Morgan State University
They say a story told is a life lived. Lately, we find ourselves reading or watching stories that inspire us or a work of fiction that transports us to a place of tranquility. These help us escape our indefinite sentences in four-wall prisons, to which we have been confined by the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19.
As a Graduate Assistant, my typical day involves Google Hangout and Zoom meetings with my supervisor and teammates, occasionally with the Provost and even the President. We discuss ways to support the institution and successfully end spring 2020 as we abruptly transitioned from traditional classes to online classes. We collect feedback from faculty, staff, and students to improve remote instruction delivery. We organize resources, such as loaner laptops and procuring online tools and remote IT support. We discuss budget reduction plans to ensure job security. We prepare for summer term, which equates to preparing for the unknown.
At some point during the day, I switch from a Graduate Assistant to a PhD candidate. I research the literature on my area of interest. I write and rewrite, developing my dissertation proposal. After using multiple shades of highlighter attempting to synthesize rather than summarize scholars’ myriad worldviews on a specific topic, I smile at my rainbow of literature and I look for a story on Netflix. And then as I am scrolling through the list of top rated movies/series in the U.S. on one night, I realize that I, too, have a story to tell.
While I share many similarities with American graduate students and challenges with my fellow international students (homesickness, cultural differences, and financial challenges), I also possess a unique perspective on what it means to “hunker down”. I consider this article a reflective comparison of my experiences as a Liberian girl during the prolonged periods of the Liberian Civil war, the Ebola Outbreak, and COVID-19. My identity in many ways has prepared me for surviving these times of social distancing, uncertainty, deprivation and a cultural shift to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic.
I hope my story provides an opportunity to see the world through a new lens and reminds student affairs professionals of the importance of understanding the diverse background of the U.S. student body. Although this is not a historical synthesis of the Liberian Civil war, I periodically refer to major players and give a brief historical overview to enlighten readers and acknowledge the relationship between Liberia and the U.S.
Liberia, a West African State, was founded in 1822 by the American Colonization Society to repatriate freed slaves to solve the “negro problem” (Mower, 1947; Hahn, 2014; Guannu, 1983). Liberia was modeled after the U.S. in policies, governance, and culture. The Liberian flag was tailored after the American flag with its red and white stripes, a blue rectangle and in our case, a lone star (Huberich, 1947).
Liberia gained her independence on July 26, 1847. Most Liberian presidents were of American descents, known as Americo-Liberians or the “Congo” people. Following years of leadership by this group, Liberia’s first president of tribal descent, Samuel K. Doe, staged a coup d’état in 1980 and became de facto head of state (Tolbert, 1996; Hahn, 2014). That’s when it all began.
One of the most chilling stories for my family was during the 1980 coup. My grandmother served as the sacristan of the Episcopal Cathedral (taking care of sacred vessels, vestments, the altar, etc.) and lived in a little house in the back. My mother recounts that one day, soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) visited the church and demanded information on whereabouts of the “big people”. The watchman, under pressure, informed them that my grandmother might know.
The soldiers arrived at my grandmother’s and literally dragged her out. She was taken into the middle of the street, wearing her night gown, on her knees at gunpoint. Onlookers shouted from their windows, “Don’t kill the woman.” And all she said was,” I work here, but I don’t know where anybody lives. I’m just a simple woman.” After several failed attempts to get her to divulge, with the protection of her guardian angels, one of the soldiers gave in and said, “Let’s send the old ma back home.” Following this traumatic episode, she would have nightmares for years, but her loyalty and bravery prevailed.
While this incident might seem disconnected from the current COVID-19 situation, there are similarities. On both battlefields the elderly are vulnerable and no one is immune. Communities have rallied around those who are most at risk. In some cases people have been spared, but in all cases we are living in trauma. This is but one example of the similarities between my life then and my life now.
Later during the 1990 war, we lived with the soldiers. We adhered to curfew and restricted movement – something we can all relate to today with COVID- 19. An innocent child then, I did not understand the true ugliness of the war, or the thousands of lives it had claimed. It won’t be until later that we fully understand how children today understand the current era of COVID-19. Similarly, we won’t understand its impact on college students, higher education, or our larger national and global societies.
