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  • Writer's pictureSarah Santiago

Empathy for college students

Updated: Jul 10, 2022

A very rough draft of thoughts that have been on my mind lately (as a licensed therapist who specifically works with college students). Higher ed friends, this is for you. I'd love to hear any thoughts. Hugs to all; this is hard for all of us!

Ask any college graduate what the best years of their life were and you will probably get a nostalgic response about memories from their years as a student. Many people cherish fond memories of their emergence as an adult; that first dose of freedom.

For today’s college students, the college experience looks different from the experience that any other generation has ever experienced thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Researchers argue that a new developmental stage has emerged in recent decades. They have coined this stage “emerging adulthood”; which many Americans experience sometime between the ages of 18-29. Historically, cultural markers of adulthood were events that culturally symbolized one had reached “adulthood”. Historically, events such as marriage, having children, buying a home, owning a car, starting a well paying career were cultural indicators that one was an adult. Currently, and due to many complex reasons, the average age of “achieving” these “markers” (if they are even met at all) is much later than any time in our history. For example: according to the US Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage is over 28 for women, and over 30 for men.

What impact does this have on current 18-29 year olds? In my experience, this shift is causing many older generations who were socialized with traditional markers of adulthood to view today’s 18-29 year olds as adolescents. In my work with this population, this is making college students feel very misunderstood, dismissed, and leaving them questioning the very real struggles they are trying to cope with.

Individuals who are currently in this developmental stage of emerging adulthood are experiencing this stage with a challenge that no previous generation has experienced: the covid-19 pandemic, which is going on its third year. Many of these young adults have missed significant, meaningful, events that were promoted to them for most of their lives: formal dances, graduations, graduation parties, social gatherings. Many of them didn’t get to connect with the peers that they finished high school with in the way that other generations experienced. Many of them had to shift to online learning after spending most of their education in person. They have missed out on the magic of falling in love with a campus during an on campus visit filled with students and socially active campuses. They transitioned into higher education with virtual orientations; a major shift in the opportunity to connect socially with other incoming students, faculty, and staff. Those in residence halls are living amongst hundreds of students with whom they have never seen many of their faces due to mask coverings. They are trying to socialize during a time when social events have been extremely limited.

Yes- everyone has been impacted by the pandemic. Everyone has experienced loss in some way. However, it’s helpful to acknowledge the experiences that older generations were able to experience that younger generations have missed out on. It’s empathetic and allows gen z to feel seen and understood so that they can begin to identify solutions.

Here’s the thing. Empathy is hard. Empathy requires us to look at a situation from the perspective of someone else, putting our own lens of experiences and opinions aside. It requires believing that the struggles someone expresses are real for them and not dismissing them as excuses. It requires listening to understand, not listening to respond or fix. When we listen to respond or fix, we have good intentions, but often it leaves the other person feeling unheard and misunderstood in their struggles.

Empathy does not mean that we agree with how someone is responding to their struggles. It does not mean that you assume no one else has had it worse. It does not mean that we toss aside all repercussions of someone’s behaviors. It does not mean that we give everyone a gold star and a free pass. It means that we simply acknowledge and validate another's experience and understand that it’s different from our own. This paves the way for connection. I believe that connection is how we can begin to heal from the heaviness that we’ve all experienced these past years.

This can simply sound like: “I have never experienced what you are going through, how are you doing?” “What do you need to feel supported right now?”. “Unfortunately I’m unable to provide that kind of support but here’s what I can do/here’s a resource that may be helpful”

We all need support right now, however from what I’ve observed in my work with college students, I want to speak up for them. Our college students are hurting right now. They really need our empathy. If you have an interaction with a college student today, please try to practice empathy. It can be life changing.

Some links for more reading:

College students in a lecture wearing masks. This photo represents how college students may need mental health support due to impact of pandemic
College students in lecture hall wearing masks

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