Student identity in flux: Transitions in a global pandemic

Transitions are a fundamental part of the life journey. Some transitions are obvious and expected, such as the move from primary school to secondary school, the move into Further or Higher Education, the move into work and between jobs, and retirement. Many of these transitions may well be intended and planned, but nonetheless can feel scary, uncomfortable and hard.

There are also the unintended transitions. These types of transitions may include a relationship break-up, a bereavement, an illness, an unexpected move, and for sure – a pandemic.

Transitions can be exciting, daunting, saddening, and inspiring all at once, or any combination of these things.

The pandemic has been a globally experienced unintended transition, which everyone has experienced, and continues to experience, differently. 

What’s interesting about transitions is that how we experience them is often tied to our identity. 

In my current role I have the opportunity and privilege to work alongside students as they make their university choices, and decisions about what their life holds beyond international school. This year, the list of universities students were going to apply to when they began this process has changed significantly. Many students are considering taking a gap year. Many students are looking to remain closer to home. Many students are concerned about what their university experience is going to be like. 

University is often the end game for many students going through secondary education (particularly in international schools), and many of them, intentionally and unintentionally, build their identity around this. I think of the students who pick Sciences and Maths because their long-term plan is to become a Doctor or Engineer, and the tireless work they put in to ensure they get into a good university that will enable them to do this. Regardless of the subject choice, students and their families may have been thinking about this particular transition for a long time, and preparing themselves for the person they are about to ‘become’. 

This is rightly an exciting time for young people, and as much as I enjoy witnessing this, at times have to hold back my ‘real world’ thoughts and feelings. Sometimes reality checks are important, but you have to question your motivation for a reality check and whether what you are going to say is helpful or harmful, and who it is really for. Our students haven’t been jaded yet and we don’t need to fast-track this process. In fact, it is vital that they leave school full of optimism, enthusiasm, and a genuine belief that they are capable of bringing about positive change, in whatever career they choose.

What I am finding is that many students this year are understandably unsure about their university applications and plans. My initial reaction to this can sometimes be frustration (that their hesitancy makes it harder for me to help them) but when I am able to take a step back and consider the position they are in, I realise I haven’t quite comprehended just how much the pandemic is affecting this transition on an identity level, at such a pivotal time in young people’s lives.

Often the different aspects of our identity become more diverse as we grow older, but it tends to be relatively narrow when we’re younger (especially for teenagers). If being an ‘academic’ student that attends a good university is a key part of who they are defining themselves to be, then surely the current pandemic has turned this up on it’s head. What if they can’t go to study the course that they have been dreaming about? What if they don’t feel safe to go and study in the countries they have been thinking about applying to? What if the worry of moving countries and making friends is heightened because they’re not sure of how potential ongoing lockdowns will affect this? What if they are worried if they leave for university and get sick their families aren’t around to take care of them? What if a member of their family gets sick and they can’t get back to be with them? These worries are not unfounded, and may well be heightened by the experiences that many of their recently-graduated peers are having, the stories they are hearing about people just like them, finding that their future plans have had to be paused, or changed, or not working out they way they were ‘supposed to’. 

Yet, if they stay at home, then the identity of becoming the independent, mature, university student doesn’t exist anymore. There is a loss of the perceived freedom they have worked so hard to have.

Whilst I believe that many universities are doing a fantastic job of adapting to the ever-changing circumstances and are finding ways to ensure that students are still able to access their university education, I don’t always think that we (I definitely include myself in this we) always understand the impact that this in having on the identities of our students.

Transitions are challenging because it means a move into the unknown. Now, more than ever, students need our understanding, support and patience, as they navigate this transition.

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