The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our lives in ways unimaginable. And while it has impacted the lives of everyone, one group of people that it has taken a major toll on is college students. Student mental health has always been a concern, but the pandemic has put a spotlight on it. A study published in September 2020 showed that 71% of the sample population showed increased states of loneliness, stress and anxiety, exacerbated by the pandemic. This study is not alone. A Harvard project called Making Caring Common published a report as recent as February 2021 that describes an epidemic of loneliness.
However, the silver lining is that a lot more resources are now available to manage mental health. We published a piece on Staying Mentally Healthy that provides helpful inputs on things you can do to take care of yourself. However, that is not all. Your mental health needs to play a significant role in all the big decisions you make for yourself. Find out why choosing the right university is so important.
One such big decision that we will deal with here is that of choosing the right university. In times like these, making decisions about higher education cannot be easy. The course you choose, the university you pick is going to determine the rest of your professional career. This decision is stressful enough without the added stressors of the pandemic. It needs to be a well-rounded one, having taken into account multiple criteria so that your life as a student becomes easier. We suggest you approach it from three angles that cover your academic requirements, financial concerns and mental health concerns.
Obviously, the first on your list when deciding on a university is the academic angle. Once you have decided what you want to study, you start looking for places that offer the course and rank them based on an academic criteria. But remember, this is two fold. University rankings are one thing but more often than not, department rankings are forgotten. A top-of-the-list university does not automatically mean the department is also a pioneer. Research the faculty, their curricula and their teaching plans to ensure it fits with your learning style.
Next comes the big question, “Can I afford it?”. To put it in clinical terms, the money you spend on your education is an investment and you will need to calculate your return on investment. Look beyond the tuition and see what all fees apply. Don’t forget to take into account the cost of living in your destination country and the cost of travelling to and from home.
In addition, do a cost-benefit analysis of prospective jobs and plausible incomes and compare it with the cost of your studies and your financial situation. If you are looking to avoid debt of any kind, then dig into all options available for financial aid. The aid might be offered by the department, the university or the government of the country to international students. It is a time consuming task with a lot of paperwork to muddle through but if you get that grant, it will certainly be worth your while
This attribute often gets missed out on, when researching possible destinations for global ed. Life at a university goes beyond your coursework; it comprises, to a large extent, an aspect of social emotional learning. SEL is integral for any student to thrive on campus and no education is effective without a sense of thriving. One of the ways to reach this state, the antidote to feelings of loneliness and anxiety, is a sense of belonging. So, it is natural that these needs must be taken into account when choosing your future school.
Forbes, in a recent article titled “College Admission: Do You Belong?” published a list of questions a prospective student needs to ask themselves before deciding on his/ her future place of study. What follows is some of their questions, plus a few of our own to ensure you are finding the right secondary home for the next few years of your life.
You will have to think about your comfort zones. Both have their pros and cons. A large school/ classroom set up with hundreds of students gives you the anonymity and freedom to learn at your own pace. A smaller school can put you under the spotlight but it also comes with individualised attention.
You need to establish this baseline of choice: Are you leaning towards familiar comforts or going for new adventures? When you are an international student, most of it is going to be a new adventure, living in a new country. But within this dynamic, would you choose safer options (say a location with many people from your country or familiar cultures and practices) or delve into the deep side of the unfamiliar? Whatever the choice, consciously acknowledging it will help you prepare for all kinds of experiences higher ed life will throw at you.
A term used in the Forbes article, it is a metonym to describe the culture where students essentially pack up their things and go their own way as soon as classes are over. Would such a space work for you or would you prefer a space where students are engaged even outside of classes?
The things you get to explore during your free time are also important. You need to make the choice right away but it is good to know that you have options.
For now, when researching about the campus, dig into the mechanisms available to you, offices you can reach out to, when in trouble. In addition, it is also good to think about what kind of personal support mechanisms you would like to build for yourself once you are on campus.
Not to cause needless panic but it is important that you look up the safety aspects of the campus you are going to. Knowledge of certain facts and possibilities will reassure you and your family. Look into the political climate of the state/ country. Look specifically for discriminatory practices that take place due to a racial, gender or any other social bias. This factors in, especially when you are thinking about feeling belonged.
Our thought processes and decisions are influenced by a million little things and it is hard to track them all. But take some time to think about why you have selected a particular university. You need to have your reasons in place, and not just for your SOP. Do you actually see yourself belonging there or some influences playing a larger role than the others?
We get it. The process seems arduous and never ending. But there are people to help you out. The amount of time and effort you put into this decision is directly proportional to how easily you can settle into the next phase of your life. Try reaching out guidance counsellors, current students, get to know the people there to see if you will belong there. Try to get some information from people instead of completely depending on the internet. More importantly, keep telling yourself that you belong in more than one place. It is natural to take rejection hard, especially after all this research. But remember, there are multiple options available. Just remember, social emotional wellness is just as important as academic excellence.