written by: Jason Laker, Ph.D.
To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing. – Raymond Williams
As educators, we know this time of year comes with great intensity. As our K-12 colleagues prepare classroom decorations, advising schedules, parent and family nights, and so forth, Student Affairs practitioners are opening residence halls, running orientation and welcome events, wrapping up staff training, and launching other start of year activities and events. Of course, for the last few years many of these activities and events have been held virtually, either live or asynchronously—often based on regional politics rather than determined by scientifically-based risk assessments.
The 2022-23 academic year will be my 30th working in higher education, the first 19 of which were in Student Affairs administration starting as a very optimistic and driven 22-year old residence hall director in 1992 and ending in my second CSAO position as a somewhat jaded, tired, but still hopeful 41-year old vice president for student affairs in 2011 when I transitioned to my current role as a professor in a graduate preparation program at that same institution. I’ve worked at six quite different universities in the U.S. and Canada, varying in size, mission, and classification (e.g., regional, public, private, religious, research, land grant, etc.). This eclectic professional history along with my graduate training in mental health counseling and a Ph.D. in the study of Higher Education lulled me into thinking I had things figured out and could move forward wisely and comfortably. I believed I was well past being naïve about education and life more generally, which now seems both foolish and charming to me, but I’ll get into all that shortly.
My faculty colleagues elected me to serve as department chair for the second time this Fall, 10 years after my prior election to the post. Our department is quite large, enrolling nearly 200 graduate students studying to become either K-12 school counselors or to work in higher education as advisors, counselors, or other student services practitioners. While serving as an academic department chair is obviously an administrative leadership role, it nonetheless makes me feel even more distance from my professional roots in Student Affairs as if it were in another life altogether even though my own graduate students are preparing to work in the field or already do so.
For most of my career so far, working in education has reminded me of the film, Groundhog Day. For those who haven’t seen it, the protagonist played by Bill Murray finds himself in a seemingly endless loop in which he keeps waking up on the same day. He remembers what happened and how he responded to people and situations on the same day the last time, and in his efforts to find a way to break the cycle and move on to the next day, tries to do things a bit more effectively each time. Eventually he seems to master the lessons that were repeatedly presented to him, evidenced by waking up and finding that it is finally the next day. He also seems to now understand that the seemingly tedious repetition fostered patience, curiosity, and wisdom that will guide how he navigates the days ahead.
Likewise, we in education seem to do much the same thing every year while hopefully learning to do it better with each successive iteration, or at least it used to feel that way to me. After all, I would argue that Student Affairs is a persistently optimistic field, populated by colleagues who are given to faith in the future, evidenced by our investments in development. We espouse with certainty that students’ identities, learning, and success can advance; that groups and communities can be accessible, diverse, and cohesive; and we enact that belief by applying our knowledge, skills, and commitments to enable or accelerate them.
COVID and Mental Health
With that said, let’s be frank about the situation in which we find ourselves. The last several years have felt like a bizarro version of Groundhog Day in which each year is darker and more precarious than the last. When talking about how we are feeling and how life came to this, conversations typically focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and its lingering and still unfolding consequences, which is understandable. After all, it is an all-pervading event that affects most if not all people around the world. However, while there are some difficulties that are specifically connected to the pandemic such as the rush to develop and provide access to vaccines, it would be more accurate to say that many social problems were made worse rather than starting during this period. For example, a recent report on the state of mental health in America (Reinert et al., 2021) reported several distressing findings about how people in the U.S. are faring during this precarious time:
- Suicidal thoughts among adults have increased annually for the past 10 years, to 4.5%.
- Nearly 50 million (19.86%) adults in the U.S. experienced a mental illness in 2019—before the pandemic began, of which nearly a quarter of those with mental illnesses had unmet treatment needs.
- Over 15% of youth experienced a major depressive episode in the prior year.
- Over 2.5 million (10.6% of the youth population) have severe and major depression, with the highest rates experienced by youth identifying with more than one race.
- Over 60% of youth experiencing severe depression go without any mental health treatment.
A national survey of Canadian Student Affairs leaders at nearly 70 campuses across Canada (Rashid & Di Genova, 2022) found similar trends affecting students at their institutions. Over the 18 months between the start of the pandemic in March 2020 through August of 2021, 90% of respondents indicated their students were experiencing pandemic fatigue, defined as “feeling tired of following public health directives (e.g., social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands),” (p. 1). These findings were significantly associated with such burdens as social isolation, increased academic loads, financial stress, and anxiety. How many of us are experiencing some form of compassion fatigue and/or secondary trauma while managing our own stressors and health risks or challenges while trying to show up and be present—whether virtually or in-person—with and for students?
