Graduate Students During the Pandemic: Stress and Support for Future Community College Leaders

by Sandra J. Balkema

As we move into the third year following the onset of COVID-19 and the conclusion of the first full academic year without pandemic restrictions, we’ve come to realize that the long-term effects of the pandemic are just now rising to the surface (Hu et al., 2022; Bono et al., 2020). During the early stages of the pandemic, our college students faced new challenges: finding access to the technology they needed to complete their now-online coursework, getting access to food and necessary supplies when paying jobs disappeared, and locating and maintaining safe living spaces. Higher education institutions were quick to see and address these new needs as best they could (Buffington et al., 2021; Lowman et al., 2021; Lackner, 2023).

Graduate students—in our case doctoral students in a community college leadership program—faced many of the same challenges that undergraduate students faced during the pandemic, including determining how to maintain a semblance of normalcy while facing new and unknown changes to their family lives, work lives, and professional lives. Most graduate students across the U.S. faced similar challenges, many with added complexities as single parents of young children, community college employees buried under quickly changing and growing workloads, and professionals questioning their desire for advancement (Nodine et al., 2021). And many of them, members of a racial or gender-based minority group, felt intense frustration and desperation as the national climate reflected pent-up biases and tensions (Cole et al., 2021). Still others felt increasing mental and emotional health effects, either from the isolation enforced by the pandemic restrictions or from long-term health issues resulting from the virus itself (Fruehwirth et al., 2021; Bono et al., 2020; Liu et al., 2021; Son et al., 2020). For many of our students, the challenges they faced were complicated by the fact that they were driven to put others’ needs ahead of their own. Pressure hit from all directions.

As these graduate students moved through the pandemic, some found that they needed to cut and run, and reduced as many pressures as they could in order to cope. A few recognized that getting out of higher education might be the only healthy solution for them personally. But most developed coping strategies to persist, relying on their personal support structures, their professional networks, and their graduate program colleagues. Just as the community colleges at which our students work identified problems and reacted, graduate programs like ours also assessed existing support efforts, identified areas of need, and responded.

What Challenges Did They Face?

During the first year of the lockdown, our graduate program staff did what most did: We attempted to maintain the status quo and keep moving forward. We kept our support systems operating and responding. We communicated with our students regularly. We intervened when and if we could to assist with specific challenges. And we offered our support and compassion in tough times. In fall 2022, however, we made additional efforts to capture more details about the challenges the students faced, changes they were seeing in their personal and professional lives, and new directions they were contemplating for themselves.

We contacted a specific group of our current students and alums for this informal study, specifically those who, in the midst of COVID-19, began their doctoral studies, continued with their coursework, completed their coursework, or defended their dissertations. Over 150 students took part in the study by sharing their experiences and 80 students completed an online survey. Of the students who participated, many identified complex home situations: 10 are single parents; seven serve as caretakers for a parent or other family member; and six are parents of children under the age of five. In addition, three identified as LGBTQ+ and 27 as a racial minority. About half of the survey participants (37) were part of the cohorts who completed their coursework during the COVID years, and 22 successfully defended their dissertations.

Change in Employment

All survey respondents discussed significant changes in their work lives. Twenty-two had changes in their position and 36 said their workload increased by at least 50 percent, with 52 mentioning increased responsibilities, tasks, and areas of decision-making. Six noted that they or their spouse/partner lost their jobs, 23 changed jobs, and 13 faced financial crises because of these changes in employment. “I was very close to dropping out once I learned I was losing employment,” said one student. “I pictured what that path might look like compared to pushing forward. The continuation path was more difficult by far. However, the other path had little promise.”

Pushing Through Health Challenges

During the first year of the pandemic, we frequently heard from students and their families about those who became ill, and our weekly staff meetings always included updates and progress reports from faculty about students who needed assignment extensions or adjustments. While several of our students lost family members to COVID-19, the current students and extended alumni all survived. Many of our students, however, shared stories of health challenges that in some ways provided motivation to persist. One student noted,

The day before I started the program, my mom was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. I started the program for personal gain and upward career mobility, but my motivation now is to finish it so my mom can be at my graduation. She couldn’t come to my rescheduled master’s degree graduation because of her treatments, but she will be at this one.

Needing to Cut and Run

Several study participants discussed difficulties getting some of their graduate work completed, mentioning increased workloads, family complications, and stress. Twenty-four stated that they pushed their dissertation work to the side, needing to focus on work and course tasks with more immediate deadlines. Nearly 25 percent of the study participants considered leaving their academic job for the private sector, noting the increased stress and workloads of their positions in higher education. One participant summarized the frustrations we heard:

I almost quit higher education during this, but the coursework and cohort members were big incentives and motivators in persisting. So far, I'm glad I have. I see a meaningful career in higher education, but I have had to put up more boundaries to protect myself from being taken advantage of in this industry.

