Author: Eileen Makak
Higher education professionals have reported an increase in student’s needs for access to mental health care and students’ feelings around disconnectedness. McMurtrie (2022) states that professors are noticing “far fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They have trouble remembering what they learned and struggle on tests.” In an examination of the challenges college students experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, Hotez et al. (2021) state “almost all emerging adults in our study struggled with coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. A substantial proportion experienced financial instability, household disruptions, social unrest, and mental health challenges. All of these factors directly impact emerging adult health.” Institutions may be able to respond to some of these challenges through various support services such as counseling and emergency funding. At the same time, students working with campus advisors may decide that taking a step away from college for the moment is the best decision for them. The practices below provide insight into the ways in which advisors may still be a valuable resource while students are temporarily not enrolled in an institution in order to support a smooth return to campus.
Review the Practical
Students may be in various levels of crisis and stages of readiness to receive information. Providing students reference materials such as a handout or an email documenting next steps can be helpful. Students ought to be reminded of any potential fees, curriculum changes, deadlines, and policy changes. This enables them to mentally and financially prepare for their return to campus. Giving students tangible information provides clarity to policies and procedures. While students may be in distress or working through a crisis, making time for concrete next steps is a valuable part of ensuring students walk away with what they need. Sometimes, having multiple conversations is necessary in order to address both the emotional and practical needs of a student who is considering stepping away from college for the time being.
Students are not alone when considering a leave of absence, and they are not the only one going through this process. Statements like “these forms exist because students need them” provides a sense of normalcy to a student’s decision to take a leave of absence from an emotional perspective and from a pragmatic one. Advisors can go over the necessary steps before and during a return from a leave. Part of these steps may include filling out paperwork and establishing expectations of re-connecting. Setting up check-in meetings that fall alongside important deadlines supports a student’s understanding of how their timeline can line up with the university’s timeline. Check-in meetings with students enrich feelings of connectedness to advising as a resource and to the larger campus community.
Encourage Reflective Practices
Feelings of guilt, shame, and disappointment often come up in advising conversations with students while they are deciding to take a leave of absence from college. Especially in circumstances where students feel additional layers of pressure to succeed, such as having scholarships and/or being the first in their family to go to college. In an episode of The Happiness Lab podcast by Dr. Lauri Santos (2022), Adam Grant describes the mental health term “languishing” as part of the mental health spectrum considered to be the “absence of mental health” or “that meh feeling.” It is important for students to understand that it is okay to take the steps needed to work on their wellbeing and process their own experiences. Attempting to power through education, a phrase that may often come up from students during advising conversations, can only last so long. Making meaning of college and academics can support students in their return to campus life and motivation to pursue a degree. Practices in reflection like journaling, meditation, and gratitude while away from college can support the transition back to college life. If the student’s circumstances, mindset, and/or access to resources are not changing, feelings of burn out and languishing can return quickly.
While there may be some limitations for non-matriculated students, some campuses may be able to continue providing support. Connecting students to services that are available while they are on leave such as campus libraries, career development centers, and mental health centers can help students feel like they are still part of the campus community even if they are not able to take courses for a semester or more. Off campus, local resources can also be tapped into especially if students are looking for crisis intervention to address mental health, food insecurity, and housing needs. College university systems ultimately have limitations. To support the whole student, advisors can be made aware of these local resources not just for students who intend on taking a leave of absence, but for any student they work with.
Support Goal Setting
Students may be unsure of what they want to pursue, feeling burnt out over classes, and not finding purpose in their day-to-day activities. In some advising conversations, students are looking to take a step back in order to move forward. They are realizing that their time in college is not working out in the way that they hoped. Stepping away from academics for a short time begs the question of what to do with this new time. Personal goals around mental health and building connections with family and peers are just as important as professional and academic goals. When students take a leave for mental health reasons, it is especially important to discuss the resources they plan to tap into. Students may state that they want to take a leave and work on their mental health, but that does not necessarily mean that they are indeed connected with a mental health counselor. Academic advisors can review students’ goals, relevant resources, and next steps. Advisors can also set up plans to help bring the abstract to the tangible.
If goals are set up before students leave, then checking-in on those goals with students while they are not enrolled is an important part of the advising process. With platforms like zoom, advisors can connect with students wherever they might be. Embracing hybrid advising models can mean the ability to meet more students in environments that were previously inaccessible. Advisors may find that students aren’t meeting the goals they set out to accomplish, and that is okay. Hughey and Pettay (2013) state “the advisor can provide information and offer different perspectives on a situation, but the final decision on goals and change is under the ownership of the student” (p. 69). Part of taking the leave is to also notice the ways in which habits, needs, and goals change. This is an opportunity for students to continue to explore answers to the question what do I want?
Discuss Hands-on Experiences
Encouraging experiences outside of academics can help students feel supported as they navigate their circumstances and their thoughts for their future. Community service, internships, part time work, reading, and writing about topics of interest are some of the tangible experiences that students may be looking for as they step away from school-life. Finding opportunities that fit students’ goals can be a way to show the student (a) advisors are a resource for more than curriculum and policies and (b) advisors hear students’ needs and want students to find ways of thriving.
Students are taking leaves for many reasons: mental health crisis, financial instability, life changing circumstances like becoming a new parent. These reasons cannot be taken for granted. In order for students to feel ready to come back to campus, the core reason they stepped away must be addressed. Advisors in combination with other support services on and off campus can guide students through difficult decisions. Institutions also play a role in understanding and setting up pathways to non-traditional approaches and timelines to degree completion. These practices may support students who are in the process of stepping away or returning to campus. Ultimately, it is up to the student to make these decisions. Advisors can be a system of support for students while encouraging them to have the agency to decide what makes the most sense for their future.
Senior Macaulay Advisor
Macaulay Honors College at Baruch College
Hotez E., Gragnani C. M., Fernandes P., et al. (2021) Capturing the experiences and challenges of emerging adults in college during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cureus, 13(8), e17605. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.17605
Hughey, J., & Pettay, R., (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping advisors initiate change in student behaviors. In J.K. Drake, P. Jordan, M. A. Miller (Eds.), Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (1st ed., pp. 67–82). Jossey-Bass.
McMurtrie, B. (2022). A ‘stunning’ level of student disconnection. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-stunning-level-of-student-disconnection
Santos, L. (Host). (2022). Fighting that “meh" feeling of languishing [Audio podcast episode]. In The Happiness Lab. Pushkin. https://www.pushkin.fm/podcasts/the-happiness-lab-with-dr-laurie-santos/fighting-that-meh-feeling-of-languishing