Social problems are interconnected, as are the cascading impacts on them by the pandemic, so here again it is understandable that we rhetorically center the latter in conversation. After all, we were precipitously forced to transition to virtual environments regardless of whether we and/or our students were comfortable or skilled in such modalities; and/or have access to high-speed internet connections and the typically expensive devices to utilize them. Socioeconomic stratification has always impacted education in both obvious and invisible ways, from access, to retention, to academic performance, among other aspects.
Per my point about the relationship between issues and events, it is upsetting yet unsurprising that food insecurity has escalated since the beginning of the pandemic. Dennon (2021) notes that the percentage of college students contending with food insecurity and its associated shame and stigma—which was already higher among college students than the general population before the pandemic—has nearly doubled in some states since 2020. This comes in part due to closures that included loss of access to food pantries and meal services. Dennon (2021) further explains that “food insecurity among college students relates to financial need, which intersects with minority status. As such, Black and brown students are significantly more likely to experience food insecurity than white students,” (para. 11) and dropout rates are even steeper for these students. Pursuing employment that provides a livable wage becomes that much more difficult without a degree, and in many cases with required student loan repayment. These related struggles were immense before the pandemic, and now they are even more so.
Phrases such as “in COVID times” have bracketed our discourse about any number of issues, as has the aspirational notion of living “in a post-COVID world” been bandied about from the start. We pepper this turn with idioms such as “Zoom fatigue” or “you’re muted” and often deliberate about when it might be safe to return to in-person while political interests overtake scientific expertise in making such determinations. That isn’t new either, but as with other things it seems to have gotten worse. However, the rhetorical lens of the pandemic obscures the fact that we have been experiencing collective trauma for a much longer time than we’re discussing. In short, our trauma has been happening for much longer than the past two years and it’s not just a result of the pandemic.
Articles such as this, whether published in Developments or elsewhere in venues associated with our field typically turn toward positive, affirming, and motivational tones and topics sooner than I’m doing here. I certainly prefer that myself and realize with great clarity (as I’m sure you do as well) how dwelling on painful experiences can and often does make them worse at a time when we need and eagerly seek ways to turn the corner toward better days. Be assured that this article will shift in that direction toward the end, but I hope you will agree that the way a problem is framed in conversation and planning efforts has significant impacts on whether and when solutions can be identified and pursued successfully. In my view we must have the criticality and integrity—and in this case I would add, the courage—to accurately name and describe what is happening within a broader historical context. I believe much of our conversation has not done this, primarily situating things in terms of the ongoing pandemic. We must not minimize the countless deaths and debilitating effects of COVID, but its onset, development, and magnitude are nested in a broader context that is worthy of examination if we are to avoid or at least mitigate the next one.
So, let me preface this discussion of trauma by clarifying that I am not writing from a partisan viewpoint. One can have a reasonable position and thoughtful debate on such topics as whether or how to impose regulations on markets, the environment, defense budgets, etc. What we experienced in the years leading up to this pandemic and what impacted the rest of the world in various ways was something different. We saw, felt, and experienced—with varying levels of impact depending on who or where we were—what happens when someone with the basest and most cynical urges has unparalleled authority and influence over so many people.
Six years ago, in 2016, American voters elected a person who has always been a malignant narcissist, essentially a walking Id who—along with his appointed, elected, and associated ilk, including many who should or did know better—indulged his fetish for bigotry and subjugation and amplified it with the powers of his office. He and they systematically terrorized the already marginalized and oppressed communities of which so many of us and our students are a part.
As the pandemic unfolded, the former U.S. President made it worse by responding to it—and everything else for that matter—in terms of political advantage and retribution. Rather than stewardship associated with his powerful position, he chose to weaponize withhold the distribution of public health information, intervention, and resources. Of course, some supported this approach because of a notion that the U.S. should not be a multicultural democracy and that it was at risk of becoming one unless an aggressive countering effort was made, and here we are.
I am an educational and social scientist. As I ascended the much more intimate organizational charts of single institutions as an administrator and executive, I contended with the tension between my belief that all hierarchies are violent alongside the fact that I became well-placed within them. I landed at what may be a rationalization but was arguably prescient: Better me than some ***hole.
I retained a critical and introspective lens while continuously espousing and seeking to enact humanistic values of equity and social justice in exercising the authority associated with my administrative and academic positions. I see leadership as more an art than a science, and the work of leadership is certainly complicated. While my trust in institutions of all types has further declined over the past 10 years, I do still believe that they can do incredible things with and for people if good and skilled people occupy leadership positions and prioritize values over careerist interests. Don’t get me wrong… ambition is a fine thing, just not the most important thing in my work. I have seen honorable people in leadership roles, and I’ve seen the alternative within and beyond higher education institutions. There is a clear and often massive difference between good, bad, excellent, or horrible leaders in terms of the impact on those in their sphere of influence and authority. Simply put, leaders who are compassionate, knowledgeable, reflective, and multiculturally skilled exercise their authority over resources and people in ways that have much better outcomes than those who do not possess those qualities.
