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Reimagining the Road to Graduation

The Need for Extraordinary Systems to Get Students to and Through College

What are the lived experiences of young people navigating the road to and through college during COVID-19?



Mel   /   Anna   /   Xavier   /   Frankie   /   Alejandro


Meet Frankie

Frankie is a first-year college student in the Bay Area studying communications at a four-year university.

Frankie returned to campus for their fall semester, but their classes have all started virtually. “I want to work in communications or public relations. … It’s strange to present virtually and you can’t gauge reactions on a screen. That’s made me think about how it will deviate from my experience.”

Frankie's movement around campus is limited and they spend most of their free time in their dorm room with their roommate. “It’s isolating to not be with any other people, and you can’t get help from other students except from a group chat.” Isolation combined with academic struggles and a sense of uncertainty have taken a toll on Frankie’s mental health: “This has affected everyone abundantly. If mental health is not straight, how can academic work be strong? Mental health needs to be advocated for more.”

Academically, transitioning to college has been especially difficult given that Frankie has ADHD. They are struggling with the adjustment from in-person to online learning. Frankie attends their professors’ office hours and virtual study groups with classmates, but they are still falling behind on the material. They are interested in getting tutoring for a couple of general education classes, but aren’t sure who on campus to reach out to.

“With COVID, I can't go to my adviser's office and her virtual hours are hard for me to access. Everything is online. … I feel like this is backtracking me.”

When their English professor reached out to provide some individualized career advice, it helped Frankie reengage. Because the professor formed a holistic relationship with Frankie, they felt more comfortable bringing up concerns beyond coursework. The same professor later helped connect Frankie to an internship in their interest area of communications. 

Their counselor has also been helpful in giving Frankie practical tools and study strategies during their weekly virtual meetings, but Frankie notes that the counselor is stretched thin and her time is limited. They also find it hard to ask for what they really need in the virtual meetings. Frankie is feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and worried about falling behind. “Counselors here are hard to schedule through Zoom. You can’t just walk in and ask for help. So it makes me more timid to reach out.”

Frankie is wondering if they should move closer to home and attend community college to catch up academically, as well as to ease the financial burden on their family. “Everyone here takes COVID seriously. That’s great, but at the same time it’s harder to meet people. It’s been difficult to build relationships in a new place.”

The biggest questions on Frankie’s mind are: “Do I belong in college? Is the experience worth it to me?”

Frankie’s Supporters

Higher education staff: Frankie’s professors have been helpful, especially their English professor. The professor hosts office hours every week, and Frankie has attended a few times. Frankie mostly just listens to other students’ questions, but the professor also has followed up with them directly to make sure they don't have any unanswered questions. She has offered a few times to try to help them find an internship in communications, which is their interest area.

Counselor: Frankie meets regularly with their academic adviser assigned by their college. She is a great source of encouragement during their sessions, providing practical study tips and connecting them to other on-campus resources. But she is usually only available to meet once per week and as Frankie’s concerns pile up, they sometimes don’t know where to start during their conversations. 

Peers: Frankie attends a virtual study group with several classmates. Having a group of people to reach out to with questions, especially when it’s late at night before a deadline, has been helpful. 

Learn more about these or other supporters in students’ lives here.

Frankie's Challenges

Certain programs and majors are not well suited to virtual instruction. Students taking courses that lean toward hands-on or in-person engagement (e.g., health care, trades, communication) wonder what they are forfeiting by taking these classes under hybrid or virtual models.

There are limited opportunities to build relationships. Without hallway conversations or other impromptu opportunities to connect, interactions — with peers and adults alike — must be planned.

Students are isolated, stressed, and worried about the future, and they are increasingly conscious of the risk to their mental wellness. This is especially hard on first-year students, who haven’t had time to adjust to new realities and the newness of the college environment.

Learn more about the challenges students are facing here

Recommendations for Supporting Frankie

K-12 schools and institutions of higher education can provide expanded mental health services and proactively reach out to students so the onus is not only on them to initiate a conversation about their overall well-being.

Institutions of higher education and peers working together can provide structured opportunities for first-year college students to bond and develop friendships virtually (e.g., peer affinity groups, social events, etc.).

Institutions of higher education can set up new academic supports (e.g., tutoring services or writing centers) or extend the hours of existing services.

View our full set of recommendations here.