and process and remember … [particularly] what skills and ways students coped and how we paid attention to how important community is. … The simultaneous piece of a racial reckoning in our country weighed heavily on the mental health of students of color. I think that is continuing as a perpetuated harm and not addressed at Tufts with the kind of depth and thought and care that we need to have.”

During the height of the pandemic, Seaton utilized critical spanning groups, which were smaller breakout room groups within the class, as a way to encourage student bonding within a virtual environment.

“There’s something very intimate about being in those spaces together, and so that’s actually something that I’ve continued even though we’re back in person,” Seaton said. “That idea that we really have to work hard to create a sense of community — that’s important to be thinking about.”

As classes recommence normally, schools and universities must make another transition back to in-person learning.

“Particularly in K-12 education, there’s been a push to go back to the way things were, which was never a system or structure that was working to begin with, and [it] was highly inequitable,” Seaton said. “Let’s think more holistically about what students need when they walk into a classroom.”

As the education system continues to cope and evolve with the pandemic, Seaton has observed a renewed sense of desire for connection among Tufts students this year.

“I’ve never been in a space where students were so happy to be together, and that sense of community and what it meant to just be together was such a joyful space,” Seaton said.

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