How College Students Can Make the Most of a Challenging Semester

A college senior reflects on the disruption caused by the pandemic—and her hopes for making a difference this year.

young man in mask going to school

Medically reviewed in August 2020

Updated on August 10, 2020

I watched my last pink Scandinavian sunrise on March 10, 2020, the day I flew home from Stockholm to New Jersey. It was almost the exact mid-point of my second-semester junior year of study abroad.

At the time, I resented the COVID-19 pandemic for how much it inconvenienced me, for pushing me across continents, for cutting short the most meaningful learning experience of my college career. Disaster interrupted so many of the things I wanted to do. All I could see in the news stories, stay-at-home orders and unfolding chaos were my own lost experiences and unformed memories.

But as people lost their lives, I put my own small experience into perspective. I let go of my missed opportunity out of respect for families who were forced to let go of people they loved. This shift in mindset rescued me from self-pity. If returning home could help save lives, I’d do it gladly.

My college friends—along with students across the country—returned to campus after spring break only to be dismissed days later with no indication of whether they would be coming back. Many universities’ reactions were delayed and understandably halting, leaving students scrambling. As it did in almost every walk of life, campus normalcy evaporated in an instant.

An uncertain future
Now, as universities devise and revise plans for the upcoming semester, questions hang in the air. Can we be confident that schools that have announced re-opening won’t have to close again?

The uncertainty is boundless, even with universities announcing major changes to campus life. These include everything from weekend classes to “virtual roommates” for freshmen to testing before arrival and at regular intervals thereafter. Even if we reduce traffic in dining halls, clamp down on parties, limit students’ travel on and off campus and eliminate breaks in the semester, no college campus is immune to an outbreak.

At my university, students were given a choice in whether or not to return. I have chosen to be on campus. But I’m lucky that I have a safe home to return to where I can study and stay connected if the need arises. That privilege is not lost on me.

Campus is an equalizer. And as we’ve seen across the country at the grade-school level as well, remote learning can exacerbate the inequalities that in-person schooling helps reduce.

Being a college student right now means accepting that the “best four years of your life” will not be as you imagined them. But all is not lost. While frustration with the current situation lingers, I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which college students are uniquely equipped to help.

What we can do
Campus activities will be sharply reduced at schools across the country, opening up huge gaps in many students’ schedules. Time normally spent at sporting events, club meetings and parties will now be available for many of us to capitalize on—if we choose to.

I know that not all college students have the same luxuries of time or access to resources during these difficult circumstances. But I want to challenge the idea that all we can do this semester is wait out the storm and hope for the best.

In many ways, college students are ideally suited to help during the pandemic. As a generally low-risk population, given our age range, there is so much we can do.

How can we invest this crucial time with energy and purpose?

Volunteer. For starters, students can donate much-needed blood to organizations like the American Red Cross. Those of us who may have been sick and fully recovered from the virus can also give convalescent plasma, which holds promise as a treatment for patients with COVID-19.

In the towns and communities where we attend school, we can volunteer with non-profits combatting issues like food insecurity, poverty and unequal access to health care. Where established groups don’t yet exist and needs remain unmet, we can form our own mutual aid societies. We can leverage our tech savvy and computing bandwidth to work as contract tracers where it’s needed most.

Tap college resources. Many of us have a wealth of campus resources at our fingertips we can draw upon to support us in our efforts. That might mean applying for stipends to pursue community projects or independent study programs. It may entail seeking guidance from faculty experts in the issues we hope to address. We can also build upon existing student organizations—such as professional fraternities and other nationwide student associations—to form national coalitions to press for action on issues like economic relief and healthcare reform.

Educate ourselves. The challenge in front of us is also the biggest educational opportunity of our lives. Members of my generation will be the scientists and doctors researching the cures and treating the patients of future pandemics. We should have this in mind when building our course schedules.

My university, like many schools, has recently developed new classes across many departments tackling a range of COVID-19 issues. We can and should take this chance to study not only what happened over these past six months, but in the years leading up to them, so that we may lead through the next crisis with knowledge and insight.

Lean into safety. Before anything else, we have to be sure we don’t allow our safety practices to slip once we return to campus. Wearing masks, washing hands frequently, avoiding crowded indoor parties, practicing social distancing—and above all, staying home if we’re sick or have been in contact with others who are sick—will be necessary to keep schools open.

