Christina W. Yao, Ph.D.
University of South Carolina
Leslie Jo (LJ) Shelton, Ph.D.
University of Arkansas
The year 2020 started out the way new beginnings typically go, with the excitement of a new calendar year with resolutions and goals made. Who would have known that a few short months later that life would change dramatically? As two higher education and student affairs (HESA) faculty, we never expected that our professional and personal lives would be so affected and transformed in a single year. Collectively, the world has navigated a pandemic that became politicized in the United States, reckoned with race, racism, and anti-Blackness, and adjusted to changes to education and educational delivery. From a personal perspective, we lived within these multiple crises while also dealing with the unexpected loss of a dear friend and supporting other friends who lost family members to COVID-19. Simply stated in our best academic language: the year 2020 has been a mess.
We are fortunate to have each other’s support as we regularly converse about the various challenges we face as faculty, program coordinators, and just people trying to navigate this world. We met over 10 years ago when we were in the same cohort at Michigan State University and now are frequent research collaborators and friends who can talk openly about how life is affecting us. We started to reflect on this past year, especially in relation to our professional lives, and we realize that despite the many difficulties, there were many lessons learned throughout these several months. Everyone can agree there are some baseline things we all wish we knew at the start of 2020 — such as: do not wait until you are low on toilet paper to restock or go ahead and buy those dumbbells you have been wanting for a home gym. But what are other things we have learned that we should carry with us into 2021?
In this reflective essay, we provide some insights on how we navigated the many challenges of 2020 as HESA faculty and program coordinators. We also highlight several bright spots that helped us manage and cope with the continual uncertainty of this year. Much of our reflections are based on our professional lives; however, we acknowledge that the personal and professional often overlap and affect each other. To be clear, we in no way promote or support the concept of “work-life integration” as we believe very strongly in a healthy separation of the two, as a job should not be prioritized as highly as our personal lives. However, although we tried to separate our work from personal life realities, all of it permeated boundaries in this pandemic; thus, we provide some reflections about the year 2020 below that mix both the personal and professional.
Managing an Unprecedented Spring Semester
January 2020 started off with the usual excitement around setting new year resolutions and goals for the new semester ahead. Near the beginning of the semester, LJ attended ACPA which is one of her favorite times of the year amidst the news that COVID-19 was becoming a global threat. She was ready to “elbow bump” instead of shake hands and hug, as recommended by the ACPA planning team. Christina texted to see how that was going, as we all know that because ACPA is so full of love, it is hard to keep everyone at a distance! Unsure of how serious the COVID-19 situation was as it rapidly developed, LJ and other conference attendees also experienced the tornadoes in Nashville. The storms caused devastation, and thankfully ACPA colleagues were safe. It was not until the eerie airport trip home that it got “really real” and COVID-19 shut everything down across the nation within days.
Like so many others, we made a rapid pivot to remote learning while fielding student questions that we did not have answers for at that time. Amidst the broader uncertainty, there were quick teaching decisions that needed to be made, which resulted in some creativity and forcing our hand at deciding what was most essential in the remainder of each course. There was some pressure to stay on Zoom for the full three-hour class periods, but early on we realized that was not reasonable to ask of faculty or students. As we retrofitted our home workstations to navigate managing multiple technology aspects of working virtually, we also realized the visible reminder of work was ever-present in our living spaces. Although we adjusted to our new work-from-home situations, we naively continued to focus on the temporary nature of this remote work experience.
Our lessons included coming to the realization that not everything that happens in “normal” times needs to be reproduced virtually. Perhaps this was a time of taking a step back to refocus on what is most essential in our teaching and programs. We also recognized the challenges for our graduating students entering the job market. With so many unknowns in the field, including job search procedures and hiring freezes, we did not have the answers nor were our standard job search resources sufficient. However, we tried our best to listen and support our students as we thought through the next steps and consulted with each other.
As program coordinators, students often look to us for answers, and we realized that just like in class, not knowing an answer is okay. We drew inspiration from an article noting that while things are hard in higher education right now, students can be a part of a transformation. Ultimately, we appreciated the reminder from that article that “higher education is still going to be one of the best places to work and contribute your knowledge, skills and gifts… This is still a space of possibility.” (O’Meara, Renn, & Stewart, 2020, para. 4). With this reminder, we tried to maintain a positive outlook for all of our students.
