I was quite surprised. On March 15th, I came across a post on the Facebook from one of the Assistant Vice Chancellors of Student Affairs at my university, UC Santa Barbara. Her posts are usually so upbeat, but she had re-posted a quote that said “Want to know what it’s like being a student affairs professional during this coronavirus pandemic? Remember when the Titanic was sinking and the band continued to play? That’s us, we’re the band.” I thought to myself, “no way, what student affairs is doing is anything but futile.” I did a quick cartoon style drawing of the Titanic hitting a “Conavirus” iceberg but with the student affairs administrators in a row boat with passengers, paddling away from the sinking ship. I posted it in the comments and said, “no you are the ones commanding the life boats.” As a PhD student in History at my university, I feel like student affairs staff are often the ones who are running towards the crisis with life ring in hand, eager to help those in need. They play a vital role in all aspects of the university environment and those roles are heightened in times of crisis and tragedy.
Our campus has seen more than its share of challenges. Currently our Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and her team are navigating the coronavirus and a wildcat strike by graduate students for a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). Before that, we were dealing with the Thomas Fire (Dec 2017) and Montecito Mudslide (Jan 2018). Back in 2014, six of our students were killed just blocks from our campus during a violent rampage/mass shooting event. In that same year, we dealt with riots when the police tried to shut down out of control parties off-campus, and we had a meningitis outbreak. In 2001, a UCSB student had intentionally struck a crowd of people off campus with his vehicle killing four people instantly, and a fifth person who was critically injured succumbed to his injuries 15 years later. Two of those killed were students at our university. This isn’t even a comprehensive list of the difficult situations that have faced our campus – but these are some of the things I think about in relation to the resilience of our student affairs administrators, and the crises they have handled on our campus and in our community over the course of many decades. The coronavirus pandemic is something we have never seen before, and yet the need to quickly innovate and protect the campus community is at the heart of the student affairs profession.
The biggest difference with this crisis in my opinion, is that in this situation we can’t hug each other. We have to offer comfort, compassion, and hope from a physical distance. We show that we care about each other by staying away. That is a tremendous difference! Having worked as student-staff for student affairs for the past few years, I have seen how incredibly powerful it is for our administrators and staff to hug students during painful moments for our campus. For many of us, a hug can provide deep relief and comfort in a way that words simply cannot. This situation is so incredibly different. The majority of our undergraduate students have left our campus to shelter in place with family and friends in other cities. The once bustling sidewalks, bike paths, dining halls and library now sit empty. My wife and I were walking through our campus recently for some exercise and she turned to me and said “it is like an episode of Star Trek, or some Science Fiction film. Some of the lights are on in the dorm rooms, and some windows are ajar, but no one is in there. Everything is just so empty.” So how does a campus continue to build community online? How do we demonstrate care and compassion when it must all come through a computer screen?
One of the things our Student Affairs Division has done that really impressed me is that they used the Zoom Conference feature to hold an online Student Affairs Virtual Spring Welcome for undergraduate students where they introduced the websites that had been created so that students could find out how to access services remotely, including the Wellness Program, Mental Health Services (CAPS), Student Health Center, Career Services, and other campus offices. As a student myself, what I thought was the most important aspect of this Virtual Welcome is that our Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs and Dean of Students appeared in the webinar with supportive and empathetic messages for students. That means so much right now to students. And each of the department and program heads also appeared and spoke directly to the students as well. At the end they answered questions that students submitted using the chat function. I believe it is really important for students to actually see and “meet” virtually the student affairs staff and administrators who are hard at work providing services, innovating, and problem solving all day long. This is important even when there isn’t a global pandemic, or other tragedy we are contending with. It is essential that students get to know the administrators and staff who lead their campuses, because this is how we build community and humanize what can feel at times like a large and cold institution to our students. Many of the physical buildings on our campus sit empty, but student affairs staff at my university and around the nation, and the world, are working incredibly hard to answer the call of yet another crisis. And the way we do this is together, as we always have, even if we are physically apart.
Another initiative our Student Affairs Division undertook to build community and share resources, was the development of the Shoreline System. The platform allows faculty, staff, and students to connect virtually. There are currently 500 student groups using the platform to conduct meetings on Zoom and engage in other online community activities. There are tools such as personal meeting scheduling and administrative processes that campus departments also find helpful. According to Miles Ashlock, Associate Dean of Student Life, who spearheaded the effort, “Normally, a campus org is a place where a student goes within UCSB to feel at home. Now, I think, a lot of campus orgs are becoming places that they congregate virtually to feel at UCSB.” Miles stated this in a recent interview with Don Lubach, UCSB Associate Ombuds, about new ways of fostering community connections. Don has been interviewing staff about how they are adjusting to remote work and providing student services online, and then he posts the interviews on Youtube and Facebook. It has been a helpful way to build community online for staff and to share updates. In this interview Miles said that as a “UCSB only space, where Net ID and passwords are used, there is an ability to hold users to UCSB guidelines and policies, the ability to customize privacy settings and avoid Zoombombing from outside which makes it a comfortable place to build online community.”
In addition to the Shoreline System, Miles also led the effort for the two large webinars (using the Zoom conference feature) that student affairs conducted this quarter, the one described above for students, and one for student affairs staff. There was an ability for one thousand people to view the webinar, and then recordings of the webinars were made available online so that they could be viewed later. Miles emphasized his gratitude to colleagues who assisted, and to our Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Margaret Klawunn who was willing to take the risk of trying these large webinars which the Division had never done before. He said she realized the importance of doing these large meetings early in the quarter and delivering a message that was “vulnerable, tender, and real,” and that they were successful because “the genuine nature of sharing, openness to questions, reflecting the uncertainty of the situation, and providing a dose of optimism.” As a graduate student, I am struck by how quickly staff on my campus have been able to adapt, blending technical know-how with heartfelt and clear messaging, as well as delivering tangible resources to the students who need them most. There are so many ways that student affairs staff at UCSB have stepped up to meet the current challenge and I am just scratching the surface by providing a couple of examples here. These moments of extreme loss and strife lay bare our shared humanity, and the precariousness of life. This is a moment when we need each other more than ever, and collectively we are finding new ways to make those meaningful connections happen. Thank you for all that you are doing for your colleges and universities, and for your larger communities. We are all in this together. Take good care of yourselves and each other.