As our country continues to manage the early days of the COVID-crisis, with communities facing unprecedented challenges, higher education institutions across the country are rallying to meet the needs of their students. Over the past week, Sova has had the opportunity to listen and learn from individuals on the front lines of this crisis at colleges and universities in places like Texas, Ohio, New York, Oregon, and Missouri.
Knowing how difficult transformational change is under ‘normal’ circumstances, we recognize that crises such as this pandemic will require even greater focus and attention on adaptive leadership, creative collaboration across silos, and collective commitment to remaking structures to level the playing field for those populations that have historically been — and will continue to be — most impacted by this pandemic. In support of those working tirelessly to meet the needs of students during this critical time and with the hope that sharing our learnings will help ease the inevitable anxieties that come in times of uncertainty, we offer the following reflections.
1. Resilience comes in part through trading the 24 hour-news cycle for authentic, albeit virtual, connections with colleagues, friends, and community members — and from helping where you can.
While staying abreast of the latest information is essential for the care and safety of self and community, it is equally important to step away from the flood of media alerts to attend to those who are nearest. Being present for one’s colleagues and community while practicing social distancing/isolation is, for many, a source of strength and resilience. Giving space to those in your life to make meaning together during these crazy times is important. And small gestures can go a long way, like checking on an elderly neighbor by phone, finding time to actively support a colleague emotionally amid the ‘all hands on deck’ situations we know many of you are in both professionally and personally, or connecting with your local United Way to see how you might contribute help to those in dire need in your region. The collective force of human beings with a shared sense of purpose supporting each other and working through difficult problems together is unbeatable, even by a pandemic.
2. Calibrating to purpose can help you keep your head up.
Chances are, if you are reading this blog (and aren’t related to one of us), you do work that has broad social purpose. Whether you work at a college or university or support higher education as an advocate or policy maker, you work every day to deliver value to and ensure genuine upward mobility for more through higher education. If you work at an institution, your value as a vital member of your community is clear and your influence extends beyond your primary focus on students. It is especially important in times of enormous uncertainty to keep your broad sense of purpose close at hand and heart – it is this sense of purpose that strengthens optimism and fuels creative energy during hard times. Connect with your purpose, and the solidarity with others that comes through purpose-driven collaboration, and let it feed you.
A student success leader told us last week that he has never been prouder of his team or clearer about their value to the college and community than he is now during this crisis.
3. Recognizing your privilege in all of its forms, and the crushing inequities that are highlighted during this time, is important for perspective and action.
The impact of the pandemic is touching every single one of us in one way or another, and it’s important to keep in mind those who are most adversely affected in times like these – and why. The crisis created by COVID-19 is revealing in stark ways how unevenly opportunities are distributed in this country, as those who already face the greatest barriers will be hardest hit. Lower-income families that don’t have internet at home, single parents who have lost their access to childcare, those working in a range of hospitality and service industries, English language learners, and the working poor who live on the economic margins without savings are the most vulnerable. These are the students served in largest numbers by access-oriented colleges and universities. Taking the opportunity afforded by COVID-19 to interrogate patterns of racial and socioeconomic inequity, and the forms privilege and disenfranchisement take, is time well spent for both reflection and action.
As one student success leader said to us last Friday, “We don’t want to lose sight of the gaps that are being revealed once things get ‘back to normal.’ We must not allow that to happen.”
4. Appreciating the muscles you’re building during the crisis will serve you well as you manage in the moment and look ahead to the future.
As we connect with student success leaders who are working around the clock to ensure students are protected and supported during the pandemic, we’re hearing about unprecedented cross-silo collaboration that, despite currently taking the form of triage, shows the kind of nimbleness and creativity institutions need now and will continue to need moving forward. Access-oriented community colleges and universities are resilient entities that are unfortunately accustomed to doing lots with little, and the muscles being built and strengthened in this crisis are those that will be needed in the uncertain future.
In these moments of crisis, we find moments that speak to our shared humanity and interconnectedness, our strengths and our weaknesses, and our biases as well as the opportunities to shatter existing ways of knowing and being. We must allow ourselves the space to learn the lessons, empathize with others, and engage together in new ways. This will take strength, resilience, courage, humility, and a deep sense of personal care for each other.