“During the COVID-19 Pandemic, I See Hope for my College Students.”
Brigid D’Souza, assistant professor of accountancy and business law at the Frank J. Guarini School of Business, recently wrote this opinion piece, which garnered coverage by media outlets across the nation. The editorial highlights the grit that can be found in Saint Peter’s students and how the experience with coronavirus, COVID-19 will make them stronger in their future experiences.
There are times when the mundane must be wrangled to make space for the profound. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of those times, and I feel it acutely, each day, in my role as a college professor at Saint Peter’s University. Over the past two months, I have pushed my course forward — the syllabus, lectures over Zoom, homework assignments and exams — amidst unprecedented isolation. Yet as dark and uncertain as this moment feels, I see light, and hope, in my students.
I am moved by how my students are persisting through this moment defined by human disconnectedness, fear and uncertainty. I believe we can, and should, help our young adults recognize their own courage in this moment, and how much this crisis — and their persistence through it — can help inform them of their potential in the years ahead. Future employers should recognize that today’s cohort of college students will be among the most-tested candidates in years, in terms of demonstrating mettle and fortitude through an unprecedented pandemic that may stretch on for months.
I realized soon into this health crisis that the teaching challenges were much broader and deeper than I had initially assumed. To prepare for virtual instruction, I sent out a survey to my students with three simple questions:
- Do you have access to a computer/laptop off campus?
- Do you have access to internet from home/work (ie while NOT at school)?
- Are you able to remotely access an online meeting / webinar during our scheduled class time?
Student feedback helped inform a new reality.
I learned that some of my students who worked wage-earning jobs in essential retail — grocery stores, hardware stores, pharmacies — had to take on extra shifts for various reasons, cutting into both our virtual class sessions but also into time for them to focus on schoolwork. I learned that some students needed extra shifts at their jobs — which took them away from my class time — because they were now sole breadwinners for their families due to parents experiencing COVID-19 related layoffs. I learned that some students had employers, who upon finding out that school had been physically closed, added new or different shifts to the students’ schedules to make up for employee shortages. And I learned that some students lived with larger extended families, thus had to help manage and monitor younger siblings or struggled to find space in the home to focus, uninterrupted. Within a couple of weeks, I would learn of students who began to lose loved ones to COVID-19.
As I gleaned insight about what my students were going through, I began to see my rosters as a mosaic of character and grit. I realized I had a privileged vantage point; as their professor I could see many individuals struggling; they, however, were studying and working in isolation.
I teach 80 students across four classes, meeting with them three times a week. It’s been an informing journey, transitioning from live classroom instruction to Zoom virtual instruction. What I miss most is the most basic human connectedness that comes from being present, in the same room, with my students. So I tried to picture, in my mind’s eye, my students in their homes or at their jobs: I imagined one student caring for younger siblings in a crowded house, unable to focus on homework until the late hours of the night. I imagined another student sitting at a desk, head in hands, worried for a family member who was developing an unnervingly loud cough. I imagined another student who finally found a quiet moment after a long day of work or of worrying about parents who were recently unemployed … and I asked myself: What does that student most need out of that respite, that quietude?
I had a gut sense of the answer: The mundane must be wrangled. Routine and structure were still critical, but adjustments were also needed to make space for more profoundly important challenges that were unfolding for many of my students.
So I built considerable slack into my remaining semester deadlines by slimming down my homework assignments and spreading out the due dates. I began to communicate with my students about the gravity of what we found ourselves in; I named the moment as a crisis, inside my class, to help connect the events unfolding in the outside world with the pace and expectations of my course. I lifted up my students’ daily efforts as character-building in a time of profound uncertainty.
Student feedback helped me respond, and understand, this pandemic more thoughtfully and holistically, which in turn has helped me, on a personal level, persist through the past two months.
I’ve watched my students continue to attend my Zoom lectures, push through their homework and remain in touch despite the extraordinary difficult challenges they are experiencing. I am proud of them and grateful for them. And as this semester draws to close, I want them to feel pride in themselves; that they didn’t just finish the semester but learned, and persevered, through COVID-19. I’m grateful for their example and I am hopeful about the future these young adults will help shape in the years to come.