Neena Fink, Southern New Hampshire University
Cindy Firestein, Simmons University
Academic Advisors are seeing an increase in Generation Z students coming to campus with mental wellness struggles and concerns that intensify and become transformational with the transition to college. With the transition to remote and hybrid higher education learning models, mental wellness is the unseen and largely forgotten struggle for college students. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental wellness, “as a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community” (American Mental Wellness Association, n.d.). Students are changing, and with that, advising must adapt to best meet student needs. Advisors are learning that as part of their role they will need to offer emotional support while simultaneously identify, triage, connect, and refer students to supplemental support and resources. Advisors must help students tackle the normal and abnormal stressors of life, because advisors will be a student’s first point of contact.
Moreover, there is a ubiquitous and increasing distrust of higher education, which questions whether or not college is worth the investment. Individuals born between 1995 and 2015 are considered part of Generation Z, also referred to as the iGeneration. “Natives to the digital and online world, Generation Z will soon fully inhabit higher education and then the workplace, taking on roles that will influence the physical world beyond the screen” (Seemiller & Grace, 2016). Furthermore, Generation Z students care deeply about the state of the world while also, simultaneously, being hyper focused on financial stability and job security. A number of the topics that consume their everyday life include the cost of education, future employment, racial equality, financial security, personal freedom, and violence. Having this generation grow up in a social media-driven culture that highlights mass shootings, wars, post 9-11, violent virtual reality games, and the rising cost of higher education may explain this generation’s struggle with mental wellbeing, specifically anxiety (Seemiller& Grace, 2016). In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, students now face a bleak job market, financial insecurity, rampant unemployment, and uncertain health concerns. Each generation has their own unique culture and behaviors. To promote student success, advisors must seek to encourage mental wellness, helping students to unpack immediate concerns so that they can focus on the controllable, despite uncontrollable physical, economic, emotional, political, and personal circumstances.
New research around student bandwidth recognizes that students possess finite cognitive resources to take in new information and manage commitments such as classes, homework, health, family obligations, and/or a job (Verschelden, 2017). Young people whose cognitive bandwidth has been taxed even further by “economic insecurity, discrimination and hostility against non-majority groups based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity, and other aspects of difference” (Vershelden, 2017) experience vast and long-lasting challenges in their transition to college. The only difference between young people is the degree of depletion of cognitive resources; strategies around “growth mindset and self-efficacy” can help combat a diminished cognitive bandwidth (Vershelden, 2017). The concept of bandwidth is connected to new data that suggests that when the mind is overly burdened, decision-making is impaired, that spurs poor decision-making which engenders more poor decisions and thus, an increase in poor outcomes. This taxing of the mind increases the sense of busyness and feelings of incapacity. Planning and problem-solving go by the wayside because the mental energy needed for these tasks is too taxing. Furthermore, depletion of mental resources leads to tunneling and the prioritizing of less urgent and important simple tasks over more urgent and important, complex tasks and decisions that require too much or unavailable bandwidth (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2014).
The cyclical nature of mental bandwidth depletion and tunneling prevents students from deep-thinking, reflection, and considering long-term consequences. Students grappling with the transition to college are likely also contending with a number of other variables consuming their mental bandwidth. As advisors, we can seek to promote reflection, mindfulness, growth mindset, and self-efficacy by challenging students with open-ended questions, affirming them in their successes and doubts, and reframing failure. Intentional conversations can help students process decision-making, as well as provide them the tools to manage identity discovery, anxiety, and mental wellness struggles.
Now more than ever, students will rely on advising for mental wellness and emotional support, guidance, resources, strategies, and human connection. Active Minds, a national mental-health advocacy group, surveyed 2,086 college students in April 2020, and found that 80 percent of college students say that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. One-fifth say their mental health has significantly worsened (Brown & Kafka, 2020). With mental wellness concerns for college students on the rise, advisors will need to exercise empathy and resilience strategies when supporting students.
