Managing the Return to Campus – Part I

Lost Opportunities and Missed Milestones

Image of students walking on campus wearing masks

Overview of Returning to Campus Segments

There are so many issues associated with returning to campus, that we have divided this content into three parts. Across these parts, we’ll share skills and strategies for (1) coping with lost opportunities and missed milestones, (2) navigating a new social environment and a changing learning environment, and (3) returning to a campus that feels unsafe to you, and managing concerns about COVID.


Attending college is an exciting time full of positive experiences like developing friendships, discovering new interests, and becoming more independent from families.

College also can be a stressful and challenging time. We may struggle with increased academic demands, financial pressure, trouble with friendships and dating, and difficulty being away from our friends and families. As a result, college students often struggle with mental health issues, such as: depression and anxiety, problems with eating, or excessive alcohol and drug use.

These normal stressors have been exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed the educational and social experiences of college students. Many of us had to alter our college plans, including taking leave or attending classes remotely. Although there may be benefits to taking classes from home, research shows that the changes were stressful for most.

After nearly 18 months, many students returned to in-person academic and social life. Returning to campus will be a positive experience for many of us. We can reunite with friends and participate in team sports or club activities for the first time since the pandemic began.

While there are many positives, returning to campus also might be stressful for many of us. We might struggle to navigate changes to our schedules, social environments, and course structures. We may continue to struggle with emotional and physical challenges related to the pandemic. And uncertainty regarding whether cases will surge in the future is concerning for all.     

In this and the next two segments of the COVID-19 Care Package, we review issues that students might face as we start or resume attending college in person. We describe each issue and then walk through coping skills we can use to address each challenge. All of the skills taught in the COVID-19 Care Package have been shown in research studies to be effective at helping people cope with various stressors.

While these materials were crafted for college students, they are relevant for high school students returning to school and adults returning to work. You might also wish to review earlier segments of the COVID-19 Care Package, which cover helpful topics such as:

Introduction to lost opportunities & missed milestones

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all experienced lost opportunities and missed milestones. From graduations and proms to family vacations and sporting events, countless events that we were looking forward to were canceled. Naturally, this led us to feel sad and frustrated.

As some things begin to return to how they were prior to COVID, we are bound to have negative emotions about everything we missed during that period. In this segment of the Care Package, we review some skills to cope with those negative emotions.  

Skill 1: Practice acceptance

When we think about lost opportunities, our mind focuses on the negative. As a result, we often don’t feel connected with what we are doing in the here and now and we end up focusing on the negative aspects of our situation. A helpful way to combat this habit is to deliberately focus on the present moment – just as it is, without judgment. We recommend first accepting feelings of disappointment. They are valid and it is important to notice and acknowledge them. And then shift your attention to the present moment instead of continuing to dwell on the disappointment.

One way to do this is through intentional practice. We reviewed this mindfulness practice in the Strategies to Manage Worrying segment of the COVID-19 Care Package. Mindfulness is a skill that takes a lot of practice to develop, but it can be used in any situation. Research has shown that it helps people cope with negative emotions.

On your own: develop your own mindfulness practice using the mindfulness exercise or free guided meditations offered by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Skill 2: Find the silver linings

It’s easy to focus on all of the things we missed out on during the pandemic. But instead, what we can do when we notice that we’re focusing on the negative is find the silver linings in these situations. Paying attention to the “not so bad” or “positive” aspects of situations can help free us from worry and lighten our mood.

For example, we could be disappointed about missing out on a vacation we had planned with friends, but we could be overlooking many positive experiences we had with others during the pandemic, such as video chatting with friends and spending time with our families. Finding silver linings is a practice that we introduced in the Strategies to Manage Worry and Tools for Addressing Loneliness segments of the Care Package.

On your own: Use the silver lining fillable activity sheet to find silver linings for a pandemic related situation which brought on negative thoughts about lost opportunities.

Skill 3: Imagine positive events in the future 

The height of the pandemic was stressful, and many aspects of the future still are uncertain. It makes sense that we might spend a lot of time living in the past or worrying about the future. But there can be many positive benefits to looking forward to a brighter future.

Now that vaccines are more available and the world’s beginning to resemble pre-pandemic life, what enjoyable and exciting things might become a reality for us? Whether it’s spending time with friends and family, traveling, or attending in-person events like live music or sports, there are many things to which we can look forward.

Using the Exciting Possibilities worksheet, make a list of things you are looking forward to doing as the pandemic recedes. Then, spend a few minutes thinking about what will be pleasurable or exciting about each. You’ll also want to think about how to make sure you participate in these enjoyable activities.

Taking these steps of identifying possibilities and planning for realizing them, can help break us out of focusing on the past and viewing everything through a negative lens. 

On your own: Take a few minutes to complete the Exciting Possibilities worksheet. You can regularly return to this worksheet, adding new activities or taking steps toward realizing one of these possibilities.

Use one or more of the skills

While returning to campus is exciting, we expect that many will struggle with dwelling on lost opportunities and missed milestones. We hope you will be able to use the skills reviewed above to address these feelings.

Downloadable resources to use on your own

Information Sheet

Pre-Work List

How-to Guide

Fillable Activity