Of course, not every student has a strong family network they can invoke in times of crisis. Janel Benson, a sociologist at Colgate University, explains that this reality is particularly acute among low-income students of color. While more affluent students have social safety nets in place, many low-income students lost their jobs when the pandemic began -- and then, assuming they could, returned to parents who either found themselves unemployed or who were deemed essential workers and could not be home to support them.

If we want to give all students a chance at success, Benson says we must take steps to even the playing field -- and that requires the assistance of adults outside the traditional family unit.

Benson is not alone in her thinking. Sara Simons, a professor of theater education at the University of Texas at Austin, says that when her students transitioned to online learning, they were dealing with trauma, fear and a loss of any semblance of structure. As an educator, she felt her role was not limited to just teaching the "content," but also acknowledging the "context" in which her class was operating. Simons says she subsequently transitioned from full-time professor to 30% online educator and 70% unlicensed social worker.

But this kind of support must extend beyond the traditional classroom setting, she argues. High schools and universities must take a more aggressive approach to addressing students' mental health issues -- exacerbated by the pandemic and trauma of systemic racism.

Katie Donnelly, a Princeton graduate student in sociology, is particularly grateful her university has been so accommodating of students' health and well-being. As a single mom to a three-year-old, she has been juggling the demands of researching and writing her dissertation prospectus while raising her son, who she can no longer drop off at daycare.

In order to better meet the varied needs of its current students and to take care of those who are already in the program, her department announced it suspended graduate admissions for the 2021 cycle. Donnelly writes, "My department's decision reflects one of the key lessons of this pandemic: in times of crisis, compassion and understanding go a long way."

But Simons warns, "Trauma doesn't take a summer vacation." And schools, in whatever form they take this fall, must continue to be as proactive on the issue of mental health as they are about wearing masks or encouraging social distancing. They need to create counseling hotlines, virtual support groups and spaces for students to speak candidly about their experiences.

Joiselle Cunningham, CEO of Pathways to Creative Industries, tells CNN we need to go even further than that. We've traditionally thought of young people's support system as their immediate family and some of their closest teachers, but given the scope of the challenges students are now facing, she argues that we need to bring potential employers into the conversation.

"It takes a village," Cunningham says. "And the village needs to be trained." In the aforementioned Goodwin Simon study, young people said they were empowered by forming connections, but they admitted they did not always know how to form them. This finding, Cunningham argues, creates an opportunity for employers to assist low-income students. But to do so, they must change their frame of thinking from "how few students can we select" to "how many students can we engage," says Cunningham.

Angela Jackson, a partner at New Profit, a venture philanthropy organization, adds one way to do this is to expand internship access -- especially through virtual paid internships. In other words, use technology to broaden opportunities for students left out -- or looked over -- during the traditional hiring process.

One student who can attest to the power of this kind of virtual internship is Godfrey, who attributes much of her ability to navigate Covid-19 in a home full of sick patients to her internship coordinator. When the pandemic started, her coordinator offered her both the ability to work remotely and additional pay. In doing so, she likely helped reduce the chances Godfrey would transmit the virus as her family members became infected.

Cunningham notes that scaling this kind of change requires providing all students, regardless of income or race, "radical access" to academic and professional opportunities. Her organization, she says, works to provide this kind of access, not just through internships, but also through job training, fireside chats with industry leaders -- and workshops for organizations that have committed to reshaping access to career development.

 

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