I am writing to process this pandemic and share my story in an effort to contribute to the selfless community of student affairs practitioners. “What should I be doing?” “What can I do?” “How do I help?” “Am I the only one who feels lost?” “Am I essential during a time like this?” “What exactly is this time that we’re in?” These are a handful of the questions that rang through me during the first few days of realizing that the coronavirus was in fact more serious than a handful of people having the flu.
As the Director of First Year Seminar (FYS) & Retention Strategies at a two-year community college where the average age of our student is 27 years-old and all students are commuters, I felt overwhelmed and frustrated by all of the uncertainty that seemed to present itself overnight. Like most other institutions, our students were on Spring Break when the country quickly began to realize that returning to campus for in-person classes would not be a wise choice. I suspect others might be feeling this way, and so I really want to be transparent in sharing the unfamiliar emotions that come with feeling both essential and unnecessary as an employee while this pandemic unfolds. Working at a small open-access institution allows me to wear multiple hats as I aim to improve the first-year student experience and create programs and processes that help retain our students. I am grateful for this position and truly love the ways in which I am able to contribute to the success of students who are often marginalized.
Additionally, much of my work focuses on working with FYS instructors and creating opportunities for collaboration and learning among the full-time faculty and staff who teach FYS. Like many of us in this field, I am also a very goal-oriented person who appreciates clear objectives and benchmarks to help contextualize what I am working towards and how I am helping improve the work of our institution and the student experience. As COVID-19 began to flip all timelines, agendas, and schedules onto their sides, I found myself questioning not only my role at the institution, but the impact that I could make from afar. How am I going to assist faculty during a time of crisis? How will we move our FYS program forward if we can’t be on campus? How will we ensure that FYS (and all) students get the support that they need during this crisis? Come to think of it, what are the supports that they need?
With the questions and uncertainties mounting I knew that my default reaction would be to work harder. Do more. Produce more. Make it work. While I’m not criticizing a strong work ethic, looking back to those first few days of pandemic panic I do wish I had given myself more grace. I wish I had reminded myself that this wasn’t just about me, but rather about us. I wish I had been able to separate myself from the hysteria closing in by reminding myself that my colleagues, students, and I still have the ability to thrive during a time of uncertainty. While thriving today may look different than it did a few months ago, I wish I had told myself that that I didn’t need to bury myself even deeper into my work in order to prove my worth. Instead of reflecting on my endurance during other challenging times and reminding myself that this new normal wasn’t meant to be mastered overnight, I felt myself sinking into panic mode and immediately questioning my value as an employee, an advocate for students, and my ability to do the work of a student affairs professional from a remote space. I quickly began brainstorming new initiatives, reading any articles I came across about remote work, and barely got up from my small workspace in my one-bedroom apartment to take a bathroom break.
Again, I’m not disputing the value of creative thinking and hard work, but I do think that during a time of such uncertainty we need to remind ourselves that we are working while home during a pandemic. We have not become work from home experts overnight. Our students’ needs are constantly changing during this time of crisis, and the future of all institutions may be more unknown now than they were just two months ago. However, a pandemic does not change who we are at the core. It does not change who we are when the office lights get turned off and we head home for the night. It does not change our purpose and our drive to serve students. It does not change our work ethic. It does not change the ways in which empower and advocate for our students. It does not change the reasons for which we started in this field in the first place. And it certainly does not change the ways in which we value ourselves. My hope for all of you is that if you haven’t done so already, find the time to separate yourself from the pandemic. Make sure you know and understand your worth as a professional. This does not have to be done by working 10 more hours a week or generating five new programming ideas for your students and colleagues. Let’s keep showing up as we’ve always done, but let’s not lose sight of our purpose, our character, and our ability to change the world with or without a strong at-home WiFi connection.
Thank you for reading! If you’re curious in hearing more about some of the specific ways that I’ve been working on this separation between myself and as the Director of First Year Seminar and Retention Strategies during a pandemic, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear what you’re doing and share some ideas. Stay safe!