In the framework of mental wellness struggles and the COVID-19 pandemic, advisors can help by demonstrating empathy toward their learners, collectively recognizing and grieving the loss of time, experience, connection, and people. Creating space for frustration, anger, and grieving will be crucial. Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, recently shared that while college students will have real concerns: “health, housing and food insecurity, career prospects battered by the economic plunge” (Brown & Kafka, 2020). For students experiencing these hardships, “post-traumatic stress is one possible outcome,” but “there’s also the possibility of post-traumatic growth” (Brown & Kafka, 2020). This brings us to the second action step that advisors should take in supporting Generation Z college students amidst mental wellness turmoil, which is to foster resilience. It will be crucial for advisors to bring their authentic selves to their student meetings, sharing and receiving student challenges and frustrations as well as the incremental successes. Mark Patishnock, director of counseling and psychiatric services at Michigan State University, noted that, “it might appear that someone is less resilient when in fact they’re just trying to navigate things that other students don’t have to” (Brown & Kafka, 2020). Recognizing that learners have different bandwidths that will likely be taxed differently by remote study, a decrease in human interaction and physical activity, care for family members, work, and other responsibilities is not just important, but vital to student support.
In a recent article, Josh Miller (2018) highlighted the main characteristics of Generation Z, number three being “Gen Z is Financially Focused,” and number six being, “Gen Z Craves Human Interaction.” Both of these characteristics have been, in a sense, threatened by the recent pandemic resulting in social distancing, remote learning, and rampant unemployment. With one in five U.S. workers collecting unemployment, it is no wonder college students are questioning the investment in higher education and the financial security of their future, while simultaneously grappling with the effects of the absence of human connection (Cohen, 2020).
Even though the majority of online learners have historically been adult learners, traditional aged college students are part of a technology savvy generation. Simmons University is one institution that has noticed online learning is enticing to some Generation Z students who have social anxiety or who need to take a leave of absence from their traditional on-campus program for medical reasons but still want to earn transferable credits toward graduation.
Moreover, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning and working has become a part many people’s everyday life. In an April 2020 announcement, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) made the decision to have a fully remote learning experience for students in fall 2020. To meet the needs of learners while retaining staff and faculty, certain staff, in roles that would no longer exist for the fall, were repurposed to student support in the form of a Success Coach role. The Success Coach is an advisor, coach, mentor, and go-to-person. Because additional personnel could be added to student support from other departments, such as Residential Life, Success Coaches were given smaller caseloads than the average campus advisor, roughly 80 students per Success Coach as opposed to 200 students per Campus Academic Advisor. With this change, students are seeing increased access to a point-person with information that can address their questions and concerns quickly. Students can call, video-conference, text, or email with their Success Coach from the comfort of their place of work or study. The space and time for developmental conversations around motivation, goals, organization, time-management, frustrations, failures, and successes has increased with smaller caseloads, emphasizing that human interactions between learners, faculty, and staff matter.
Despite mental wellness struggles, Generation Z has shown itself to be a resilient generation, adapting to the changing landscape of work and school, while experiencing first-hand a global pandemic. Generation Z is developing new coping strategies through online platforms, connecting with resources, learning problem-solving skills, becoming more flexible in the wake of remote work and learning, testing their bandwidth, grappling with grief, exercising grit, and practicing resilience. As advisors, we have the privilege of supporting their journeys, both academically and personally.
Senior Academic Advisor
Southern New Hampshire University
Director of Undergraduate Advising
American Mental Wellness Association. (n.d.). Definitions. https://www.americanmentalwellness.org/intervention/definitions/
Brown, S., & Kafka, A. (2020, July 23). Covid-19 has worsened the student mental-health crisis. Can resilience training fix it? https://www.chronicle.com/article/covid-19-has-worsened-the-student-mental-health-crisis-can-resilience-training-fix-it/?cid2=gen_login_refresh
Cohen, P. (2020, July 24). Weekly unemployment claims rose to 1.4 million in U.S.: Live updates. Retrieved July 24, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/07/23/business/stock-market-today-coronavirus
Miller, J. (2018, October 30). A 16-year-old explains 10 things you need to know about Generation Z. Retrieved July 24, 2020, from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/1118/pages/a-16-year-old-explains-10-things-you-need-to-know-about-generation-z.aspx
Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2014). Scarcity: The new science of having less and how it defines our lives. Picador/Henry Holt.
Seemiller, C., & Grace, M. (2016). Generation Z goes to college. Jossey-Bass
Verschelden, C. (2017). Bandwidth recovery: Helping students reclaim cognitive resources lost to poverty, racism, and social marginalization. Stylus.
Cite this article using APA style as: Fink, N., & Firestein, C. (2020, December). Advising generation z students during COVID19 and beyond. Academic Advising Today, 43(4). [insert url here]