How Did They Adapt?

While challenges dominated students’ discussions of their experiences during the pandemic, most inspiring were their stories of persistence, their personal motivators, and their resilience. Their examples reflect their strengths as well as the humor and positivity we see in so many of our graduate students.

Internal Motivators

Fifty-six survey participants talked about relying on their personal strengths, including religious beliefs, intrinsic goals, and finding ways to push themselves to meet their personal bests. One student credited, “self-determination, grit, support and encouragement from my wife, support from my four-year-old.” Another said, “I relied on my personal relationships with my God and close friends. I prayed and stayed optimistic during the pandemic and took time for myself to reflect.” A third student indicated that they focused on being a role model for their children and “being able to gain the credentials that would avail opportunities to do more for the Black community.” Finally, a student cited the “desire to complete” as motivation, stating that they were concerned that if they took a break, they would not return to complete the program.

Support Networks

Thirty-nine respondents discussed the importance of their personal support network, family, and friends. For instance, one student noted,

My family and friends would frequently ask me how my dissertation was progressing over the last two years. I grew tired of saying I wasn't done; when coupled with my wife learning what “ABD” meant, the motivation to finish took on a new sense of urgency.

Another said,

The personal motivator that impacted my persistence the most was . . . my personal support network. Without my family and friends, I would not have been able to continue classes. There were times my children would have an appointment or need a ride somewhere, and without my husband or my older children to step in and ease some of my “job duties,” it would have been a tough sell to continue school.


Twenty-six students developed new self-care activities to help them persist, including the following:

I rely on my exercise buddy with an app on our phones to monitor our physical activities. Four months prior to the pandemic, I moved across the country again. However, my exercise buddy was a former coworker out west. My motivation was to remain as close to my coworker as possible by sharing exercise and things found along my walks in Chicago.

A few years ago, I turned Sundays into my Sabbath . . . no work, no school, no household duties, no people. I do nothing that drains me or feels like work. It helps me do all of those things better Monday-Saturday. If it doesn't get finished by midnight on Saturday, it waits until Monday.

I began listening to a short podcast every morning. It’s geared toward working professional women who may be overachievers and can be prone to self-criticism. During the roughest times trying to balance my family’s needs, a heavier workload, and my coursework, the podcast’s uplifting messages played on repeat in my head all day to help me make it through.

Short-Term Goals

Fifty survey respondents stressed their need to set clear short-term goals and deadlines. Their comments demonstrated their resilience and the breadth of their experiences. One student said, “I chose a defense date and then worked to make it happen. My original goal had to be pushed a couple months, but essentially, I just reset my focus and finished.” Another stated, “I’m a competitive person and pretty much challenged myself to finish. It was also helpful to have a chair who provided guidance and pushed [me] to complete as well.”

The Cohort Effect

Ferris State University’s Doctorate in Community College Leadership program is cohort-based. This cohort structure has been one of the program’s primary selling points for incoming students, and the most-talked-about aspect for our alumni. Thus, it wasn’t surprising that the cohort was a major theme woven throughout the conversations. These comments, among others, helped solidify our belief in the program’s goals and in our students’ ability to persist and complete:

Honestly, being in the program during COVID was an asset. I was able to keep busy and productive; I had a new group of professional peers; I looked forward to our workspace and zoom meetings; I felt connected and knew I was moving forward with a goal.

My cohort did not meet in person until after our first year, but we built a strong bond through our online communications and meetings, and I was grateful for that support and camaraderie. We were all in it together and had a strong network of support from each other.

The program cohort is special because there was never a sense of competition among us, but rather a sense of what we can do to lift each other up so everyone is successful. The power of a cohort model cannot be underestimated.

Strength, Support, and Resilience

As we collected these stories, the voices of our students touched all of us, enhancing our awareness of their challenges, their ongoing needs, and our role in helping them to persist and complete. We learned several key things from them. First, all of us are living in a complex world with complex issues and situations. We all strive to minimize the barriers, address issues when they arise, and persist—relying on our networks, our routines, and our inner strengths. Second, as leaders in academic programs, we need to be continually aware of students’ changing lives and circumstances. We need to provide support, encouragement, and, most importantly, the spaces and opportunities to engage with us and each other. And, finally, the students in this program are strong and resilient—and determined to succeed.


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Sandra J. Balkema, Ph.D., is Dissertation Director, Doctorate in Community College Leadership Program, at Ferris State University.

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