Courtesy of Otterbein University
Otterbein University cheerleaders lead the class of 2025 on a march to their first convocation on Aug. 19, 2021, in Westerville, Ohio. President John Comerford expects the resumption of normal campus activities this year to help rebuild a sense of community.

Community on campus: As college students return, a focus on well-being

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As colleges and universities in the United States start the fall semester, they’re seeking to rebuild community – not only as a way to support students, but also to help curb pandemic opt-outs.

Between the springs of 2020 and 2021, undergraduate enrollment declined by 4.9% – some 727,000 students – a plummet led by community colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Why We Wrote This

As colleges prepare for a new academic year, they’re finding that the pandemic has given them a new focus: rebuilding campus community.

To help convince students to stay, “it’s more important than ever that colleges and universities position themselves as places of welcome and belonging,” says Association of American Colleges & Universities President Lynn Pasquerella.

With the rise of the delta variant, some schools are favoring a temporary online restart. Those that are able to bring students back in person are taking a variety of approaches to fostering community, including welcoming second-year students to orientations they missed a year ago. Olin College of Engineering – a small private school in Needham, Massachusetts – is allowing second-year students to participate in an on-campus “reorientation,” for example.

“We’re used to having this [campus] population that has a pretty shared experience,” says Dean Alisha Sarang-Sieminski, noting that how students experienced the pandemic depends on their class year and whether they took a leave. “We’re at a little bit of a cultural reset moment.” 

Welcoming students to their new dorm, resident adviser Melvin Casillas-Muñoz wears a badge that says “MOM.” The mid-August move-in can be stressful – and humor helps, says the sophomore. 

Mr. Casillas-Muñoz looks forward to more social interactions this fall. After all, the public University of Colorado Boulder is resuming mostly in-person, with COVID-19 vaccines required campuswide. He spent last year in hybrid and virtual learning, struggling as an introvert to expand his social circle over Zoom.

“I’m trying to make up for all that, and make sure all my residents get a good experience with the community here as well,” says Mr. Casillas-Muñoz, as he and fellow RAs hold doors for box-hauling families.

Why We Wrote This

As colleges prepare for a new academic year, they’re finding that the pandemic has given them a new focus: rebuilding campus community.

His hope is shared by colleges and universities welcoming back students this fall. As these institutions brace for another uncertain year, they’re juggling more than move-ins and mandates. They’re seeking to rebuild campus community – in part to avoid pandemic opt-outs.

To help convince students to stay, says Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) President Lynn Pasquerella, “it’s more important than ever that colleges and universities position themselves as places of welcome and belonging.”

Higher education faces fall 2021 with a patchwork of plans. As the pandemic endures with the rise of the delta variant, some schools are favoring a temporary online restart. COVID-19 vaccination policies vary, with some schools barred from issuing mandates due to state orders. As of Aug. 26, there are 805 schools requiring COVID-19 vaccination for at least some students or workers, according to a tracker by The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
Melvin Casillas-Muñoz (left) and fellow resident advisers at the University of Colorado Boulder help students move into their dorm on Aug. 19, 2021. The sophomore says he looks forward to more in-person interactions this year.

Beyond political and health hurdles, there’s also the issue of head counts. Between the springs of 2020 and 2021, undergraduate enrollment declined by 4.9% – some 727,000 students – a plummet led by community colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Another analysis from the center points to financial and racial disparities. For the high school class of 2019, college enrollment the following fall for graduates of low-income, high-poverty, and high-minority schools dropped at steeper rates than for peers at more advantaged schools. (High-minority high schools have at least 40% Black or Hispanic students.)

To help weather the storm, colleges and universities received billions in federal pandemic relief funding. However, says Dr. Pasquerella of AAC&U, “it’s a concern that most of the money has gone to providing financial resources for students whose family situations have changed radically. But now how do we provide the resources necessary for them to stay in college?”

“Let us help you”

At Austin Community College District – a network of 11 campuses in Texas – a sharper understanding of student needs last year informs continued outreach. The district contacted students early on in the pandemic and asked what they needed.

“They were concerned about finances, being able to support their families, but they were also wanting to stay on track,” says Vice President of Student Affairs Shasta Buchanan. Their central message to students: “Let us help you stay on track.” An outreach team will continue to call and text students moving forward. 

Beyond expanded access to digital devices and Wi-Fi, the district and its food bank partners distributed over a million pounds of food to students and other locals over the past school year – an effort that will continue.

“That ‘community’ part of a community college really kicked in,” says Dr. Buchanan, whose district is starting several fall classes remotely for the first three weeks.