- It is okay to set boundaries between work and personal life, including our physical spaces. Christina refused to get a desk (which she regrets some days) and LJ refused to allow everyone a glimpse into her home and instead opted to use Zoom backgrounds. There could be a lot of reasons colleagues and students do not thrive working at home, including the pressure to keep cameras on or to not use a virtual background. Flexibility and understanding go a long way in helping people show up in the ways that help them do their best.
- Much of the magic of college campuses revolves around celebrations. Teaching in face- to-face programs on large campuses means our students expect certain program milestones to mark their successes and progress. We felt that adapting certain traditions, such as graduation recognition, to an online environment was well worth it. Things were definitely different with many different emotions, but celebrations are an essential part of life.
- We both like to decompress by working out, and as gyms shut down and at-home workout supplies became hard to secure, we had to get creative and support one another in staying dedicated to our fitness pursuits. Christina tried some new virtual fitness classes and LJ ran a virtual half marathon. We also benefited from our community when our yoga crew came together for live virtual classes once a week where we could let our emotions out and enjoy some movement. Keep it moving, y’all! Our bodies will thank us, especially after sitting in front of computer screens all day.
Navigating Multiple Social Issues in the Summer
As the summer kicked in, we both looked for a respite from the hecticness of the spring semester. Naively, we thought the summer would bring an end to the pandemic and that things would go back to “normal.” What we found, however, was that things were normal to a certain extent– that Black lives were still being violently taken simply for jogging (Ahmaud Arbery), sleeping (Breonna Taylor), and buying cigarettes (George Floyd).
We have always believed that Black Lives Matter, but this summer’s racial reckoning was a reminder that we cannot be complacent in our actions and praxis. We realized that as faculty and program coordinators, we had to infuse anti-racist pedagogy and practice in our work because Black Lives Still Matter, especially in HESA programs. Individually, we each established or joined identity-based academic communities that centered on addressing racism and anti-Blackness in higher education. Although we have moved toward action, we recognize that it still takes time for us to fully engage and commit to anti-racist practices in all of our personal and professional work.
This summer also included the Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) issuing a decision on a group of cases regarding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Although SCOTUS ultimately provided a majority opinion ruling that resulted in maintaining the DACA program, undocumented and DACAmented students faced the uncertainty and fear of this program being abolished. We also strived to support current and future students who were concerned about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s sudden announcement of policies directly affecting international students in the United States in July. Overall, the summer had so many political and social justice issues that it really brought in a new level of exhaustion within a pandemic.
In our discussions, we shared that we felt a responsibility to address these topics in both our professional and personal lives, and yet because we were navigating the pandemic, we often felt at a loss at how to make real demonstrated change. Although we continue to address these issues in our work, we also must name our privilege of not being as directly affected by these social and political issues, and thus, we can and should continue to push for change. We also must recognize and thank the activists and community organizers who continue to fight for justice throughout this pandemic.
As if it was not enough that the world was on fire this summer, we also had to deal with some unexpected personal losses. We lost a dear classmate from our graduate program to pancreatic cancer in a very short amount of time, which was a devastating loss that we are still reeling from. We also had other mutual friends who lost family members to COVID-19, namely a mother, a brother, a grandmother, and a grandfather. To be honest, this summer was an emotionally draining time as continual loss and bad news were constant.
- As we continued to teach and program coordinate in the summer, one of the ways we reset and coped was listening to podcasts while getting some fresh air during solo, socially distant, and masked-up walks. One podcast we both found incredibly helpful was Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us, especially the episode titled, “Brené on Anxiety, Calm + Over/Under-Functioning” (Brown, 2020). We both listened and then chatted about the podcast, realizing that we each deal with our anxiety by overfunctioning. Overfunctioning, while sounding good at first, leads to inevitable burnout. Yet this was also the first time that LJ experienced underfunctioning, which brought in a whole other level of stress and anxiety. We both really felt this over the summer when we agreed that the stress of the spring semester had carried over.
- We must continually (re)commit to anti-racist education and practice. We realize the opportunities that we have as faculty and program coordinators to shape the direction of our teaching, research, and service/administration. We must continue to strive to support our trans*, Black, Indigenous, and Students of Color, including immigrant and international students, while simultaneously addressing how whiteness permeates our curriculum, teaching practices, and foundations of HESA.
