5 Tips to Process the Return to Campus

Erin Moran Wiley smiling among books.

Article Summary

  • The return to campus after COVID can be emotionally overwhelming, and faculty members' mental health should take precedent. |Faculty should acknowledge how their lives have changed, process their feelings, identify their emotions, rediscover their passion for work and create a self-care plan.|Supporting students is essential during this time, and a little support and vulnerability can go a long way.
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Erin Moran Wiley, MA, is a faculty member and licensed professional clinical counselor in Northwest Ohio


As summer days get shorter, many of us can feel the return to campus sneaking up on us. But this year, having lived through a portion of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems right to pause and reflect before rushing forward.

As a clinical mental health counselor, I have seen how COVID and its aftermath left many anxious, sad, lonely and grieving. It’s true that people are resilient. That does not mean, however, that pressing forward after a cataclysmic event is what’s best for our mental and emotional health. I’d like to suggest five tips to help faculty process what has transpired over the last seventeen months as we prepare for a return to campus. I’ll also include some tips for helping students manage their own emotions.

1. Acknowledge How Our Lives Have Changed

For me, acknowledging how my life changed during the pandemic meant recovering from a COVID diagnosis, learning to manage long-hauler symptoms and mourning the loss of my father-in-law. But you don’t need to have contracted COVID or lost a family member to have incurred significant losses. I’ve heard so many stories in my office: the loss of a freshman year of college, diminished wages from staying home with family, no prom, no graduation, no funerals or weddings and increased anxiety from the fear of getting sick. Small losses add up, and what seems small to one person can be quite significant to another. Taking a moment to recount the ways in which our lives changed, for better and for worse, enables us to make sense of everything.

2. Process Your Feelings from the Pandemic

When you think about how quickly the pandemic changed daily living, a lot happened in a short amount of time. Consider making a list of what you gained and lost during this time in a moment of quiet reflection. It’s beneficial for the brain to pause and process significant moments like these. Time spent in reflection helps synthesize the occurrence of events with our personal emotional experience. This allows us to find and create meaning in these experiences.

Here are some journal prompts to help you work through the emotions you may still be experiencing from COVID:

  • My greatest personal pandemic loss is/was…
  • My greatest professional pandemic loss is/was…​
  • The hardest part about the pandemic for me personally is/was…​
  • The hardest part about the pandemic for me professionally is/was…​
  • The greatest lesson I learned from my experiences during the pandemic is/was…

3. Learn to Better Identify Emotions Around Returning to Work

Sometimes when we have big, troubling or unexpected emotions, we struggle to manage our reactions. Anger, fear and frustration can lead us to act in uncharacteristic ways. In moments where emotions need to be better managed, I suggest working through internal experiences with a trusted friend, therapist or in a journal.

The very simple template I suggest to my therapy clients is as follows:

Experience Guidance
I feel [emotion] Identify the emotion that you are experiencing.
When [situation/event] Describe what happened that led to the emotion.
Because [reason] Try and identify what deeper reason may be behind your emotions regarding this incident.
I need [proposed solution] Identify and request that your need be met.


For example:

I feel frustrated and angry that we still don’t have a definitive schedule for our committee meetings. This is because it leaves me feeling unheard and disrespected after my repeated requests for us to accomplish this task. I need to know the dates we will be choosing by this Friday.”


I feel sad when it seems the people who I’m spending time with are more interested in their phones than me. It’s hurtful and leaves me feeling that I’m unimportant to the people who I care about. Can we please have some time tonight that’s free from electronics?”

Identifying and speaking about our emotions does not guarantee they will be well received or met. But, communicating openly gives us a much better chance of being understood by others.

4. Rediscover Your Passion For Your Work

Intrinsic motivation is difficult to come by. That’s why there are so many self-help books about it!

I often remind people in therapy that perspiration precedes inspiration. Starting a task that you don’t feel compelled to work on can lead to more positive feelings about the project in time. Spending time with colleagues or students who share your passion for your subject field can be an engaging way to rekindle your academic fire. This is especially the case when the time together is spent sharing ideas and building community. Not every meeting needs a specific agenda to yield a meaningful outcome. If you find over time that you continue to feel lethargic, sad or underwhelmed by your work, consider reaching out to a professional who can help you explore your emotions. Sometimes we need help rekindling the flame within us, and there’s absolutely no shame in that.

5. Create a Self-Care Plan

Having a plan to replenish your energy is essential. I believe in starting with the basics: A solid plan to get better sleep, higher-quality nutrition and more time moving your body. Beyond that, it’s wise to consider what activities leave you feeling peaceful, joyful and satisfied.

Consider ways to nourish your creative, adventurous and playful sides. Make deliberate room in your schedule for unstructured free time to just sit and let your mind wander. Think of activities that make you lose track of time, or put you in a state of “flow,” and add them to your weekly schedule. Burnout is not only bad for us, but also the people we love and the students we teach. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so commit to replenishing and renewing yourself.

How to Help Students Process Their Emotions

When it comes to our students, many of us are personal and professional mentors and role models. By managing the changes that COVID brought us in healthy ways, we show students by example how to best manage these changes themselves. Consider how meaningful it is for students to have a professor invested in their health and well-being. You might be the only person who demonstrates this sort of open emotional processing for them.

Here are a few ways to help support your students this fall:

  • Consider welcoming them back with an acknowledgement that we have collectively faced a difficult time.
  • Think about sharing your experiences during the pandemic with your class(es).
  • Don’t be afraid to discuss how you handle the emotional side of challenges at school.
  • Show acceptance by normalizing and validating any emotions they share.
  • Praise them for their resiliency, for returning to their schooling and for making it through the challenges they may have encountered.
  • Remind them that this semester may be different, difficult or potentially compromised in some ways. However, you are someone to whom they can turn.
  • Know the resources that your school has to offer students. Be prepared should you need to make referrals for academic, spiritual or emotional support.

By reaching out, you can support the minds and hearts of students during this difficult transition.

Moving Forward

This past year is a time we will not soon forget, with many long lasting implications. By prioritizing our emotional health and sharing our journey with our students, we will collectively find ourselves more resilient, better adjusted and healthier than before.

To learn more about how educators across the country are handling the return to campus, check out the Today’s Learner Back to Campus Series.