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College stress: Five ways students, faculty can navigate in uncertain times

Centenary University Counseling Center Director Mikolaya Nynka offers tips for faculty and students on embracing the gray space caused by the ever-shifting nature of COVID-19.

HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) — With college students back on campuses across the country, a host of traditional—and not so traditional—stresses are playing out. As the excitement of moving onto campus wanes, first-year students are grappling with issues such as living away from home for the first time, relational friction between roommates, challenging academic schedules, and finding time for self-care.

Then, there are the pandemic-related uncertainties: Rising COVID-19 cases, shifting mandates, and the specter of scaled-back social events or virtual learning. While they’re happy to be back on campus, faculty and students at the nation’s universities are under more stress than ever, says Mikolaya Nynka, director of the Counseling Center at Centenary University.

“This year all students are experiencing some form of uncertainty,” explains Nynka, who is also a Licensed Professional Counselor. “There are a lot of things that universities can’t provide clear answers on because of the shifting nature of the pandemic. Will we have to mask up on campus all year? Do rising cases mean classes will go virtual? And what about the social component of college? It’s important to learn to navigate those gray spaces and realize that right now, nobody has all the answers. We’re all in this together.”

Last year, Centenary University offered a program called Centenary Choice, which offered students the choice to live and study in-person on campus, take classes virtually, or participate in HyFlex classes combining the two. Nynka said that while many students were on campus, it was still difficult to track their stress levels, since encounters that were usually held face-to-face were limited. “It was very difficult to engage students virtually,” she recalls.

Now that students are back on campus at most universities, Nynka recommends five tips students and faculty can take to adjust to the uncertainties that are defining the new academic year:

  1. Seek accurate information from reliable sources. “Don’t pay attention to rumors or external noise,” Nynka cautions. “Considering where you’re getting your information is a very important part of mental wellness. Exposing ourselves to negative or inaccurate sites and platforms can be toxic. If you are not sure about a source, consult with a trusted faculty or staff member.
  2. Embrace the gray space. Right now, no one can predict how the rest of the academic year will unfold. Even with the best of safety protocols, a new variant could disrupt campus life. Nynka says, “We need to understand that even the people at the top don’t have all the answers. We’re all in this gray space together and we’re taking on a lot. So, we need to have compassion for ourselves and others.”
  3. Practice self-care. For some people, self-care means making sure to eat nutritious meals, exercise, and get enough sleep. Others may need to turn off social media or participate in creative activities. “When so much is happening on campus and in the world, it may sound counterintuitive to ask people to slow down for a bit,” Nynka explains. “But it’s important to take time out to recharge rather than pushing through.”
  4. Know the warning signs. At small universities like Centenary, faculty are in the perfect position to spot signs that a student could be struggling. Things like inattention to homework, a drop in grades, or poor attendance are all clear warning signs. “Professors are good at recognizing when there’s an issue,” Nynka says. “It’s important for them to know how to start the conversation and when to refer a student to counseling services. Athletes like Simone Biles have really opened the door to continue the conversation about mental health in a new way.”
  5. Don’t hesitate to Consult the Counseling Center. That’s what they’re there for. Nynka notes, “Visiting the Counseling Center doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a psychological disorder. Sometimes, we all just need somebody to listen, or we need to talk through a decision. A counselor can help you reframe how you’re thinking within the gray space so you can move forward.”

Jay Edwards

Born and raised in Northwest NJ, Jay has a degree in Communications and has had a life-long interest in local radio and various styles of music. Jay has held numerous jobs over the years such as stunt car driver, bartender, voice-over artist, traffic reporter (award winning), NY Yankee maintenance crewmember and peanut farm worker. His hobbies include mountain climbing, snowmobiling, cooking, performing stand-up comedy and he is an avid squirrel watcher. Jay has been a guest on America’s Morning Headquarters,program on The Weather Channel, and was interviewed by Sam Champion.

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