Context, Identity, and Decisions
Again, looking beyond collegiate contexts, page eight of the aforementioned report on U.S. mental health (Reinert, et. al, 2021) has an interesting infographic ranking the nexus between prevalence of mental illness and rates of access to care. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Vermont occupy the top five rankings, meaning they have the lowest rates of mental illness and highest rates of access to care. Alaska, Wyoming, Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada are ranked 47th to 51st respectively (the District of Columbia, which ranks 16th, is included along with the 50 U.S. States). One doesn’t need to be a political scientist to see a relationship between these rankings and the people legislating and allocating resources. There is a connection between where funding goes and how legislators talk about their constituents. Institutions big and small have a similar dynamic. Colleagues reading this from different locations across and beyond the U.S. can see how their context and those running things there make a difference in policies and resource allocation.
The coded and overt bigotry in the former President’s words found a nexus and amplification through remarks about Mexico and Mexicans (and by extension, Latinx people in general and anyone mistaken to be one), with anti-Asian racist assertions about the pandemic’s origins, referencing particular nations as “shithole countries” when prioritizing international aid, Islamophobic and antisemitic remarks and actions, and exponential increases in anti-Black racism and violence, among many other injustices. Many unarmed Black people were hurt or killed by police and by civilians, cheered on with rationalizations and marches by hordes of White Supremacist organization members who often did so without feeling any need to conceal their identities, referred to as “very fine people” by the former President.
As a Jewish person and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and as a person of conscience, I was increasingly anxious, upset, and angry for an extended period of time while feeling even more constrained in looking for ways to confront and change what was happening. Even before all this, the racist backlash in response to former President Obama’s election in 2009 continued well after he completed his second term in 2017. His successor amplified and leveraged that backlash, constantly adding Obama’s middle name, Hussein, when referring to him, questioning his birth certificate, and suggesting he was secretly a Muslim agent at every opportunity.
In short, our collective and multifaceted trauma has been activated and escalating for over a decade at this point, with the last few years in particular arguably being the worst of it so far. The pandemic—with the necessity and mandate to wear masks and keep a distance from each other—increased the already precarious hesitations to be in community with others. This separation and isolation was exploited by many political leaders since our distance from one another made it even easier to assert that certain others were coming to get “their people.”
Connections in the Eye of the Storm
At same time, the last couple of years in particular—as painful and ruinous as they have been with various levels of intensity depending on people’s geography and social identities—have also called important existential questions and revealed new forms of solidarity and resilience. Even as social bonds and fabrics frayed and unraveled, for some it has tightened solidarity, political organizing, activism, and revealed hidden capabilities and possibilities. For example, many people’s “bottom lines” were tested and recast, causing some to change jobs or professions, including within and from the student affairs field.
I mentioned earlier that my trust in institutions has further declined over the past decade. This has been influenced not only by witnessing national and international events, but also by some of the failures I saw in a variety of institutions across civil society, including those that at the one I work in currently. Rather than elaborating on the particulars of this or other institutions, I want to propose another analogy.
Readers who have been working with college students for 15 years or more will recall the emergence of research articles and discussions about how institutions have increasingly claimed interest in spirituality while simultaneously moving away from organized religion. For instance, Sharon Daloz Parks’ (2000) engaging book, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith discussed this distinction, noting
Faith is often linked exclusively to belief, particularly religious belief. But faith goes far beyond religious belief, narrowly understood. Faith is more adequately recognized as the activity of seeking and discovering meaning in the most comprehensive dimensions of our experience — that is, faith is as much a verb as a noun…to be human is to dwell in an ongoing process of meaning-making, to dwell in the sense one makes out of the whole of life—what is perceived as ultimately true and trustworthy about self, world, and cosmos… (p. 9-10).
This analogy resonates with me in terms of how I’ve progressively viewed education and its institutions. As I begin my 30th year in the academy, I find that my belief in “small e” education (referring to our vocation and its practice) and its possibilities has grown even stronger than the already substantial prospects I saw when I started my career in 1992 even as I have become increasingly cynical and suspicious of the contextual “big E,” our educational institutions. My interest in returning to administration has been shaken by witnessing and/or directly experiencing corruption and other failures by several administrative and executive leaders. Further, I have questions about so-called work-life balance raised by working virtually from home in sweat shorts and t-shirts and seeing my spouse and children far more often while doing so.
There is no question that privilege has played a big part in this process. For instance, beyond what could be said about my particular social identities, working as a faculty member affords more flexibility than that of my colleagues in administrative and staff positions. My location in California is privileged, as well. I am not living in one of the states where elected leaders barely conceal their disdain for workers interested in reasonable wages, a safe working environment, a sustainable roof over their heads, or an enjoyable life more generally. With that said, agency is not a zero-sum game. Regardless of who or where one is while reading this, we each have some agency. I have often used the phrases, “exceptional spaces” and “pockets of justice” to describe the physical and metaphorical spaces where we can create and have gracious community with others in defiance of the coldness and chaos beyond. We can create that in the intimacy of an office or department, or through our presence and attention. We are—in ourselves—the instrument of practice.
