Reach Out, Branch Out (Just Don’t Psych Yourself Out)

By Camila Mojica

College is one of the most exciting times of our newly entered adulthood. But for many of us, it means experiencing an entirely unfamiliar environment, schedule, and culture of people. The college experience can provide many of us with the opportunity to develop aspects of yourself that, perhaps, the high school environment hadn’t allowed you to. However, for many students it can also mean entering a period of anxious transition—especially for those who began their college careers during the pandemic.

If you’re anything like me, mental health issues can hinder your interactions, health, and education, which dramatically affect the student experience. 

Starting and even continuing college isn’t easy for a lot of students, and I say this from experience. Being a new student and adapting to the foreign environment of the college classroom was entirely unsettling—let alone the fact that we’re experiencing it during the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the first half of my college career, I wasn’t very active on campus or didn’t engage much in my own personal endeavors. I was going to a state school before I transferred to UCF, and I wasn’t very enthusiastic about my courses of study. I began college as an Art major before focusing my path to Creative Writing. Before I made the switch in majors, I wasn’t excited about my academics. The unenthusiastic mindset ultimately skewed my visions for the future of my college career. The indecision about my future took a toll on my mental health. I rarely went to campus outside of academic purposes, and I didn’t pay much attention to the programs and even extracurriculars being presented around me.

As my college career ticked away, I thought more and more about my place in the world and the future of my career. 

I took to campus to compare my experiences with other students. During an anonymous interview discussing how to expand your comfort zone on and off campus after the pandemic, I asked, “In what ways has your anxiety after the pandemic hindered how you engage with the campus environment around you?”

The student’s answer was similar to mine, and many others. They noted how their interactions lessened as they returned to campus from lockdown.

I started my college career as the pandemic first struck. It was difficult adapting to the campus environment adjusting to everything back home.

Anonymous UCF Student

They emphasized the mental toll that being away from their home environment took on how they participated in the resources and opportunities around them. Speaking as someone who was in the exact same place, it can be extremely difficult to not just enjoy yourself, but build a foundation for your future amidst the rise in mental health stressors.  

Regardless of the restrictions behind our changing social dynamics, I craved more out of my student experience. As classes and programs returned to face-to-face engagement, more and more resources and opportunities began presenting themselves to me.

The change in our social culture hindered the way I engage with the world around me—but I no longer wanted it to.

On top of transitioning to a larger university, the change in our social dynamics fostered a spike in my mental health conditions. I wanted to make an impact in my educational and personal life, but I’d allowed the rise in my mental health to prevent me from doing so. When I wasn’t drowning in academics, I spent the rest of my time at home. That was until one afternoon when I received a call from my grandmother.

After filling each other in on life, she asked me, “How’s school outside of your studies?” Ironically, the question stuck with me, and I’d contemplated the college career that I had lived up to that point and just how my college career has built my foundations for the future. Regardless of our changing social conditions, I was secluding myself in ways I didn’t need to. Outside of the classroom I hadn’t explored the opportunities around me. Chances to discover more about myself and what path I saw for career interests were waiting to be explored.

I spent the following weeks searching for programs, career resources, and clubs to make a greater impact on my student experience. I started by evaluating the areas in school where I felt I had the most control and where I had the least. I assessed what I was comfortable with, interested in, and created a vision for myself. I was intimidated by large events like job fairs and sports games, but in wanting more out of my student experience, I took the initiative to branch out and establish myself.

Many extracurriculars and career resources were accommodating to students who continued to practice social distancing and those that weren’t, by hosting both in person and virtual events. I started by attending a couple of virtual job fairs and webinars to engage with the industry outside of school. As things began to open up once again, many resources and events even allowed students to bring guests with you. If you’re anything like me, your anxiety fosters itself when environments are unfamiliar or foreign, instead of feeling comfortable in places that contain things of my interests. As I branched out to face-to-face events, I brought a friend along the way. Small differences like so, helped make the experience a little less intimidating. 

In no time, I raised my engagement with the community around me and I quickly began seeing a change in my college experience.

Towards the end of my first semester at UCF a friend of mind dragged me to an event hosted by the Art Club. After getting a glimpse of their sense of community, I scoured the university websites for other clubs and organizations that held my similar interests. I came across clubs like the Puerto Rican Student Association and the Fashion Society of UCF, eventually looking for ways to get involved. These organizations are constantly bringing the community together by cultivating a creative environment for students. For instance, I recently attended a wonderful fashion show that was presented on behalf of the Fashion Society of UCF. It was so exciting to witness the dedication to creativity and craft produced by the student designers. 

The changes in our social dynamics can make it difficult to interact in the same ways we used to. A study published by the National Library of Medicine, which discusses the effects of the pandemic on college students, notes that nearly 71% of their participants saw an increase in their mental health stressors. Returning to campus after being virtual during the pandemic was a cautionary tale; students needed to adapt to a whole new culture of the class environment. On top of adapting to the college, this isn’t the most comfortable act.

In my case, my rise in mental health concerns caused me to alienate myself from engaging with my campus, even after the restrictions were lifted.

I missed out on extracurriculars and programs to find myself, and the path to my future career out of losing control over my mental health. Being new to a larger university was overwhelming and I was timid to engage with the resources and opportunities around me—let alone doing it as we began returning to campus from lockdown.

College is jammed full of exciting opportunities and resources that can benefit both your college and future careers. But it starts with taking that initial step to branch out to find your place not only in your career path, but in the world itself.

As much as social engagements can help ground you in your educational and future career, taking care of your mental health is just as important in the process. During the student interview, I asked what strategies they used to combat their mental health to improve their college experiences.

Anytime I am overwhelmed by class loads, financial aid, or even personal matters, I make an appointment with the free mental health resources that our campus offers. Something I highly suggest taking advantage of.

Anonymous UCF Student

During the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health concerns have been on the rise with social distance restrictions and rules. On top of this, the stresses of classes and workloads can be another impact to your mental health. Luckily, UCF has a ton of free health programs and professionals available to help make your student experience a bit more comfortable. 

Now that I’m pursuing the remainder of my college career at UCF, I continue to get involved with the community around me and its many resources. There are hundreds of activities, resources, and even virtual opportunities to find interest in. Finding your place in the world starts by taking the leap outside of your comfort zone. Doing so can open new opportunities and create experiences that can not only benefit but enhance your student experience. Building the foundation for your future can allow you to find your place both in school and in life. Taking a leap outside of your comfort zone may not be the simplest task but finding ways to make it easier can be.

Whether you join a new organization, club, or simply schedule some time to talk with a mental health care provider on campus, these small impacts can make the biggest difference in your college career.

New relationships and opportunities for growth are at the forefront of our college experiences. Finding your place in college and the world doesn’t need to be challenging. Doing it in ways that make you comfortable can make it a little easier and ultimately enhance your overall college experience.