In an increasingly connected world, it might seem paradoxical that loneliness has been deemed an epidemic by the U.S. Surgeon General. Yet, the profound impact of isolation on youth mental health is undeniable, as the life-altering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for community and social connections, particularly within education.
For college students like myself, who left behind support systems and existing relationships, the need for a sense of belonging and companionship becomes ever-so-critical. The pandemic only exacerbated this challenge of socially acclimating into a new environment, as during COVID-19, opportunities to develop such skills were limited.
The impact of the pandemic on students cannot be understated. The abrupt shift to online learning equally impacted students’ social and academic development. The absence of in-person interactions and hallmark experiences throughout high school and college resulted in students missing crucial social development opportunities. These skills, such as forming relationships, effective communication, and collaboration, hindered as a result of the lack of ample opportunities to hone such traits.
While online classes offered some benefits in terms of flexibility and accessibility, this medium certainly came with a price. The absence of natural social interactions in classrooms, lecture halls, and hallways left a void that no virtual meeting or Zoom icebreaker questions could fill. The spontaneous lighthearted moments during class and the collective energy and camaraderie lacked due to the nature of this new means of education.
As a student at the University of Texas at Austin, this fall, I have witnessed firsthand the commitment by faculty to address this issue. The first week of school included not only overviews of syllabi, but an emphasis from professors on the importance of fostering community in and out of the classroom. For example, many professors allot specific times for students to meet and engage with their peers during lectures, and we have furthered these bonds throughout the semester by working together on group projects. The dedication to creating a connected environment was echoed throughout classes as small as 30 students to lectures as large as 150 students. This trend sends a resounding message: even in the face of adversity, the critical essence of community is irreplaceable.
Fostering such an environment requires educators to go beyond the conventional boundaries of their roles and see themselves as facilitators of both knowledge and community. Equally, students must be willing to step out of their comfort zones, engage with their peers, and invest in the bonds that will endure throughout their academic journeys and lives. The benefits of community and a connected college experience can contribute positively to mental health, academic performance, and overall well-being.
The declaration of a loneliness epidemic and post-pandemic landscape underlines the urgent need to invest in and prioritize building community through education. The impact of COVID-19 on students' ability to socialize and develop essential interpersonal skills warrants a response. It is my hope that educators’ dedication to building connections will continue to grow and serve as a beacon of resilience in the face of the recent adversity experienced by students and faculty alike. By recognizing and embracing the importance of community on college campuses, we can shape a culture and environment capable of bringing out the best in the next generation.
Carson Domey is a youth mental health advocate in his sophomore year at The University of Texas at Austin, studying Economics and Government. Carson currently serves as the chair of The Mary Christie Institute’s National Youth Council on College Student Mental Health.