It is also developing a brief online training for faculty on how to connect students with resources beyond academic needs. Besides ensuring students are “college-ready,” she says, “we stand firm in being student-ready, to meet our students where they are.”

Ramping up pandemic operations also led to deeper collaborations with public health partners – and across campus departments, says Michelle Fisher, associate vice president for campus health services at Delaware State University, a historically Black university based in Dover.

“Sometimes higher ed has a history of working in what they call silos, but as a result of this pandemic, we just became a cohesive community,” Dr. Fisher says.

Attention to well-being

For many schools, campus solidarity has meant expanding mental health support in response to growing need.

When Ohio State University surveyed around 1,000 students over the past school year, results were troubling. The shares of students that screened positive for anxiety, depression, or burnout all rose between August 2020 and April 2021. 

“There is an urgent need for universities across the country to shift from a paradigm of crisis intervention to prevention,” says Chief Wellness Officer Bernadette Melnyk.

“When you put COVID stressors on top of the regular stress that college students are under, and then you put the racial and political tensions we’ve had on top of that, it can really be overwhelming for our young adults.”

Sarah Matusek/The Christian Science Monitor
University of Colorado Boulder freshman Matt Asson hugs his mother, Maureen Welter, on the lawn of his dorm before his parents head home to Chicago on Aug. 19, 2021. “I’m just excited to be back in person, go to classes with other people, and not just sit in my room on my computer all day," says Mr. Asson.

While the OSU system of roughly 70,000 students has always had strong mental health services, she says, it expanded its offerings with a Telehealth Wellness Hub in November. New students also received a five-point mental health checklist at orientation. And Dr. Melnyk says she’s exploring with other OSU leaders how mental health resources could be more integrated into curricula. 

“If you don’t make the culture one in which healthy behaviors are the norm, then you’re not going to see great change,” says Dr. Melnyk, who is also president and founder of the National Consortium for Building Healthy Academic Communities.

Desire for help is there. Nationally, while three-quarters (77%) of students report heightened emotional distress and anxiety linked to the pandemic, nearly the same share (72%) intend to seek emotional support from others – including campus counselors – according to an August survey by higher-ed telehealth provider TimelyMD.

School spirit and bottom lines

As private Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, gears up for a return to mostly in-person learning, President John Comerford expects the resumption of normal campus activities – like sports, clubs, and concerts – to play a key role in rebuilding campus bonds. 

“Student relationships [in the past] formed everywhere from the athletic field to the library, and it is just hard to replicate that online,” he says. “We need to be as in-person as we can be, because that’s what our students want. That’s where our students thrive. That’s where our faculty and staff do their best work.” (The school just announced it’s requiring COVID-19 vaccination for students by Oct. 25 in order to participate in the spring semester. Faculty and staff will also be required to be vaccinated.)

There’s a financial angle, too. Enrollment is down 9% between fall 2019 and the fall 2021 projection of 2,590 students, according to the school.

Beyond tuition woes, more students than usual elected to live off campus during pandemic semesters, which drained room-and-board revenue. He hopes the promotion of a return to normal activities will draw students back to campus not just to learn, but to live. First-time student enrollment is rebounding, he says, along with the share of students choosing to live on campus.

“Reorientation” 

Some schools are welcoming back second-year students to in-person orientations they missed a year ago. Olin College of Engineering –  a private school in Needham, Massachusetts, with under 400 students – held orientation virtually this past year. Now it’s allowing second-year students to participate in an on-campus “reorientation.”

Over meals and info sessions, the goal is to “get up to speed on what it’s like to be there as a full campus, even though they’ve been at the school for a whole year,” says Dean Alisha Sarang-Sieminski.

“We’re used to having this [campus] population that has a pretty shared experience,” says Dr. Sarang-Sieminski, but how students have experienced the pandemic depends on their class year and whether they took a leave. “We’re at a little bit of a cultural reset moment.”

Second-year CU Boulder students like Mr. Casillas-Muñoz are also able to participate in fall welcome events typically organized for first-year students – many of whom finished high school remotely. 

After a near-virtual senior year, CU Boulder freshman Matt Asson says, “I’m just excited to be back in person, go to classes with other people, and not just sit in my room on my computer all day.”

Before his parents fly back to Chicago, they say goodbyes on the lawn. The teen survived the first night in his new home, he reports, and has started to meet dormmates.

“It’s different for me being in a new place not knowing anyone, but so far so good,” he says. 

As his mother pulls him into a hug, he tells her not to cry.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect the new vaccine requirement at Otterbein University.

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