QuiAnne’ S. Holmes
Student Affairs and higher education pride themselves on being the integral pillars of students’ overall development. Institutions worldwide create missions and values designed to uplift students’ abilities to acquire new knowledge, experiences, and skills necessary to thrive in their current society. Little did we know, there would be no Chickering’s Theory or podcast to prepare us for The Year of Rewirement: 2020.
It is important for me to acknowledge that the national pandemic provides challenges for all people in a multitude of ways beyond the experiences of higher education professionals or students; add institutionalized racism, marginalized identities, and a variety of other social and communal factors that contribute to the disenfranchisement of many, it is easy to see that the playing field is neither leveled nor one size fits all. COVID-19 serves as a challenge and danger along with the homelessness, poverty, job loss, food insecurity, death, and so many other life changing circumstances for folks everywhere. All humans should have access to basic needs: water, food, and shelter before the expectation of fulfilling work duties is forced/required. It is necessary to state that this was not and is not the standard and many have suffered, struggled, and battled to fight these systems of oppression amidst a national pandemic, an ongoing anti-Black national climate, and an election year.
Why the Year of Rewirement?
I named the year 2020 the year of rewirement because the pandemic has required us to rewire our thinking, teaching, engagement, and work on all fronts. This year is the first time that many systems, institutions, and individuals had to “rewire” how traditions, structures, guidelines, communication, etc. would happen in a world that requires physical distancing, limited or prohibited crowds and gatherings, mandated mask wearing, and obligated us to other precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Particularly in higher education, institutions had 7-14 days to shift their entire spring semester from traditional in-person formats to delivering classes on virtual platforms such as Webex, Skype, Microsoft Teams, or Zoom (who else wishes they would have invested in their stock?). As higher education professionals, who among us was truly prepared for a national pandemic to engulf spring break and dictate life and work beyond the rest of 2020?
There are many lessons to be learned from this shared transition and the experiences we are still navigating. Below is an activity to help us begin or continue to reflect on what we have been and continue to be going through.
I invite you to try a guided imagery/reflection activity with me. Choose a stakeholder position: student, faculty, staff, upper administrative staff member, parent. You may realize that despite choosing one stakeholder for this activity, you actually occupy many of these roles. This highlights how we must remember that while we might see others in one responsibility/experience, people’s roles and identities go beyond the ones we have the chance to witness or honor.
Explore the questions below from the stakeholder point of view you have selected. Please note that your stakeholder’s position may not be able to answer the questions from their position, but the purpose of this activity is to navigate considerations and experiences that may have arisen during this time period.
- Did you have additional family members come to live or temporarily stay with you? If yes, how did that impact you? If no, how might it have impacted you if that had been the case?
- How did the financial transition impact your life? Lay-off? Furloughed? Re-purposed? Delay in payment? Loss of possessions? Other implications?
- How did you prepare for your student to return home? How did their early arrival impact your monthly expenses? Home dynamics?
- How did COVID-19 impact you, your family, friends? Did you lose anyone due to their contraction of COVID-19? Rescheduled large scale planned family events, holidays, weddings, traditions? Canceled paid travel and/or vacations? Celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, etc. virtually?
- How did viewing numerous murders of Black folks via police brutality on social media, news, and other channels affect your daily functioning? Safety?
- Was time given or dedicated to exploring the effects of the national climate and pandemic outside of (moments of silence or surveys)?
- Did you find ways to practice/engage in wellness? Take care of yourself? What worked? What didn’t work?
- How did it feel to experience an election year during the pandemic? Voting in person? Requesting or sending an absentee ballot? Waiting for results?
- How did it feel to see, hear, and read about so many changes to the college or university curriculum or form of delivery in a matter of days? Was the language of the changes inclusive? Direct? Informative? What were strengths in the communication and what are areas for improvement?
- How well did the transition to online instruction, programming, communication go for you? Did you have access to a strong internet connection? Laptop or computer? Data? What are some lessons learned about that aspect of the spring (and into fall) transition)?
- What student affairs theories did you use to prepare your staff(s), student leaders, and other stakeholders to ensure that their mental health and overall wellbeing was salvaged during the constant changes made to their daily functions and work responsibilities?
- What type of supervisory style did you lean into when disseminating impactful information to your staff? How did that work? What will you carry with you beyond the pandemic?
- What strategic plan was the most helpful to address the vast amount of needs students expressed when being asked/forced to be sent home in the middle of a national pandemic?
- How is working/studying from home? Among other family members? Pets? Kids? Sharing internet/Wi-Fi? Trying to find solitude and space?
- How does it feel to be considered essential or non-essential employee?
As you explored these questions, did anything come up for you that you had not considered? Did it reinforce any specific circumstances for you that you feel could be changed or “rewired.” Were you able to find gratitude or thankfulness in the ways in which others have supported you or helped you with along the way? Did you discover unhealed wounds that continue to need healing? No matter what you learned, please know that your experience is valid and that everyone is on different journeys and paths to healing from the impacts of COVID-19. Thank those who have helped you and lift up those around you in need. Shameless plug: We’re ALL in need of uplifting words and encouragement.
I have had several experiences during this pandemic and what impacted me the most was two of my grandparents becoming terminally ill. Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away from his battle from cancer, but I am happy to know that despite the circumstances he is in a much better place. I would like to end with some “rewirements” from the pandemic that I witnessed and/or learned that may be helpful to you.
