Returning to Campus


Jaylin Pierce sits near the steps of Wilson Library overlooking Polk Place on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Campus life comes with so many benefits! You can interact with such a vibrant, energetic learning community. You can be in spaces that invigorate you. And yet, for many of us, returning to campus comes with a whole lot of stress and anxiety.

When on-campus life was taken away from us at the beginning of the pandemic, many started to see their home as one place where we could feel safe. Some of us might be struggling with the idea of leaving the safety of home to return to such an uncertain environment.

We all are likely thinking in unique ways about returning to campus. We may feel eager to return, ready to socialize, grief for a slower pace, or longing for more time alone.

No matter what you’re feeling, be patient with yourself and others. It’s going to take time to settle in together.

Here are some tips to help make the transition back to campus less stressful.

Where is the stress coming from?

It’s normal to be apprehensive about returning to campus. Re-entry anxiety tends to stem from 2 areas:

  • Safety: People are anxious about unknowingly contracting or spreading COVID-19.
  • Socializing: Over the past year we’ve minimized social interactions which means we may feel a little awkward now when we look people in the eye or need to make small talk.

Start mentally preparing

  • Imagine scenarios you might encounter on campus. This helps you emotionally prepare.
  • Transition slowly if possible. Campus faculty and staff, for example, might go to their office before the official start date. Returning students might visit their primary classroom building or walk down Franklin Street.
  • Prepare your space. Whether it’s your office or your residence – find ways to refresh, clean, organize or otherwise get your space ready for your return.
  • Improve your sleep habits. Start establishing a routine bedtime and to have a healthy sleep schedule in place before returning to campus. Getting enough sleep can buffer you against stress.

Dealing with Safety Concerns

When you have people sharing your space that you know have different commitments to pandemic safety, communication and boundaries can help.

Set the stage by talking to the person about their values around shared spaces and how they propose you work together to create safety for everyone. Listen and ask questions. Use policies or rules to help in the conversation.

During interactions, speak up to clarify your boundaries such as “I’m still social distancing.”

Set yourself up for success by creating physical distance with whatever spaces you can control.

And ultimately – do what you can control to keep yourself safe. You can determine what helps you feel safe – we suggest getting vaccinated, regularly washing / hand sanitizing, and wearing a mask.

Reflect

Sometimes you won’t have much control over whether you can slowly transition back to campus or whether you just need to arrive one day. You also may or may not have control of a space of your own on campus. Regardless, taking time to reflect can be helpful.

What are you struggling with – is it leaving home, feeling safe, or having a schedule again? Determine the crux of your concerns.

What have you learned during the pandemic that you want to maintain? It might be spending more time outside regularly or moving your body more.

What drew you to join UNC Chapel Hill? What did you love about pre-pandemic times?

What about returning to campus will be helpful to you?

Reach Out for Help

When we feel stressed or anxious, we often start behaving differently. For some people, it may be feeling more irritable and quickly losing patience with those around us. Others may physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches, jaw clenching, neck or back pain, or other symptoms.

Know and look for your own warning signs, and take care of yourself first.

If you need help managing your stress or anxiety – they are causing problems in your life – talk to a mental health professional.

Students have access to CAPS 24/7 or peer support resources.

Employees can access the wellness resources for COVID-19 page on hr.unc.edu. Another important resource is the Employee Assistance Program. The UNC department of psychiatry also has a number of resources.

Adapted from https://health.clevelandclinic.org/returning-to-work-soon-here-are-some-ways-to-make-the-process-easier/ and https://thewell.unc.edu/2021/06/15/pandemic-mental-fatigue-dont-be-shy-about-asking-for-help/

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