Following these guidelines will be inconvenient and will change the look and feel of campus life, but we must recognize that while our age group might be relatively low-risk, we don’t only share campus with other students. In all our decisions, we need to think about professors, administrators, custodial staff and dining workers, many of whom are returning to campus with greater risk factors than we have.

These individual decisions—to comply with testing for COVID-19 and refrain from attending large gatherings—all have an immense collective impact. By taking responsibility for our own health this semester, we benefit ourselves, our families and our communities and perhaps we can even model what safe reopening looks like for other institutions.

The upcoming college semester will be unlike anything any of us ever imagined. It may be stressful and it may be disappointing. But it also holds the potential for being productive and memorable—in a good way. The pandemic took opportunities from us, but it has also given us new ones. For the sake of our communities, our world and our future, we should take them.

Article sources open article sources

Chris Quintana. “College closings: More than 100 colleges cancel in-person classes and move online.” USA Today. March 11, 2020.
Neil Vigdor and Mihir Zaveri. “Several East Coast Universities Cancel Classes in Coronavirus Response.” The New York Times. March 10, 2020.
Jenny Gao. “How to not get kicked off campus early.” The Vanderbilt Hustler. August 5, 2020.
Elissa Nadorway. “6 Ways College Might Look Different In The Fall.” National Public Radio. May 5, 2020.
Collin Binkley. “Colleges plan for virus testing, but strategies vary widely.” Associated Press. July 26, 2020.
Marisa Peryer. “Colleges need to test for Covid-19 frequently to keep campuses open this fall, study says.” CNN. August 3, 2020.
David Paltiel. “Assessment of SARS-CoV-2 Screening Strategies to Permit the Safe Reopening of College Campuses in the United States.” JAMA Network. July 31, 2020.
Michael Hill. “No parties, no trips: Colleges set COVID-19 rules for fall.” Associated Press. August 9, 2020.
Nicholas Casey. “Colleges Made Them Feel Equal. The Virus Exposed How Unequal Their Lives Are.” The New York Times. May 5, 2020.
Michelle Fox. “From dorm living to classes, heere’s how college will be different this fall.” CNBC. June 16, 2020.
“Here’s Our New List of Colleges’ Reopening Plans.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published July 29, 2020. Last updated August 7, 2020. Accessed August 7, 2020.
American Red Cross. “Plasma Donations from Recovered COVID-19 Patients.”
Saurabh Kumar, et al. “Battle Against COVID-19: Efficacy of Convalescent Plasma as an emergency therapy.” American Journal of Emergency Medicine. June 2, 2020.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Recommendations for Investigational COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma.” May 1, 2020. Accessed August 7, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Scaling Up Staffing Roles in Case Investigation and Contact Tracing.” Updated July 24, 2020. Accessed August 7, 2020.
Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. “‘The kids will forget’: Custodians, housekeepers and other support staff brace for college reopenings.” The Washington Post. August 4, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education.” Updated May 30, 2020. Accessed August 7, 2020.

More On

What is MIS-C—and Should Parents Be Worried?


What is MIS-C—and Should Parents Be Worried?
U.S. health officials report 7,880 confirmed cases of this rare but serious condition linked to COVID-19.
Pfizer’s Antiviral Pill Cuts Risk of Severe COVID By 89 Percent


Pfizer’s Antiviral Pill Cuts Risk of Severe COVID By 89 Percent
The drug maker plans to seek Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA as soon as possible.
Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Ever End?


Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Ever End?
Vaccines save lives but they are not a magic bullet. Experts predict the coronavirus is here to stay, but we’ll learn to live with it.
What Is Long COVID Brain Fog—And Can It Be Cleared?


What Is Long COVID Brain Fog—And Can It Be Cleared?
Overall, 7.5 percent of people have lingering symptoms, such as brain fog, weeks, months, or even years after recovering from COVID. Get the latest.
Biden Announces Vaccine Mandates That Will Affect 100 Million U.S. Workers


Biden Announces Vaccine Mandates That Will Affect 100 Million U.S. Workers
The federal action plan aims to jumpstart stalled COVID vaccination rates and slow the spread of the Delta variant.