Considerations/Rewirements From the Pandemic
- Sense of urgency is subjective to the stakeholder. In other words, someone else’s crisis is not necessarily yours. This does not mean that we cannot have empathy for someone, acknowledge their truth, or provide assistance. However, we must operate in our capacity and not escalate the situation by creating unrealistic response standards or working beyond our capacities to function. Remember that saying that we tirelessly use, “You cannot pour from an empty cup”? Honestly, we cannot, make sure that you work within healthy work boundaries to the best to your abilities. We must also recognize that we do not always have control of our work environments and never have control over our colleagues or others, but we do have control over ourselves.
- There is not enough time in the day to accomplish every single thing that we think we ought to. And, guess what? It’s going to be okay! There seems to be this unspoken rule that we must always be all things to all people. I am going to challenge this rule to say that we must do what we can with what we have. This does not mean to underperform or dim your light but rather focus on how you can be present and make meaning of what is happening. Being present is as important as taking other forms of action. Do not let others prescribe the value of your contributions. Despite participating in a capitalist society, you do not have to subscribe to the notion of toxic productivity.
- Find something outside of your institution or other responsibilities that brings you joy. As higher education professionals, we constantly find ourselves submerging our everyday life with “transformative”, “intentional” – “insert every buzzword” types of experiences that typically align with career aspirations or goals; then overall well-being and/or thriving skills are left to the wayside or provided limited to no time.What would happen if you considered what brings you joy? Or what your overall wellbeing needs to thrive rather than relying on the survival of the fittest mode or defining yourself and worth only in comparison with others?
- Not every activity, program, or event translates to the virtual platform. While we want to create similar experiences through the virtual world; we must admit that certain aspects will not show up, be digested, or enjoyed in the ways in which they were in-person. Being present and in physical space and community with others matters.Therefore, we must assess student needs and evaluate what is feasible and what must be adapted or removed to serve the best interest of all stakeholders. This does not mean we deprive students of basic needs but rather prioritize their needs by initially assessing what ways in which virtual experiences can be the most beneficial and then we need to work to adapt materials that do not fit within those boundaries.If we only shift the platform in which we provide instruction and not align with the circumstances and needs of our students; online learning will translate as a boundary rather than a support.
- A person is not irreplaceable, no matter the work ethic. Therefore, make sure to take your paid leave, sick days, and use any other benefits that you need to take care of yourself. Your staff, students, and/or other folx can handle you taking time to care for yourself. The alternative is you not using your time, continuing to invalidate your own personal boundaries, and ultimately increasing your likelihood of burnout.
- A hybrid learning and/or working model can be a beneficial system for some but it is not a one size fits all. We have to collect data on the experiences of students, staff, and faculty as they navigate operating virtually. In order for us to make more informed decisions on how to move forward, we must lean into our stakeholders’ experiences rather than rely on our desire to “return back to normal.” What was normal in the past was not healthy, so let’s build a better future together.
- Media (including social media) will always be a double-edged sword. Media serves as a way that many folx learn, create, and disseminate information, pictures, videos, news, etc. However, a large intake of these materials can have a significant impact on one’s self-efficacy, mental health, and self-esteem. Remember to step away when you need to and feed your brain and mind with positive images and consumption to create an overall balance.
- When having conversations about change, assess who is in the room and who is absent. Who is actually present to adequately address, manage, challenge, etc. the thoughts that come into the space? Is there a spectrum of stakeholders? Are we removing titles from the board and acting as a collective unit in a brave pace? Have we discussed what collaboration, cosponsorship, etc. means?
- Work equity must be discussed now more than ever. What does work equity mean in your division? Department? Staff? How has this changed due to COVID-19? Have you communicated with your supervisor or supervisees a comprehensive review of how equity issues and changes will look moving forward?
- Build your village of folx who are inside and outside of higher education. It is not in your best interest to only surround yourself with people in your profession. It easily places constraints on our capacity to pay attention to other things outside of our bubbles. In addition, we need people who will challenge, question, or provide additional insight to your thoughts, situations, and experiences that aren’t convoluted with Student Affairs lingo or politics.
Additionally, define what “friend”, “colleague”, and “associate” each means to you. Having friend expectations for someone who only considers you as a work colleague may lead to unnecessary tension or misunderstandings. Establishing boundaries and being mindful of work versus personal relationships is important to avoiding workplace drama.
Always remember that you cannot just take from your village, you must identify what you are able to contribute so that this web is interconnected and everyone can benefit in some way. Reach out to those who seem strong and who are always giving and check on them. Approach people not just when you need something, but when you have something to offer – including time to listen.
I have learned so many more lessons, but these ten points highlight an array of lessons that showed up for me or those around me during this Year of Rewirement. I encourage you to consider how these things show up for you and those you care about.
Rewiring doesn’t mean that we reactively respond to crisis but aligning our circumstances with what we need to be our best cared selves. When we prioritize our own well-being as the forefront of our existence, we are able to shift from self-preservation to self-liberation. Building a culture of wellness comes from rewiring the ways in which we value ourselves and that will translate into the ways we show up for others.
On the surface level, others may see us functioning and assume that we are superheroes or unbreakable. That is not true – of any of us; we bend, but we also break, and we are not superheroes. We are human beings that have chosen a profession where we lead with our hearts and hope to make a positive impact on the lives of others. In order for us to encourage students to take care of themselves, we must first take care of ourselves. Only then can we use our own stories to uplift the narrative of what it means to do good work. If we only highlight sacrifices, overexertion, and toxic productivity, then our contribution is to replicate the dangerous and unhealthy cycle of work first, others next, self never. I am scrapping the aspirational superhero status for an agent of change badge. Who’s with me?