- Loss is a natural part of life, yet it felt especially poignant this year. Perhaps it is due to feeling so many different types of loss this year, including the inability to participate in traditions such as graduation ceremonies or feeling the loss of interpersonal connections with coworkers. No matter what, we learned that loss will always be a part of our lives and that we must celebrate our loved ones when we can. We are both looking forward to being able to safely travel and see our loved ones again, and will not take for granted friend-cations, family holidays, and conference catch-ups.
- With everything feeling so heavy, we knew we would benefit from seeking joy in some light-hearted ways. Christina told LJ she was not allowed to adopt more dogs, so energies were channeled elsewhere. We joined a virtual ukulele band with some friends from graduate school and we are best known for our rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” We will not be going on tour any time soon, but the weekly virtual band practice gave us something to look forward to with our community while we tried a fun new skill. Also, we are both avid leisure readers, and were delighted to share some good tween novels to occupy our minds.
Making the Most of Fall Semester
Fall semester seemed like a fresh start to improve upon the unexpected remote teaching updates we made in recent months. There was also some anxiety and uncertainty around potentially being forced to be on campus for class or other work commitments. Fortunately, we were both able to be fully remote in our work. Although this was the safest option for us, it was still challenging at times to be so isolated at home. Both of us derive energy from interactions with our colleagues and students in the dynamic college campus environment, so we had to embrace our virtual connections.
This proved challenging with new cohorts of students, especially for those who moved across the country to start our programs because they did not benefit from the usual in-person connections and traditions our students experience. It was very strange to not connect with the new incoming cohort in our usual face-to-face format, but we tried our best to use creative methods to connect virtually through efforts like virtual program orientation and in-class activities facilitated through Zoom. For example, Christina organized a virtual orientation that allowed new students and current faculty to interact and start getting to know each other before classes started, and LJ included an advisor/advisee break out room session during virtual program orientation. Maximizing technology features also help create interactive classes throughout the semester with live polls, break out room projects, guest speakers, and weekly check-ins and icebreakers. We know several HESA programs are fully online all of the time, but both of our programs are usually face-to-face and on campus which was a big adjustment this semester. We were feeling drained after the spring and summer, but focusing on doing the best for our students kept us going as we thought of the fresh energy a new group of students brings to the program and campus.
The broader sociopolitical climate continued to be challenging and wear on us, especially as hateful rhetoric and acts from white supremacists continued to escalate in connection with the presidential election. We were on edge wondering what the outcome of the election would be, and what this would mean for us, our loved ones, and so many others with minoritized identities. The election results allowed a brief exhale, while we also stayed focused on the reality that there is still so much work to do around equity issues.
As critical qualitative researchers, we acknowledge that the broader climate impacts our work, and these events continued to inform all areas of our work. In our research, we both work with populations who are particularly impacted by some of the recent events regarding the pandemic and sociopolitical climate. We talked through putting some projects on hold, even ones with externally imposed deadlines due to grant funding, because asking participants to share their time and energy in this particular moment seemed irresponsible at best, and unethical at worst. This decision may be at odds with the demands of both of us being on the tenure track, but ultimately, our participants are most important to us.
Similarly, we had several conversations about seeing social sciences researchers, including in HESA, begin COVID-19-related studies right away in the pandemic. At first it felt…too soon and/or too fresh? But if hard science researchers research about this important moment in time, then it was also important for social scientists to have timely empirical data on COVID-19 and the impacts on our field.
Throughout fall semester, we also encountered many people we are thankful for in our professional community. ASHE was our first virtual conference, and we are so thankful for everyone in that organization who worked so hard to bring us that positive virtual experience. Although we missed being in person (with a big plate of beignets in NOLA!), we were reminded how wonderful our HESA community is and the virtual learning and connecting gave us extra energy heading into the last half of the semester. We are also very grateful that our on-campus student affairs partners were flexible in providing remote learning experiences for our students in graduate assistantship and internships. We were also thankful for the over 60 HESA program coordinators who attended an ACPA/NASPA zoom meeting to discuss program coordination challenges and ideas. It was rejuvenating to see our wonderful colleagues and to know that so many of us are eager to share ideas together as we keep doing our best for our students and programs.