I am currently 52 years old. During the past six years or so I have found myself stunned by the intensity of national and world events, and at times have felt that the wisdom and skills I have developed and relied upon successfully over my lifetime and career are of little use in navigating or intervening to change the direction of things. I have worried quite a lot about youth—including my own children who are now young adults—and young colleagues in early days of their careers. I am troubled by the thought that they are facing insurmountable threats and challenges to the prospect of a good, healthy, and affordable life. This has generated a lot of anxiety and periods of frustration, fear, and sadness. My gregarious personality has often been shuttered and I’ve stayed at home more than any other time in my life.
Here I can finally turn to the positivity I promised earlier. My optimism has been slowly rekindled by witnessing resilience in people and communities. Undoubtedly, resilience should be understood as a reaction to injustice rather than simply a personal quality in itself without that important context. I have paid more attention to the mundane forms of kindness: opening doors for people, waving other drivers to go first through an intersection, light banter in a checkout line, the smiles evident in eyes of people above their N95 masks, and the obliviously unbothered happiness of babies, toddlers, and pets. I am inspired by my students both in groups and classes and within the intimacy of one-on-one conversations in video calls and in person.
Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of interacting with early-career colleagues in various professional settings online and increasingly in person. The majority of ACPA members are in their first several years of professional work in our field, and I have been so heartened by the creativity, kindness, and social justice activism displayed by this generation of professionals, my students included. My research involves interviewing current college students and more recently those in peer educator roles. Here again, I’m astonished by the thoughtfulness and determination I’ve been seeing in them as they share their views and experiences with me and my colleagues. My own institution is in the Bay Area of California, one of the most diverse places in the U.S. The students in my classes preparing to be school and college counselors and advisors are incredibly kind and community-oriented and committed to supporting people even as—and often motivated by the fact that—so many of them did not receive such support on their own educational journey. When I conduct site visits to schools and colleges in my fieldwork course, many of my current students’ supervisors are graduates of our program as well, and the generativity and commitments to pay it forward are on clear display.
Considering the strains (or worse) that each of us and/or others have endured along with the little and larger gracious acts of people who reject the cynicism and cruelty of way too many elected and appointed leaders, I am reminded of a saying credited to Adrienne Maree Brown and the inspiration for the title of this essay: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
We—each of us—are the instruments of practice. If history can be our guide, we can remember that the pendulum can and likely will swing the other way if we can put our faith in that possibility into action. We can individually and collectively create exceptional spaces and pockets of justice that provide grace, healing, and alternatives to isolation, mistrust, and injustice while working together to support the good and interfere with the bad. Perhaps my realization will resonate with you: I am actually not naïve; I’m just tired.
The last however many years (depending on how you conceptualize events) have caused my exhaustion in partnership with beliefs and practices I had been uncritically keeping that no longer serve me. How many times do we hear that we must first take care of ourselves before we can do that for other people, and how often have we misunderstood this as a call to indulgence and selfishness rather than as acts of clearing and growth? I invite you to reflect on the affordances of this incredibly difficult period. What have you taken on or continued to carry during this time that wasn’t yours in the first place or that no longer serves you? Perhaps the first exceptional space and pocket of justice that arrives for us will be our own, enabling us to invite others into that gracious space where we can do our best thinking and strategizing together to enact justice in both small and massive ways.
Daloz Parks, S. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Dennon, A. (2021, November 10). COVID-19 worsens food insecurity among college students. Best Colleges. https://www.bestcolleges.com/blog/food-insecurity-college-students/
Rashid, T. & Di Genova, L. (2022). Campus mental health across Canada in 2020-21: The ongoing impact of COVID-19. Perspectives from campus mental health professionals and student affairs leaders. Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). The Canadian Association of Colleges and University Student Services (CACUSS): Toronto, Ontario & Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC). http://cacuss-campusmentalhealth.ca
Reinert, M, Fritze, D. & Nguyen, T. (October 2021). The State of Mental Health in America 2022. Mental Health America, Alexandria VA.
About the Author
Dr. Jason Laker currently serves as Professor of Higher Education, Student Affairs, and Community Development and Chair of the Department of Counselor Education at San José State University (SJSU) in California, USA, where he previously served as Vice President for Student Affairs. Prior to SJSU, Jason served as AVP/Dean of Student Affairs and Faculty of Gender Studies at Queen’s University (Canada), and before that as Dean of Campus Life and faculty of Gender Studies at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, one of the few men’s colleges in the U.S. His current research focuses on sexual consent communication, negotiation, and agency among college students.