COVID-19 has affected everyone, but not everyone equally. It has certainly affected young people in terms of their education, employment opportunities, social rituals, rites of passage, and in some cases, their health. Young people with their own health issues or with family members with compromised health are likely feeling particularly alone.
This autumn, first-year university students should be arriving on campuses with their backpacks full of hope and possibility. Due to the pandemic, that rite of passage is not possible for many students. They will begin their studies on their laptops in their family homes with none of the physical cues – the architectural gravitas, the throngs of students on campus, that first walk to classes – to signal that they are now university students.
This situation will test many students, and university faculty and administrators fear high attrition rates as students fail to negotiate the world of online learning. Those concerns are legitimate, and no one wins when students’ educational opportunities end in failure – for whatever reasons.
Online learning offers certain advantages, but it is not easy. Without the structure of regular class times, students must generate their own structure.
Many might feel adrift and uncertain. Some have expressed concerns about motivation and lack of connection. Those concerns are real.
In The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter, the psychologist Susan Pinker is clear that the research supports the idea that we are “hardwired to connect to other human beings.” Such connections are vital to our health and well-being. It is those connections that so many university students will be missing this autumm.
So what is the answer? How do we respond to this extraordinary situation and orient towards learning, growth, and connection?
This autumn, I believe we must first acknowledge our feelings of loss. I feel that loss acutely. I love meeting students. I love participating in classroom discussions that challenge our thinking and assumptions. I will miss the energy and possibility that I am used to experiencing in a physical environment. That is all true.
After acknowledging our feelings of loss, we have a choice about how we will respond to our current situation. I have a worn copy of the concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. His crucial observation was that we have a choice, regardless of how bleak our circumstances, and we can learn and grow even in the darkest times.
In no way am I suggesting any equivalency between the Holocaust and our current situation. I’m just suggesting that Frankl’s clear message is about the fact we have a choice. Whatever the circumstances, we have a choice about how we will respond.
I will do my best to help and support students in their learning as both an instructor and as an academic coach. I will make the most of our online connections and maximize the community that is possible.
In short, I am going to show up, be real, and use the same yardstick for my teaching I always do. Each term I challenge myself to improve, up my game, be a better instructor. This is my choice this autumn.
What will your choices be? How can you maximize your learning and growth in this situation? How can you orient towards community, however configured? These are important questions.
We all have choices – even now.
Don’t waste the opportunities you have to learn, grow, and connect with others. If we are open to the potential and the community that might be offered – even online – we will undoubtedly do better.
So don’t waste the pandemic. Acknowledge the real challenges, and then choose to learn and grow. Reach out for the support and help you need.
Adopt behaviors that will support your academic journey.