- Fall semester meant rethinking courses for a full semester of primarily remote delivery. We embraced this as a chance to really focus on what is most important in each course in terms of HESA-specific learning outcomes, as well as “life outcomes” for students who deserved a humanizing experience where flexibility and rigor were not at odds, but mutually beneficial and achievable.
- Virtual conferences are excellent opportunities to attend a lot of sessions and watch presentations on demand post-conference, but we both learned the hard way that we need to block our calendars the same as if we were at the conference in person. Holding classes and meetings as usual while trying to attend the conference live was a lot to manage and often felt like we were not doing either to the fullest. Our strategy of blocking our calendars is now on the radar for our spring virtual conferences.
- In the shift from summer to fall semester, we wanted to continue supporting each other in making time to do things we enjoy outside of work. We both benefited from the soothing experience of watching the new season of the Great British Baking Show, taking online cooking classes, and diving into fun data from a new running watch.
Moving Onward: Welcome 2021!
We realize that the much lauded goal for 2021 is for everything to return to “normal.” To a certain extent, that sounds like an amazing possibility, yet we know that “normal” is unlikely to happen. More importantly, there is the question of if we want to get back to normal and if we should go back to what used to be considered normal. No matter what 2021 brings, we have all learned many lessons this year that will help us build something better in future rather than striving to return to a normal that was not the best experience for everyone.
This virtual life we live right now will likely continue through much of 2021. In fact, we believe that virtual living will become more prevalent in the future. For example, do we shift to completely virtual HESA program visit days and interviews to save on cost for both the institution and the candidates? Do we infuse virtual options for national/international conferences as a way to increase accessibility to participants? Has our work become less dependent on an office in ways that now allow for flexibility for increased virtual commuting? Overall, things will neither stay the same nor return to “the old normal” in 2021 and beyond, and as educators, we must be able to pivot to meet the demands of our continually changing world.
Overall, we have all experienced some things this year that many of us have never experienced, and never thought we would. Here are a few highlights of what we learned in 2020 and some pieces of advice we wish we could have given ourselves at the start of this year:
- Be gentle with yourself and others.
- Be careful of overfunctioning and recognize the dangers of it.
- Calm down about teaching because we are all doing the best we can. Focus on the most critical elements of the class.
- Everyone is dealing with something, and we need to remember this and carry it forward into the future.
- Higher education has a reputation for changing at a glacial pace, but this year has proven we can be very quick to adapt. Moving forward, we need to continue to be change agents for improving higher education and student affairs more expeditiously.
As we have said over and over, the year 2020 was a difficult and strange one. Yet there were many moments of self-reflection and learning, which we are confident will carry us through to 2021.
Questions for HESA faculty to consider are:
- What brings you joy in this moment?
- How can you meaningfully connect with your communities (personal and professional)?
- What are things you wish you had known at the start of the pandemic, what have you learned, and how will you carry these lessons forward into 2021?
Brown, B. (Executive Producer). (2020). Unlocking us. Spotify Originals. https://brenebrown.com/unlockingus/
O’Meara, K., Renn, K., Stewart, D-L. (June 4, 2020). Still a space of possibility. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/06/04/despite-all-current-challenges-higher-ed-remains-good-place-work-opinion#.XtmbWABXkeo.twitter
Christina W. Yao, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Program Coordinator for the Higher Education and Student Affairs Master’s program at the University of South Carolina. She is a qualitative researcher who primarily studies student engagement and learning in higher education. She operationalizes her research focus through three connected topical areas, including: international student mobility, scholar-practitioner preparation, and transnational education. Over the course of the pandemic, she has perfected the art of homemade biscuits and kept four plants alive with her brown thumb.
Leslie Jo (LJ) Shelton, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Program Coordinator for the Higher Education Master’s program at the University of Arkansas. She is a qualitative researcher who primarily studies college student learning and development. Her main research areas focus on how HESA educators can better serve students with minoritized social identities, as well as exploring the student experiences and learning outcomes of HESA graduate preparation programs. During the pandemic, LJ became a WNBA fan and loyally sported her Sue Bird jersey on game days, and she also bumbled her way through several virtual races and enjoyed making a mess with a new watercolor set.