I often wonder what we will eventually learn from the COVID-19 virus. What lessons will we learn? How will we be different? Will we become wiser? More present? More thoughtful? Even as I reflect on this, I notice that I am already going back to old habits, habits that I gave up in the first months of the pandemic, when travel was replaced by walks after work and more time for reflection. Yes, there were a dizzying array of meetings at Zoom, briefings on COVID-19 and extended workdays, but I also had more bandwidth to try endless new recipes and bake for the first time in years. I read more, developed a regime of alternating fiction and nonfiction, and I added books in a pile by my bed.
But most of all the pandemic changed my conversations with students. There was no more superficial “how are you?” actually superficial. I slowed down to really listen to their answers – and I learned more about my students than I knew before. I watched them move from class to Zoom, and when the balancing forces of life on campus (available food, beds, computer labs) disappeared, I saw how different our lives were – and how serious our duty was to serve them. . . The students of my first year seminar were generous with lessons that changed the way I want to manage and serve.
As president, I know all the statistics that describe studentship at the University of Mount St. Mary. As I write this, 62 percent of our traditional undergraduate students are eligible for Pell grants, 67 percent are the first in their family to enter college, 85 percent are black, native, and colored, and 100 percent receive financial assistance. As with the heads of universities in general, I spend a lot of my time defending their name at the state and federal levels, as well as with foundations, friends, alumni, and supporters. Our students, like students all over this country, come to us with great dreams, and I consider it our sacred duty to give them what they need to not only achieve their goals, but also dream more than they could have imagined. This was true before COVID-19, but this pandemic gave me a unique opportunity to better understand the complexity of the lives of the students who adorn our classrooms and our Zoom spaces.
In the fall of 2020, limited by the widespread spread of the COVID-19 virus in densely populated Los Angeles, we worked in the world of Zoom. Each week, I met with my first-year students to discuss racial, ethnic, and gender issues, helping them navigate the university and our many resources, programs, and opportunities — all virtual. I supplemented the session with separate meetings at Zoom with each student to try to assess the problems they faced and to offer advice on available resources to support them.
Over the course of the semester, I noticed that one student, particularly a bright and talented nursing student, looked more and more anxious. In our one-on-one conversation, I asked this student how things were going. The student said that it was difficult for him in the anatomy lesson. When I asked what might be helpful in preparing to talk about our virtual tutoring program, our telemedicine counseling services, or our loan program for laptops and hotspots, the student’s response stopped me.
“I could really use a pen.” The student further explained that a small board would also be helpful. I clicked on my student to make sure I understood what I was thinking about the many orders my family and I were making on Amazon during those first months of the pandemic. What I lacked, I ordered – and usually received the next day. My immediate reaction was to get his address and send him the necessary materials. But, gratefully, the wise colleague extended the lesson further. When I asked for the student’s address, my colleague took a breath and suggested that might be the best way. Instead of solving this student’s immediate problem with delivery, we needed to create a new structure to solve what was undoubtedly a problem for other students. My colleague set up an account in our bookstore that gave students a certain amount of dollars for free. And then reported to the students.
My student’s story is not unique. COVID has taught us a lot, and one of the most important lessons is both the exposure and the exacerbation of social inequality that affects families in our communities. We saw students perform their entire academic program on one device – read books and texts, write articles, prepare presentations and attend Zoom classes – all on their mobile phones. We’ve seen our students ’stress increase, and we’ve seen how many students drop out of school because it’s too hard. Covid no doubt made it harder, but didn’t create the challenges many college students face, including my own.
Becoming president of my university, I often turned to Fr. a poem by W. B. Yatesso beautifully quoted in Sir Ken Robinson well known TED Talk, “Conduct a learning revolution!” Robinson quotes these moving words, recalling the lives and needs of our students:
If I embroidered the heavens,
Suspended with gold and silver light,
Blue, dull and dark fabrics
About night and light and semi-light,
I would spread the cloth under my feet:
But I, poor thing, have only dreams;
I have scattered my dreams under your feet;
Go softly because you are treading on my dreams.
I have read this poem many times over the years and I would like to think about our responsibility to provide academic programs, collaborative programs, internships, study abroad opportunities and learning support systems – all aspects of the modern university experience – to ensure that our students had what they needed to fully unleash their potential and achieve their wildest dreams. I am still reading this poem, but after COVID-19 my lens changed. The pandemic has taught me that no matter how important all these opportunities are, sometimes our students just need a pen – and a structure that meets their basic needs.
COVID-19 has taught me that if I take the time to ask, my students are generous in their honesty and patient with my learning. And if we are really into transformational education, it only makes sense that our universities – and we as their leaders – are being transformed by our students.
Nowadays, it is sometimes difficult for me to get for a walk. I find that I start reading more books than I finish. However, when I speak to state lawmakers, members of Congress, and our donors and friends about the importance of financial support to our students, I do so with greater clarity and urgency. One might say that a university cannot take care of the many needs of its students. They may be right. But once you start with a simple pen, you realize it’s not as complicated as it seems.