By the time I turned five, my little ears had become accustomed to shots raining down. I was not playing in the yard. I was hunkering down, just as the coronavirus has mandates us to today, but under different circumstances. That experience, however, prepared me for today. I would not wish it on anyone but there are lessons learned. For example, between matriculation and graduation, the student experience entails more than academics. It includes developing social networking skills and preparation for the real world, which in my experience and the realities of today, equate to volatility. The important lesson being to promote student engagement with others to increase their knowledge of real world issues and their ability to adapt and problem-solve.
After the 1990 war ended, there was the aftermath of the war, loss of lives, properties, infrastructure, economic impact, and trauma. Our “normal days” were over. Lives had changed forever. This is inevitably an outcome of COVID-19. The world will change. We don’t know exactly how, but many meetings, pedagogy, and student organization activities may be virtualized for the long-term.
On Saturday, April 6, 1996, news broke of street fighting among Charles Taylor and other rebel groups. My family lived in the heart of the city – a hotspot in the conflict. Being proactive, my family relocated the kids to relatives in the suburbs. Our only option was to carry what we could and walk – staying on the main roads and using shortcuts through the bushes to bypass the soldiers and checkpoints other times.
Our guardians were nice people, but they were not my mother – whom I missed. Just as today families are unable to gather or visit older relatives in retirement communities, I had received early training in family separation. My mother did not know what would happen next, but keeping her children safe meant sending them away.
Another similarity between my childhood and the COVID-19 context is the gravitation to music, arts, and new communities for cheer and positivity. Today we see artists sharing their work or hosting concerts online. In Liberia we had playmates and neighbors who hosted Bible study, vigils and Sunday services, which kept us upbeat with songs and praises.
We maintained our daily routines and longed for the day when we would return home and see our friends and family again. We had to continue to live, do chores and seek joy to survive. And we waited. Just as we’re waiting for COVID-19 to give us that green light today to return to normal, and reestablish old routines.
A New Isolation
After what seemed like an eternity, the war ended and we returned home. I moved in with my grandmother to attend high school. I sang in the church’s youth choir, taught Sunday School, and made life-long friends. Life was beautiful. But not for long.
There was another war in 1999, which intensified in 2003, when a rebel group, Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) challenged the Taylor-led government (Hahn, 2014). My grandmother moved us into the church’s basement for safety. Living locked down in a dark and cold hallway for an indefinite time, I felt imprisoned and scared.
I was also antsy about not knowing when it would end. I am reminded of those feelings today with the stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While times today are difficult, I am grateful to sleep in my bed, have access to food, and the liberty to take a walk and get fresh air. Imagine staying in a basement without electricity, technology or an actual bathroom. That experience makes today much more tolerable.
Today we each seek ways to create moments of joy and peace. It might be a Zoom meeting with friends, writing letters to loved ones, reading, Netflix, or other distraction. For me in Liberia at that time, I looked forward to the occasional phone calls from friends and listening to music.
Perhaps the scariest day for my family in 2003, was July 26th, Independence Day. There were at least 26 rounds of bombings on the city. When things subsided, family members left to attend to hygiene issues and check out the fruit trees. My mother was the last to return. Just as she locked the iron gate into the basement, there was a thunderous explosion with particles landing on and penetrating the cement steps she had stood on only seconds before. She stood frozen and speechless. Nobody spoke; everyone contemplating what could have happened.
Today I wonder how this might relate to COVID-19. I wonder as we “flatten the curve” or fail to do that how we might be struck silent. As we look around at who is affected and at the losses felt, how close might the event affect each of us? How might we look back and contemplate “what could have happened” in our pandemic experiences?
Educational Impact, Part I
Eventually came freedom. I was a junior in high school then, and since we had missed the second semester of the school year, mechanisms were implemented to evaluate us based on our first semester performance, so we’d stay on track for senior year and graduation. Today I find myself in this same situation.
During the 2014 Ebola Outbreak in the regions of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, I was a manager at a telecommunications company. In that role, I was an “essential employee”. For safety we set up buckets filled with bleach water at the entrance of the building, where customers and employees would wash their hands. Both groups limiting interaction- everyone suspicious of the other.
