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

Gabriel Velez and Jody Jessup-Anger, College of Education

Erin Hoekstra, College of Arts and Sciences

Samuel Nemanich, College of Health Sciences


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 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 this, and following, 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.



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 pandemic’s impacts and reverberations 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.


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 are planning on recruiting and studying a second cohort of incoming first year students in the fall of 2022.


Fall 2021 Preliminary Findings

Interview Cohort 1

Sample Details:

  • 36 participants total
  • Racial/Ethnic Breakdown:
    • 6 % Black/African American
    • 25 % Latino/a/x
    • 50 % White
    • 11 % Asian
    • 11 % Other
    • 3 % Prefer not to answer
  • Socioeconomic Status Markers
    • 25 % Free and reduced school lunch
    • 75 % Parents completed four-year degree
  • Residential Status
    • 83 % Living on campus

Survey Cohort 1

Sample Details

  • 109 participants total
  • Race/Ethnicity
    • 9 % African American
    • 16 % Latino/a/x
    • 60.5 % White
  • Socioeconomic Status Markers
    • 25 % had household incomes less than $50,000
    • 23 % had parents who did not complete a 4-year degree
    • 27 % received free lunch
  • Residential Status
    • 86 % are living on campus

Impact of COVID-19

Overall, the story emerging from the data is that the pandemic had a detrimental effect on respondents’ physical health, and an even worse effect on their mental health and relationships.

  • 94.7% had disrupted education
  • 68.1% were unable to visit or care for family member
  • 23% had to start caring for a family member
  • 82.3% missed an important milestone event
  • 83.2% missed and important family event
  • 57.5% had someone in the family with symptoms or diagnosed with COVID-19
  • 11.5% had someone in the family hospitalized for COVID-19
  • 8.8% had someone in the family in the ICU for COVID-19
  • 9.7% had someone in the family die from COVID-19

Physical Health

  • 69.2% said the pandemic made their sedentary behavior a lot worse
  • 52.4% said it made their eating a lot worse
  • 51.4% said it made their substance use a lot worse

Mental Health

  • 72.4% reported the pandemic made their anxiety/worry a lot worse
  • 71.6% reported the pandemic made their mood a lot worse
  • 73.8% reported the pandemic made their loneliness a lot worse
  • 55.9% said their friendships suffered (a lot) during the pandemic
  • Close to 30% of the sample at risk for depression/anxiety diagnoses

Sense of Belonging

The data also show a fairly strong sense of belonging among incoming first-year students:

  • 72.4% somewhat or strongly agree that they feel a sense of belonging at Marquette.
  • 80.5% somewhat or strongly agree that they are happy to be at Marquette.
  • 72.4% somewhat or strongly agree that they see themselves as part of the Marquette community.