Fred M. Tugas
Assistant Director, Student Leadership & Engagement
Virginia Commonwealth University
Joslyn DiRamio Bedell
Special Assistant to the Senior Vice Provost for Student Affairs
Virginia Commonwealth University
A Truly “Alternative” Spring Break
Wednesday, March 4, 2020. It’s spring break on campus and 150 students are preparing to depart for alternative break trips across North America in 48 hours. We are advised by our senior vice provost for student affairs to monitor travel restrictions. I advise my team to go ahead and cancel the Canada trip even without restrictions to avoid students being stuck in another country.
However, the majority of our trips are domestic. Our students in California will be hundreds of miles away from the Los Angeles outbreak, and New York City only had six cases. The judgment call? All those trips are still a go.
The following days included a few, last-minute student participant cancellations, concerns from learning partners, and questions from some parents. All in all, each trip made it to their destination safely and I breathed a slight sigh of relief heading into the weekend. At the same time, the national alternative breaks email listserv continues to ping my inbox with apprehensive professionals seeking guidance from colleagues on the developing pandemic. With much concern across the country, I return to work Monday with an update from our president that the university is still under normal operating conditions.
Wednesday, March 11, 2020. The president sends an update that spring break is extended one week and university-sponsored travel is suspended. I write student affairs leadership proposing that we bring back all trips early. It is green-lighted and we safely bring all students back home.
Spring Break Week 2020 is one for the books. Seven days of coordinated response and limitless lessons on leadership, ambiguity, connection, and shared purpose.
A Time for Human-Oriented Leadership
At the core of our work, student affairs professionals advance campus community through the formation and maintenance of quality interactions and relationships. We know that these relationships are critical to student engagement, retention, and success. Whether we are having intentional conversations in residence halls, connecting students through campus traditions, or counseling students through difficult circumstances, each day we are cultivating relationships with purpose on purpose.
Under normal circumstances, professions of care often experience fatigue, burnout, and exhaustion. As with most other issues that occurred pre-COVID, these issues are exacerbated in a crisis. Now more than ever, leaders and managers must cultivate a culture of care for their teams. Leaders should reflect on this historic moment in our careers and ask themselves: “If I were to look back on this pandemic, would I be satisfied with the impact I had on others around me as a leader?”
A full answer to this question requires critical reflection on leadership. It requires an examination of organizational priorities, a review of what we value in the workplace (individually and collectively), and an evaluation of the motivations behind the decisions we make each day that impact others. Lastly, management of remote teams demands an analysis of team trust, communication, and what we mean by “productivity”. As a supervisor eager to accomplish lofty goals, the pandemic has forced Fred to examine the true weight of his motivations.
I sat with this for a long time, and remembered the African Proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” My success was dependent on the success of our team. As a colleague and fellow human, I have practiced personal vulnerability in team spaces, assumed good intentions of those around me, and recognized that each individual is handling the pandemic differently. As a leader, I have leaned into the natural skills, talents, and strengths of individual contributors to sustain successful student support and collaborative partnerships during a crisis.
A Profession Built on Ambiguity
As the start of the Fall semester approached, and the pressure to create a “new normal” Weeks of Welcome slate of programming for our new and returning students mounted. As a result, the very difficult reality of moment-to-moment decisions and changes in course for long-planned and much beloved activities and gatherings had to take place. The decision to call off a socially distanced welcome back carnival pitted seasoned student affairs professionals focused on creating safe social engagement opportunities against constantly changing public health advice. Additionally, the perception in students’ eyes that the university was allowed to create gatherings that students themselves were not allowed to do on their own time generated additional tension. There were no winners in any decision scenario as we opened for Fall semester 2020.
The loss of the sense of control and certainty in our lives that the dual pandemics of 2020 – racism and COVID-19 – have thrust upon all of us is a swift reminder of the reality that there is no control that humans truly can wield on the world around us. However, we can control our reactions to the events as they unfold, and remain flexible, fluid, and empathetic in our responses and resulting decisions. Uncertainty, multiple possible outcomes, versatile approaches to the same challenge – all of these descriptions remind us of experiencing life and being in community with emerging adults on a college campus – an experience that is nothing but a study in ambiguity.
