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Growing Through the Unexpected: Focusing on Mental Health as a First-Year College Student in the Age of COVID-19

16 Sep 2020 — 5 min read

BY Alyssa Goldberg

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I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, a city just under an hour away from New York City, and spent most of my teenage years catching express trains into the city to go see concerts after school. My older sister taught me how to navigate the subway at age thirteen, and I started spending my weekends exploring downtown Manhattan. There was never a doubt in my mind that I’d eventually move to New York City, and finally feel the sense of independence I always imagined I’d experience in a big city. Once I got accepted and committed to starting NYU in the fall of 2019, I began picturing myself roaming around the city, meeting new people, and finding new, small venues to catch concerts at after class. After I finished my senior year of high school, it felt like everything was lined up perfectly. However, the year that followed was absolutely nothing like what I had planned for.

I hurt my ankle in late July, which meant that I would have to use crutches for months to follow. While it seemed to me that starting my first year at any college on crutches would be difficult, I found that New York City was particularly tough in terms of accessibility. I’d thought that I would have complete freedom, yet there I was on move-in day, barely able to carry my belongings up to my dorm room.

What made things more difficult for me is that I have struggled, at times, with anxiety and depression. I had also experienced disordered eating habits in the past. Most new college students have a lot to adjust to emotionally. My physical injury, and the obstacles it caused, made it especially challenging to manage my mental health as I entered my first year of college.

With limited mobility, I found it tougher than I expected to make new friends. I often had to skip opportunities to meet people, as I was in too much pain to go anywhere. My inability to work out also caused me to fall back on some of my old disordered eating habits. I frequently felt stressed and isolated.

But as my ankle started to heal, I tried to branch out in as many ways as possible. I joined clubs that aligned with my interests; reached out to students on my floor and in my classes; and even rushed a sorority, which was something I thought I would never do. By putting myself out there, I was able to find friends who helped me turn around my freshman year.   

Spring semester started on a much better foot than the fall. I had friends I loved, found my place in clubs and campus organizations, and didn’t feel I was held back by the constraints of my ankle injury any longer. While I still had to pay attention to and care for my mental health, 2020 seemed to be going quite well -- that is, until March, when COVID-19 hit.

Like every college student, I was sent home just six weeks into the spring semester because of the pandemic. At first, going home didn’t seem like that big a deal: spring break was about to start anyway, and I thought we might be able to return toward the end of the semester. However, soon after returning to Connecticut, I became seriously ill. I had a 102-degree fever along with other symptoms. I wasn’t sure, at first, whether what I had was COVID-19 – and since I was forced home, I was afraid of infecting my dad, who is high-risk. Being sick at any time is miserable, but it’s incredibly anxiety-provoking amid a pandemic.   

After five days in self-isolation, my corona test finally came back negative. It turned out that I had mono and a lymph node infection. Soon after, I also developed a kidney infection. Getting out of bed was a challenge; being able to engage in online classes was nearly impossible. My fever didn’t break for two weeks. I missed classes, and fell severely behind. In mid-April, I began to recover, with just enough time to try and secure decent grades before my finals in May. In the end, all turned out fine.

Though I had wanted my freshman year to go much differently, I ended up feeling as though the unpredictable changes and obstacles I encountered didn’t overshadow the accomplishments and memories I made. Despite having a rocky start, I met incredible people I felt like I had known for years. I started an NYU chapter of Active Minds, an organization dedicated to mental health awareness on college campuses; presented a TEDxNYU talk, in which I spoke about my experiences living with mental health conditions and engaging in advocacy work;  and got to see many of my favorite artists perform in the city.  

If you’re an incoming first-year college student, I know this year is not what you had planned. Classes will be different, if not online completely, and you may be living at home or in some other situation. Though your first year of college may not be what you expected, that doesn’t mean it won’t turn out okay, or even better than you predict.  

Dealing with uncertainty is challenging, especially for people living with mental health conditions. Changes in routine, and an inability to plan ahead, can trigger symptoms. When moving to college, it’s important that you pack the tools you need to manage your mental health.  

Be sure to stay connected to the support systems you have back home, whether it be through FaceTime calls, or regular texts checking in on the people in your life. Assess your comfort level in terms of how you navigate the pandemic and stay safe. Your peers may be more willing to take risks regarding COVID-19, so it can help to set firm boundaries to avoid uncomfortable situations when possible. Stay within your comfort zone. Consider what precautions you want to take, express these to your roommates and peers, and allow for flexibility as you develop a sense of what it’s like on campus. Be kind to yourself as you adjust to college life, along with these new uncertainties we’re all facing. You should also become acquainted with whatever mental health support services may be available at your school, before you may need them.

For those of you staying home, know that you are in the same position as thousands of other first-year students. Though you may feel disconnected from your campus at the moment, every student is searching for new connections, whether it be in-person or in a virtual capacity. Don’t be afraid to reach out virtually to your peers. Message someone from your class and exchange numbers so that you can work on assignments together or just get to know each other. The opportunities to meet new people are endless, and even one small conversation or activity can lead to another club or person that you end up loving!

This semester is going to pose various challenges, but from one new college student to another, I know you will get through it.

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