Current Realities and the New College Experience

A professor addresses COVID-19 for parents and students.

Posted Mar 14, 2020

Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash
Empty classroom.
Source: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

As a professor for decades, I thought I’d seen it all. I have always built syllabi around every contingency possible, trying to be sensitive to all angles of situations. I’ve taught through the background noise and fear of local emergencies like snow days and hurricanes, national emergencies like H1N1, the 2008 economic crash, 9/11, the overwhelming threats of school shootings, and personal emergencies, like caregiving for a severely ill and elderly parent, losing that parent, etc. 

And every semester, I work with students navigating through their own crises and vulnerabilities, such as eating disorders, dating violence, sexual assault, family poverty, homelessness, mental health struggles, suicidal ideation, the deaths of friends and family members, etc. If you are an educator, you teach amidst fear, panic, stress, and distress on the daily. Yet, the current pandemic with COVID-19 feels dramatically different, especially as it feels like concentric circles of real emergencies and possible emergencies on the personal, local, national, and global levels. 

We are being inundated with information and misinformation and bombarded with all sorts of directives and suggestions. So many schools have already indicated plans to fully shift to online learning, mandating that students vacate campus; others have moved to the online environment for classes yet indicate that students can essentially emergency in place. Other schools are implying that return dates are possible, while still other schools have cut their losses and said the semester is over. Maybe you are hearing a lot of communication from the schools your children are attending, and maybe you wish you heard more; maybe you’re hearing from your students about the state of affairs, and maybe you wish to be hearing more or even less from them. 

There’s so much to plan and to figure out as you consider the potential re-entry of your college student into your home with no sense of an end date in sight. And you are likely trying to manage the necessary transitions and burdens of your own job, other children who may be at home, children who may be high school seniors considering college for next year, caring for elderly parents, etc. It’s just too much. 

So, how about the perspective of one college professor on how to help your kids and yourself deal with what is right now? 

  • Your students may want to stay on campus if that is allowed. That might hurt your feelings. Consider this great news, though. They have done what is the point of college—to individuate from their families of origin and to launch a new life. That they feel comfortable, safe, and happy in the new home they made for themselves speaks volumes about them, their friends, the school they chose, and you as parents who helped them get to this point. 
  • If your student is ultimately forced out and has to come home when you are aware that they didn’t want to, try as best you can to love them anyway, not guilting them out, and understanding that there is real grief for students when long-held dreams are upended. 
  • We’re older adults and have likely faced more disappointments, but they are dealing with their own share now. First-year students are likely more adjusted, and this is a terrible time to have to stop everything. Many juniors had to turn around and come back from faraway travel they yearned to do. Seniors are worried about if graduation ceremonies will still take place. 
  • Some are worried about a loss of freedom, not seeing their friends, the pressures of social distancing, etc. These are legitimate concerns. This is a generation of lonely and anxious college students. As soon as news broke about this health scare last month, my heart immediately went out to students, thinking this is the last thing they need when far too many are already so over-technologized, overly tethered, and yet so isolated and lonely.
  • Your students may want to come home even if not required. This may require you to listen to their stress and fear and worry, which can feed into your own. Consider all the self-care you can.
  • If your student tends toward depression and anxiety and other struggles, now is the time to be sure there is support in place at school and at home or wherever they will be landing. You might also ask a therapist if she or he can offer phone or online sessions.  
  • My new mantra is that I will promise to myself to try my best to be kind to myself as I move in and out of fear. In fact, I even sent that as a message to all of my students via Blackboard, with an announcement that I will provide more information as I learn more this coming week and that I plan to streamline and simplify as much as possible going forward. When things start to come to a grinding halt, it’s not the time to add more content or to add more to the to-do lists. 
  • College is a chance for pause and thoughtful reflection, yet that is so often not how it feels given the way schools are run most of the time. This is a time to do this.
  • If your student wants to learn in face-to-face environments, or you prefer they do and are unsure or nervous about what it means to shift to online classes for the next few months, remember that you are not alone. Many of your students’ professors share these reservations for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: valuing face-to-face pedagogy, not buying the online thing anyway, concern about equity issues arising from the reliance of online as the solution right now, learning curves for faculty to be able to even do this effectively, the sheer number of students they have versus what is known to be good practice for online classes, practical issues with technology problems, concerns about how much content can be transferable and how much rigor can be expected when they are aware that students might get sick and so might they, all as they are also taking care of family members at all stages of health and illness. 
  • If you are a supervisor at your job, or even if you are not, imagine for a moment supervising 100-200 people right now in the midst of a pandemic, being told to change your whole modality of interacting with them and what you can expect from them in ways that will be fair and humane, and imagine all of them being of adolescent age or close to it, all in addition to expectations to publish, have meetings with colleagues, and the complexities of your own life and health and those of your family, and you have the concerns of most faculty right now. Then couple that with the profound financial concerns of the vast majority of faculty teaching across college campuses today who are contingent and without health insurance. This is all to say that faculty themselves are also worried, and helping your students understand their humanity, rather than trying to operate like unsatisfied customers, will go a long way. 
  • Encourage your students to be outside, to delight in the wonder of the natural world. Perhaps you have woods near your home, the ocean, a lake, an arboretum, anything—just something that helps them realize the world and beauty that is larger than themselves. I found great moments of joy and peace this week when I walked past an outdoor flower vendor selling exquisitely bright blooms, or when I walked at sunset with my husband, or when I was with a dear friend in the car, and we saw two teachers and a small group of preschool children, walking two by two, holding a walking rope so they would all be able to stay together and be safe, a true metaphor for our times. 
  • Help your students use this moment as an opportunity to consider how they might be better selves, citizens, and leaders in the face of uncertainty, crisis, fear, and change. Help them dream about how they can chart a course for and about hope, even and especially when it feels like there is none. Those are the most important lessons we have to impart anyway, on and off-campus. 

Facebook image: wk1003mike/Shutterstock