The process of human development and the practice of knowledge creation and the activity of learning are all acts of bringing order to ambiguity. In the field of Student Affairs and the education of college students, we carve out our professional paths on the shoulders of the theorists and educators who have come before and helped give structure to the ambiguity. Where would we be without Maslow’s hierarchy? In Student Affairs we often focus entirely on the top levels of the hierarchy, but this year, we’ve been forced to revisit and stay at the bottom of the hierarchy, for perhaps longer than any of us have ever had to do before. Without that theoretical grounding, and so much more that we learned in our graduate programs, we would have been rudderless through this sustained crisis. Instead, we have had a sort of touchstone to guide us and remind us how to bring order and meaning to the chaos. Crisis response is at the core of our training – we focus on health and safety first, and attend to development and learning next.
The Impact of Individual Connection
This time of living and working through COVID has reminded us of the power of the one-one-one connection: the old-fashioned phone call to send congratulations to a student for completing a challenging semester; the virtual “high-five” you share with a colleague upon finishing a completely unexpected and especially time-sensitive project; the socially distant coffee meeting you have in the residence hall courtyard to talk through a colleague’s next career move. These moments may be fewer right now, but it is even more important in our current context to make sure they happen.
The great Maya Angelou reminded us that “People will forget what you said, people forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” During a time of great stress and struggle, we all have a responsibility for modeling and participating in a culture that promotes humanity and individualization. The feelings we experience during this crisis will stay with us throughout our lifetime.
The Power of Shared Purpose
As student affairs professionals, we are able to tell powerful stories of mutual impact between students and ourselves. Through our programs, facilities, and services, students express their satisfaction and connection to campus life through their engagement with our individual functions. We feel confident as experts in building places and spaces for students to connect, engage, learn, and grow.
Now more than ever before, our work is critical to the future of higher education. Our leadership and contributions to the health, safety, and well-being of our students during two complex pandemics has been herculean. Furthermore, the impact we have on student satisfaction, recruitment, retention, and graduation is paramount.
However, oftentimes, we fail to make our work and impact visible to our colleagues. The diverse functions of our work and varying nature of student impact can complicate the story of the powerful impact we have on the student experience. Although there is tremendous value in the specialized work we do each day, there is opportunity to identify common purpose through a generalist approach to student success. At our core, we are retention experts. We are experts in student voice, safety, life, and culture.
In a crisis situation, we can focus on what we know best, looking down at the work we have in front of us and trying to make sense of it in an unprecedented situation. If we look up (what are my senior leaders struggling with?) and across the organization (what are my colleagues struggling with?), we can more begin to identify common purpose as a generalist and more effectively determine priorities by shifting work that magnifies impact on student success.
In Joslyn’s office hangs a framed postcard from the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Glover, Vermont. The postcard reads “Resistance of the heart to business as usual.” We cannot go back to “the way things were” – even though we will be tempted to. Let’s strive to bring with us into the future the best parts of what was, and co-create other aspects of a future that is even better because of all we have been through. Student Affairs professionals must take what we have experienced and learned this year to double-down on our commitment to making our college communities places of health, safety, learning and development for all.
- As I reflect on the pandemic, would I be satisfied with the impact I had on others around me as a leader? Why or why not? How might I promote genuine connection and a human-oriented approach to shaping the culture of my organization?
- What have been your guideposts and touchstones to help create a sense of order in the chaos? What part of your student affairs education and training have you leaned into to make it through this year?
- What common pain points are you hearing across your team and organization? Can you identify a colleague that would be a powerful partner in leading sustainable change?
Fred M. Tugas is the assistant director for student leadership and engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Fred is passionate about strengthening co-curricular learning experiences for students and career development for new student affairs professionals. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Old Dominion University, master’s in counselor education from Clemson University and is pursuing his doctorate in education at VCU.
Joslyn DiRamio Bedell is the Special Assistant to the Senior Vice Provost for Student Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). With over 20 years of student affairs experience across five different institutions, three states and now four defining global economic and social crises, she deeply believes in and champions the work of student affairs professionals across all functional areas and beyond. Joslyn earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin from the University of Georgia and her master’s of higher education and student affairs administration from the University of Vermont.