Emerging from COVID-19: Young People's Health, Well-being, College Transitions, and Developmental Trajectories

Personnel

Marquette Team:

Gabriel Velez and Jody Jessup-Anger, College of Education

Erin Hoekstra, College of Arts and Sciences

Samuel Nemanich, College of Health Sciences

Fordham University Team:

Elizabeth Raposa, Psychology

Cristina Nardini, PhD Student in Psychology 

David Marcotte, Psychology

Loyola University New Orleans Team:

Elizabeth Rainey, Assistant Provost

 

Project Summary

Our project aims to develop understandings about how differential experiences of COVID-19 influence the developmental trajectories of young people who spent most of their high school years navigating the pandemic. Through a multiple cohort, mixed-methods, multi-institutional longitudinal study, we are studying the impact of the pandemic on young adults at a crucial transition in their life. The interdisciplinary study explores how their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic inform their transition to college, focusing on their mental and physical health, college-going expectations and experiences, and career aspirations. Our goal is to provide valuable insight into needs and challenges of cohorts as they enter college and will inform rich understandings of the developmental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as experienced during a key time in the life course for educational trajectories and identity development.

 

Background

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many domains of young people’s lives. For those finishing high school and planning and applying to college, the impacts were particularly acute. Milestone celebrations were canceled, expected experiences (like visiting college campuses) were impossible, and academic, personal, and social lives were upended. Ample evidence indicates that over the last two years the  impacts and reverberations of the pandemic have been widespread and significant for adolescents, touching their learning, well-being, and psychosocial development.

Not all challenges or disruptions from the pandemic were negative for young people. Some experienced new insights about themselves, developed closer relationships with family or friends, or made meaning of the experience in productive ways related to new future plans. The emerging evidence on these connections highlights the importance of relationships and cognitive framing for these silver linings that may shape young people’s understandings of themselves and their trajectories.

 

Significance

The myriad challenges pose important risk factors to health and psychosocial development. As these adolescents age and enter college, they must navigate education and career trajectories amid an unexpectedly different world and with lasting reverberations on their mental and physical health and academics. Adolescence is a critical time for trajectories and life outcomes: young people begin to define identities, envision careers and adult roles in society, and make choices about post-secondary education. Previous work demonstrates that monumental sociocultural disruption can shape outcomes and development and outcomes of a generation who experience it as adolescents. Therefore, it is important to understand how young people’s experiences of COVID-19—and its challenges and lessons—will relate to their transition to and time in college.

 

Project Aims

In this critical and complex social moment, this research study aims to:

  • understand the transition to college and college experience for young people who were high schoolers when the pandemic started and as COVID-19 continues to influence their psychological well-being and academic trajectories;
  • conduct a longitudinal, multiple cohort, and mixed methods study of these young people, focusing on capturing their experiences of COVID-19, mental and physical health, college-going expectations and experiences, and future thinking.

With these aims in mind, our central research questions are:

  1. What relationship, if any, is there between students’ COVID-19 experience, mental health, and campus expectations, engagement, and experience, and does this differ across cohorts?
  2. What relationship, if any, is there between their COVID-19 experience, mental health, and career aspirations and future thinking, and does this differ across cohorts?  
  3. What relationship is there, if any, between their COVID-19 experience and physical activity, and does this differ across cohorts?

 

Research Design

The project involves a longitudinal study of multiple cohorts. The first cohort began college in the fall of 2021, almost a year and a half after the beginning of the pandemic. The first data collection with this group took place right before and at the start of their college experience. We will conduct follow-ups with separate interview and survey samples across their college careers.

We have started work with a second cohort in the fall of 2022, which includes expanding this research with collaborators from Fordham University, Loyola University New Orleans, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and University of San Francisco, among others.

 

Findings to Date

Fall 2022

Preliminary Cross Institution Findings Summary

Preliminary Marquette University Findings Summary

In the most recent cohort, we found that many students are having dual experiences in relation to the lasting impacts of COVID-19 and their current transition experiences. Some felt that 2020 deeply disrupted their educational trajectories, and others noted adapting and learning about themselves and developing important independent skills. Many are still deeply struggling with mental health challenges, but they also have peers who score highly on a flourishing scale. Generally, they did not express feeling much distress related to COVID-19 currently, though they highlighted struggles accessing resources.

 

Spring 2022

Preliminary Findings Summary

When students struggled with mental health difficulties, they sought help from the counseling center or had a relationship with a therapist. Several students highlighted the need for better advertised mental health services including online consultations and expanded access.

Students generally did not feel like COVID affected their education, experience on campus, or social life COVID was not as present on students’ minds as during fall 2021 interviews. Still, most talked about the campus being "not quite back" to sense of “normal.”

Not many students struggled academically, but those who did mention this seemed to spill over into other areas of life (e.g., poor mental and physical health, lack of involvement on campus) Some noted strategies developed during high school and the pandemic that helped them now, such as time management, healthy habits, or self-motivated learning.

 

Fall 2021

Preliminary Findings Summary

The story emerging from the survey data was that the pandemic had a detrimental effect on respondents’ physical health, and an even worse effect on their mental health and relationships. The data also show a fairly strong sense of belonging among incoming first-year students, though this varied by race/ethnicity and first generation status.

The interviews, however, added greater nuance to this picture. In these conversations, the participants described deep and significant challenges - such as mental health struggles, lost friends, and difficulties in school - but also talked about how they grew, developed, or learned to cope effectively.