For better or for worse, the 2020/2021 school year is wrapping up. Would you believe our local high school graduation last week featured a failing sound system followed by total power loss, plunging the entire celebration into darkness? Seriously! BUT- everyone whipped out their cell phones and lit up the place like a concert, and the ceremony went on. Experiences like this beautifully reinforce what we believe to be a major silver lining to the pandemic: these graduating seniors may be the best prepared college freshmen yet! From the perspective of a college health expert and a high school teacher/coach, here are FIVE SKILLS the Class of 2021 developed that make them uniquely prepared to fly the nest:
- Stronger independent study skills: Online-schooling shoved students out of their familiar classroom settings straight into independent, self-directed learning. Did SnapChat or TikTok prove too tempting during their classes? Studies such as “Does Multitasking in the Classroom Affect Learning Outcomes?”by Jamet, et al. (2020) show that the more you multitask in a learning environment, the less new knowledge you retain. These seniors suddenly had to take full responsibility for their education, making choices about limiting distractions, attendance, motivation, and even engagement (camera on or off?) – all challenges that typically debut in college. Additionally, whether they had to email a teacher, text classmates for help, form Zoom study groups, or seek out internet resources to provide additional clarity, students gained invaluable experience being resourceful when they didn’t know how to proceed.
- Extra value on Extra-curriculars: Was your senior crushed because of a cancelled game, season, show or concert? They are in excellent company. Not only did these seniors lose their culminating year of an often life-long passion, but they lost the camaraderie, discipline and support of these teams and clubs. Seniors abruptly learned exactly how much these extracurricular activities mattered, something most don’t experience until after graduation. For those who were left with an aching void, this loss will propel them to actively seek out college clubs or teams, which helps on many levels. Student groups provide an excellent setting for low-pressure conversations, organic connections, and meaningful support, making them a powerful remedy for loneliness. Attending regular in-person meetings with a consistent group helps students gain social footing amongst their new peers, and that feeling of community will also reduce feelings of homesickness, which will be especially valuable after a year spent in very close contact with their immediate family.
- Insight to help avoid the “Freshman 15”: Virtual learning this year saw skinny jeans give way to stretchy leggings, shorts, or sweatpants. Meanwhile, with the kitchen only steps away, boredom-fueled snacking flourished. Sports were cancelled, gyms closed…and the “COVID 19” emerged. Not surprisingly, studies like “Self-quarantine and weight gain related risk factors during the COVID-19 pandemic” by Zachary, et al. (2020) observe that “lack of dietary restraint, eating in response to stress, and reduced physical activity” were some of the key risk factors in pandemic weight gain. Is there good news here? Yes! College weight gain is not called the Sophomore 15, right? A major component of the Freshman 15 pounds is that, for many, this is the very first time they have experienced unexpected weight gain. Pandemic pounds, like freshman weight gain, teach lessons that need not be repeated. Seniors have a heightened awareness of what worked (or didn’t) this year, and many learned firsthand that unhelpful habits can quickly become a mainstay if not corrected. Whether those habits involve bedtime rituals, exercise or healthier food choices, students are ready to prioritize establishing healthy self-care routines when they arrive on campus.
- Elevated Health IQ. COVID-19 clearly raised our collective health IQ, starting with proper handwashing and avoiding high-touch surfaces (please don’t revert to the restroom splash-n-dash!) With or without masks, these newly ingrained habits will help prevent many of the viral infections that typically plague dorm dwellers. College freshmen often avoid seeking healthcare simply because they’ve never had to do it themselves, and they worry about scheduling an appointment or dealing with insurance paperwork. With the COVID conversion to telehealth, however, many teens initially felt more confident than their parents navigating the online health portals, which allowed students to naturally assume responsibility for their own appointments. Side note: perhaps the greatest benefit of the pandemic is the advent of easily accessible telehealth counseling. So many people decline counseling because they are unnecessarily embarrassed. The simple ability to schedule and meet online with a mental health provider in the privacy of your own room has wonderfully erased barriers to treatment that have always existed.
- Job Experience and/or Increased Financial Awareness: Finally, after the massive workplace disruptions caused by COVID, many families were forced to tighten budgets, pushing some students to take on part- or full-time work to cover expenses- for themselves or their family. Balancing course work with employment taught seniors first-hand money management skills, and quickly distinguished essential needs from wants. According to the National College Health Assessment, financial pressures rank as the second leading cause of significant stress for college students, so confronting these issues during high school should ultimately allow them to feel more prepared once they set foot on campus.
Bottom Line: Class of 2021 parents, take heart! Although COVID-19 flipped life upside down for the graduating high school seniors, we believe these pandemic-powered seniors now have an incredible skill set that may ultimately yield the smoothest transition to college. We wish them success and perhaps more importantly, resilience and energy to succeed when they hit the inevitable bumps along their journey.
Co-authored by Jill Grimes, MD, and Jill Henry, MA. *Portions of this content previously published in their Hechinger Report Op Ed.
Both “Dr. Jill” and “Coach Jill” are authors of award-winning, practical, humorous, MUST-HAVE college wellness resource books from Skyhorse Publishing. Which book is better? Come on, think of what you are investing in your kid’s college tuition! Grab BOTH books to best prepare your favorite college-bound student!
- The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook: Your Guide for Everything from Hangovers to Homesickness(Grimes, May 2020)
- The Greatest College Health Guide You Never Knew You Needed: How to Manage Food, Booze, Stress, Sex, Sleep and Exercise on Campus (Henry, June 2021)