A little over a year ago, in my early-pandemic search for meaning, I wrote a piece for Heterodox Academy (HxA) about the pandemic’s potential effect on the ways we interact. I argued the pandemic could invite a new sense of compassion and connection across higher education and the country. I believed that with the taken-for-granted elements of life suddenly under threat, we would focus our attention toward what really matters, and that our country’s polarization would narrow.

These beliefs were, admittedly, a bit naive. While the pandemic did seem to have a unifying effect early on, it exacerbated polarization and upended countless lives, preventing it from being the impetus for cohesion many hoped it would.

It’s not difficult to see why. The pandemic quickly became a partisan issue that bled into our personal lives and affected even some of our closest relationships. For those who follow multiple news sources, consuming information and commentary about the pandemic was disorienting. Mental health issues skyrocketed as a result of social isolation and uncertainty, with notable increases among young people and college students specifically. Unemployment rose to levels even higher than those seen during the Great Recession and has been slow to recover. Students in both K-12 and higher education experienced the most wearisome semesters of their lives, leading to disputes about both modes of instruction and school systems’ handling of COVID policies, not to mention the social justice-related sociopolitical turbulence we saw throughout the summer and into 2021, which heightened national tension.

All of this seemed to further split a divided country rather than bring it together. The unfortunate truth is that, for many Americans, reflecting on the ways in which they interact with others took a backseat to all of the above. Finding the empathy and compassion necessary to combat polarization is difficult when the world around you looks as bleak as it did in the spring and summer of 2020. Feelings of apathy are understandable when one’s everyday life is torn apart.

How will this affect higher education? Because they were largely closed or at very limited capacity, colleges and universities didn’t need to deal on campus with the effects of all this in the way they might have in the past. But students, who will now be returning to campuses planning to open at near-normal capacities, experienced those effects nonetheless. Faculty and administrators need to understand that the students returning to campus in the fall are not the same ones who left in March 2020. Their perspectives have changed. Just as the pandemic may have led them to seek the beauty in what’s around them, it also may have taught them, alarmingly, how fragile life is.

I believe that the strategies I discussed in my article from last April still apply, albeit in a different way. We still can help ease students’ anger and unease about their many anxieties by connecting them to one another and to faculty/staff. We still can take advantage of their new perspectives on the world. But we can’t do these things only with the aim of reducing polarization, as I thought was possible a year ago; students’ concerns are too immediate for that. We need to do these things with an eye toward support and recovery. Better communication and less polarization will (and need to) come as a by-product, but not before we help students mentally recoup from the year they’ve had. 

Although much of the research over the last year paints a dismal picture for students’ mental health and academic success, it cannot be forgotten that many students showed an immense amount of resilience over the last year. Some of the students I’ve worked with, for example, have described the ways they’ve balanced schoolwork with unemployment, the loss of loved ones, and the hardships that followed. Students are more than capable of supporting themselves during crises. The work they do to self-motivate is just as, if not more, important than any support institutions can provide.

Still, I believe that now is the time for colleges and universities to reinvent the way they foster extracurricular communication between students, faculty, and staff. There are few arenas better for cultural discussion than universities, in which eager young people have the opportunity to interact at a high level with field experts. I believe, as well, that these sorts of academic connections will play a large part in students’ mental recovery from COVID-19, allowing them to reflect on what they’ve been through. But contrary to the way I felt a year ago, I fear that, on a larger scale, students will actually be less engaged and less motivated to take advantage of those opportunities.

For sure, young people are craving interaction with their peers. But are they yearning for intellectual discussion about the most difficult issues of the day? I worry that more than a year’s worth of Zoom lectures, which students report as tiresome and disheartening, will have a long-term effect on students’ willingness to exert intellectual effort. Indeed, preliminary research has found that Zoom learning has had a detrimental effect on academic motivation, but it remains to be seen if this is happening on a large scale and, if so, if it will linger into the fall. I foresee a lack of student engagement, a known detriment to student learning, being a problem for both faculty and student affairs come August.

In an interview with the Atlantic published in May 2020, Jonathan Haidt speculated that the polarized response to the pandemic might cause Americans to tire of our social divisions and work to improve them. But if students are mentally exhausted beyond the point of motivation, then little discourse, polarized or not, will happen.

Universities will need to help students rediscover their intellectual fervor. To get students communicating again, institutions will need to do some research in the coming months to discern what their students want to engage with (and how to help them do so). Luckily, we’re at the time of year in which divisions of student affairs, particularly residential life and academic advising offices, are in regular contact with incoming and returning students. We should use that opportunity to explore what students are interested in talking and learning about when they return, and work with faculty to capitalize on that information.

Institutions could preemptively include those topics in early-semester extracurricular events to motivate students as soon as they return to campus. Some examples might include a student-faculty panel on coping with pandemic-related mental fatigue, or a staff-led event on post-pandemic social life. Institutions could also incorporate students’ pressing concerns in appropriate courses (i.e. psychology, sociology, social work, and even first-year seminars). Combining academics with the social and personal—where appropriate—may help ease students back into an academic mindset. 

We should, of course, continue to work toward our goals of decreasing polarization on campus. But first we need to ensure that students are energized and ready to re-embark on that journey alongside us.