We practiced what is now termed social distancing. We adjusted work stations and discouraged walk-ins. Customer inquiries were managed primarily through the call center and IT help desk. We consistently disinfected shared surfaces and restrooms. These changes evident today in managing COVID-19.
With Liberia’s deplorable health care system, there were limited ambulances. little personal protective equipment (PPE), and an abundance of poor management of the virus. The situation was horrendous. The media reported high death tolls and people were frightened. All of these instances are characteristic of COVID-19 today. Even in the United States which has tremendous wealth, there is a lack of PPE not only for the public, but for healthcare professionals and other frontline essential employees. Even with some of the best and brightest medical professionals, the number of deaths is horrific. The fear palpable. This is all familiar to me.
Back then, my cousin started to exhibit symptoms synonymous with Ebola: vomiting, high fever, chills, sweats. Much like the situation of COVID-19, every symptom was perceived as the virus. But my mother is a caregiver by nature. Because malaria is very prevalent back home, she diagnosed and treated him promptly. He recovered in days. Just as I didn’t know if my cousin had Ebola or something else, today we look with suspicion on every cough/sneeze, assuming the worst and that any illness is COVID-19 related.
Educational Impact, Part II
Finally, I faced another dilemma during the 2014 outbreak. I had deferred my Ph.D. enrollment to spring 2015 for financial reasons. Then as now I wondered, “When will this end?” With discussions about travel restrictions, I needed to decide fast. Already possessing a U.S. visitor’s visa, my mother and I decided it was best for me to begin my program. I arrived in the U.S., psychologically unprepared, my heart in Liberia, and my sponsor company facing economic crisis. Then as now, my educational future was unclear and the economic situation at home was uncertain and unpredictable. Adjusting to student status and securing funding took about two years. In a humanitarian response to the Ebola Outbreak, the U.S. government offered Liberians a Temporary Protected Status, which meant staying in the US for a specified period – essentially, locked down. Once again I found myself restricted and confined.
And then I lost my grandmother – the matriarch of my family.
I could not return home for her funeral, because of the unpredictability of reentering the U.S. to continue my studies. Just as so many people are navigating funerals and death rituals for loved ones today, I had to decide how to deal with the passing of the woman who had given me so much and whom I loved. Gathering with family to mourn and celebrate her life was not a possibility. So, I bid her farewell in spirit.
Implications for Student Affairs
As I continue to telework and develop my dissertation during these precarious times of COVID-19, I encourage student affairs professionals to seek to build relationships to understand the background of students, which help to better serve them. I think today reinforces some guiding principles of student affairs, which focus on students as the primary purpose of its work and recognizing the role of the environment in a student’s collegiate experience (Evans & Reason, 2001).
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, students find themselves navigating unknown territories. Therefore, communication is critical in identifying their needs, which informs decision making, including leaving residence halls open to homeless students or providing help through the university counseling and health center hotlines. Student affairs practices are “challenging, complex, and sophisticated” (Schuh, Jones, & Torres, 2017, p. xxvi).
While I face many challenges that domestic students may not have to navigate, I also bring a background that has given me unique tools. It is important to recognize the experiences and tools students may possess that we may not. This is not easy for me – or for any of us. A pandemic can be isolating and causes massive fear.
But by getting to know one another and building those relationships, these can also be times of hope. Students have commendable strength and persistence. They can overcome tremendous challenges. Mine is but one story in the thousands of students on our college campuses. Every student has a story. My hope is that my story has empowered and inspired you to build those relationships and listen to those stories to best serve diverse students in higher education.
Angel Wazin is a PhD candidate in the Higher Education Administration Program at Morgan State University. She works as a graduate assistant and support staff in the Office for Academic Affairs. Her research interest is in the areas of social justice, race, and gender. Contact her at [email protected].
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Guannu, J.S. (1983). Liberian history up to 1847. Smithtown New York: Exposition Press
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Mower, J. H. (1947). The Republic of Liberia. The Journal of Negro History, 32(3), 265-306.
Schuh, J. H., Jones, S.R., Torres, V. & Associates (2017). Student Services: A handbook for the professions (6th Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey- Bass
Tolbert, V.A.D (1996), Lifted Up: The Victoria Tolbert Story, Minneapolis: Macalester Park Publishing Company.