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Student Activities Without the Students: Higher Education in the Time of COVID-19

For several weeks, there was persistent chatter. Rumblings, guesses, and questions asked among my co-workers and colleagues across the country. How would COVID-19 affect our universities, our students, our jobs? Not to mention our health. Speculation continued until an answer arrived on a Friday evening in mid-March. The official announcement was made: all university staff would begin working from home effective immediately. What once seemed like an uncertain few weeks ahead, became a prolonged absence from campus life - a development that has turned my professional worldview on its head for the foreseeable future.

I work in student activities at a small, urban Midwestern university. My institution’s mission, as it happens, is to educate future healthcare professionals in a variety of fields including medicine, nursing, and occupational therapy, among others. This also meant that for weeks, staff received a litany of comprehensive emails informed by physicians and infectious disease specialists, the university, and the larger hospital system that it was necessary to cope with any challenges presented to students, faculty, staff, and patients. Hence, I was more alert to the drastic effects coronavirus could have on collegiate life than had I still been employed somewhere else.

Despite this steady stream of information and daily updates, neither the medical experts nor university administration truly knew how long coronavirus, and the required social distancing efforts, would impact business as usual. A sense of urgency emerged and I grew more anxious as the days went on. How many more times would I have to ride a crowded bus to work before I would be told to stay home? Was I more at risk each time I rode an elevator with hospital staff? Was it safe to exercise at the campus gym after work? Information on COVID-19’s spread was simply evolving too quickly, with new details emerging faster than could be comprehended. Now, though, the outlook is much clearer. As of this writing, shelter in place has long been in effect across the state, in-person commencement cancelled, and our summer semester (May to August) will be entirely online. This is without a doubt a blow to all those who cherish the vibrancy of campus life.

I woke up on my first day of work from home disoriented, without any of the structure provided by the mundane rituals of my previous morning routine – running to catch the bus, squeezing into an elevator, greeting students and colleagues each morning as I walk into my office. This is, of course, the correct response to our public health crisis. And working from home is a tremendous privilege not afforded to “essential workers,” who are often working class people of color. But it’s been hard to shake the surreality of everything changing overnight. My kitchen table became my desk, my tiny apartment became my office. And while May 2021 marks my five year anniversary as a student affairs practitioner – a significant milestone – none of the experience in my young career could have prepared me for the disruptions brought upon us by COVID-19. File this one under “Things They Don’t Teach You in Grad School.”

For me and many other student activities professionals, a typical workday might involve advising appointments, on-site program management, or students dropping by our office just to say hello. But in the time of COVID-19, the student affairs role has changed. Still relevant, no doubt, but inverted, adulterated, warped. While most in-person activities and interactions can convert into a form that accommodates social distancing measures (the now ubiquitous Zoom meeting comes to mind), I can’t help but feel perturbed by the forced-upon-us realities of our newly digital lives.

As such, supporting students, creating programs, or doing anything at all, has seemed more difficult than ever. No perfectly written email can convey the nuance of in-person communication, and an online event can’t replicate the feeling of connection we get from interacting with students face-to-face. It’s a decent substitute, but one that’s merely adequate. This may come down to personal taste, but the sense of shared experience derived from guiding a student through a personal challenge, or a student leadership conundrum, can’t be translated one-to-one when mediated by a digital device. Certainly, student support services existed for distance learners prior to coronavirus. Truly unprecedented, thankfully, these times are not. However, it would be misguided to suggest that the majority of student affairs professionals, particularly those in student activities, were equipped for the transition to all-digital interactions.

During my now two month-long stay in my apartment, there’s been plenty of time to ruminate on the merit of student affairs writ large, and by extension, the value of a student activities office. Nearly every day I’ve considered ways to better support students, while feeling guilty for all things not accomplished. I’ve found solace talking to friends and colleagues in the field who’ve reminded me that some institutions are modeling a way forward. A handful of schools have doubled down on the importance of providing engagement and support to students outside of the classroom.

The costs of these services are high, though, and understandably, not all schools can easily provide their events or services at a distance. However positive some stories are, they’re overshadowed by the disheartening realities for many student affairs professionals. I truly feel for the hard working people in residence life. Even before COVID-19, do more with less was a common refrain from senior level university administrators. We need this done by the end of the day. How? Figure it out. Today, such dynamics are still present, only exacerbated by the global pandemic. What was true before coronavirus is only truer now, and across the country, institutional priorities have come into stark relief. Even though working conditions will likely improve as institutions begin to adjust slowly, staff – especially those furthest down on the organizational chart – will remember how they were treated at the outset of the outbreak as institutions scrambled to address other concerns deemed immediate.

The effects of coronavirus on higher education extend beyond the student affairs arena. A startling number of institutions face existential threats due to the economic and other stressors. For faculty and students, switching to online learning has proven to be a challenge. Proper digital course instruction requires extensive technological infrastructure, preparation, and practice – something most faculty do not have. Although some have (unfortunately) proclaimed the coronavirus as the “great equalizer," for students it has instead revealed deep inequities among the college experience, and not just in the classroom. Reliable internet access, academic support, and access to mental health services are just a few examples of services more available to those with the economic and racial privilege needed to ensure COVID-19 is only a minimal disruption. For low-income students, though, it’s a different story altogether.

Where does this leave us? I don’t know. To admit uncertainty elicits a mixture of anxiety and strange comfort. In a time where so much is up in the air, I’ve tried to find peace in relinquishing my sense of control. Yet, each day I’m afraid to check the news, terrified by what new developments I might read. Politics looms large in my life, and with the 2020 presidential race around the corner, now is a great reminder that elections have consequences. People’s lives are at stake, and there’s no exception for those in academe. My hope is that when our campuses and communities reopen, we’ll return with a sense of patience, empathy, and an extension of grace toward students, colleagues, and fellow citizens. Maybe this will jolt awake those who, until now, have been able to ignore many of the troubling dynamics brought to the surface by COVID-19. Or even build a wider acceptance for progressive public policies such as Medicare for All. Perhaps more changes are yet to come, only this time, for the better.

Graham Davis is a student affairs practitioner based in Chicago, Illinois. A version of this piece was originally published in the Student Affairs Collective.

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