Margaret Reitz, PhD
Associate Director in Residence Life, SUNY Geneseo
We all know that connecting in a coronavirus world is different: connecting feels different, connections happen differently, but we also know, intuitively, that connecting in our current pandemic context is not as effective. A number of studies and perspectives have been published in the past seven months documenting the impact of social and/or physical isolation on us due to the outbreak of coronavirus (e.g., Saltzman, et al., 2020). I have heard many personal accounts from friends, students, and colleagues who feel more connected with their circles than ever before thanks to technology, but they also feel less seen and heard. A colleague of mine discussed the specific impact of alienation, rather than focusing on isolation. We are still able to be around people, but we are not invited into the lives of others and when we are invited, we feel like we cannot go. Why do we feel this way? I have noticed a shift in our interactions from April where my peers, my students, and my colleagues across campus were full of hope and creative energy to October where we are largely operating with our blinders up and are just trying to make it through the semester. What changed and why did it change? Is it just because we have been in the trenches for longer than we thought? Are we feeling the weight of the election and social injustices that have been brought to the surface during this time? Is it the ever-increasing financial stresses? Yes. And no. These make it harder to be hopeful and energetic, but we have grit and determination and being creative problem solvers is fun and motivating. So why didn’t I lose my motivation and optimism in April or June or September? Why did it disappear in October? And how do I get it back before January?
My chair sits empty
I have small office with room for two people other than myself to sit. I could probably fit at least three more people in here, except that I give space to a giant, squishy, reclining arm chair. This chair has been filled with colleagues, students, staff members, and friends who needed to chat, needed a breather, needed a quiet place to reflect, or needed a nap. Last spring, as a graduation gift, I dedicated the chair to a particular student who, throughout her four years, had used this chair to recharge. There is a plaque that is now taped to the arm that states “In celebration of Clara Gallagher (’20). May those who sit in this chair find rest, comfort, and the strength to continue the fight.” This chair has been occupied by students twice this semester and has been utilized by only two colleagues. My chair sits empty. And I’m starting to realize that this is exemplary of why college campuses feel so different this semester.
SUNY Geneseo is a public liberal arts and residential college in western New York. During our scheduled spring break, like many other schools, we were told to send our students home, to work from home, and to leave our homes as little as possible. This had all sorts of implications for home life, but on college campuses, there was a conflicting response: panic, fatigue, and overwhelming (new) work was rampant, but so was innovation, hope, and camaraderie. Faculty came together to support each other in shifting to online teaching methods; staff worked together to safely move students out and to provide safe homes on campus; we learned how to use digital engagement platforms and started connecting with people we were unable to connect with before; we found ways to hear voices we hadn’t heard before. We were hopeful for the summer.
Just as we were settling into fall semester planning, college campuses were rocked by the killing of George Floyd and others as the Black Lives Matter protests rapidly expanded. We experienced a call to acknowledge the systemic racism ingrained in our institutions and to take an active role in making a difference for our students and employees of color. And, from my perspective, the gathering of communities and the connections we had built virtually in March and April enabled a swift coalescence of people and ideas. Our connection and communication seemed strong. We were making plans for the fall that were going to incorporate the things we learned in May and June and we would be better for our students, our faculty and staff, and our communities. The hope was strong. So when we heard in mid-July that we were inviting students back to campus, we had the energy to put together a fall semester, complete with virtual trainings, move-in, orientation, classes, events, and housing protocols designed to be safe and welcoming.
August is training in Residence Life Departments and, if you are not familiar, it is the hardest and best month of the year. It is an entire month of 9:00 am – 9:00 pm workdays and weekends (sometimes longer) including through the weekends as the team checks on facilities and transforms the desolate buildings into homes for students. The staff learn policies and procedures related to sexual assault, microaggressions and bias, underage drinking and drug use, suicide ideation, and other unbelievably heavy topics. They learn campus resources, how to talk to and support their peers, and how to structure engagement so all our residents feel a sense of belonging and are seen and heard.
This August, on top of all that, we had to adapt existing policies and procedures for coronavirus changes and add new and ever-changing policies and procedures about handling coronavirus mandates and potential outbreaks. This is the best month because we get to bond with incredible students and professional staff who are excited and eager and full of anticipation. We get to form, what often become, lifelong relationships with people who do amazing work and care deeply about students. We feed off each other’s passion and learn so much.
However this year, when the RA staff returned to campus, something was off and we never really figured out what it was. Pandemic protections kept us in small groups (as hall staffs) instead of gathering all together, but we have spent years recognizing that the best learning and preparation happened in small groups instead of a large group. Training sessions were all virtual, as they had been for the past five months, but, for some reason, the communication and connection skills that were effective before were not bringing the team together and energizing us for the fall. It felt like the strategies that were so successful from March through July were starting to fail. At every level, students and staff felt disconnected and that their voices were not being heard. We started the school year with less energy, hope, and excitement than usual. Why weren’t we rebounding from the long days like we usually do? What changed between July and August that made training and move-in draining instead of energizing? These were just a few new questions I had to consider.
September is, work-wise, my favorite month. Energy is high with students back on campus and I start re-connecting with faculty colleagues. My role in Residence Life is unique because it focuses on curriculum development and integrative learning. On a small campus like mine, this means I have the wonderful ability to work closely with people from across campus: faculty, the Provost’s Office, Administration and Finance, Admissions, the College Senate, etc. September is when my committee work and collaborations restart and I catch up with colleagues who live completely different summer lives from mine. We are able to share research and new perspectives, which fuels our collective and individual creativity, innovation, and motivation and we can articulate clear goals to work toward for the year. September is no less exhausting for me than August, but it is also the month that reinvigorates me in my work. Except not this year. This year September left me disconnected, unmotivated, and defeated. I am doing all the same work, why isn’t it the same?
Near the end of this month, I finally got a chance to take a breath and reflect. Seven months into a global pandemic and I just realized one of the worst impacts on my mental health and success: my students and colleagues, who motivate and inspire me in my work, are not here. My chair is empty. I thought it was the meetings and projects that connected me to my students and colleagues, but it is not. It is the interactions and time between my “work” that connect and bond us. I do not build trust with my staff only through our one-on-ones, we build trust when I hear about their lives as I pass through the main office collecting my mail or print outs. It is not the work meetings that enable me to connect and innovate, it is the time before a meeting and the casual reflection after the meeting where the best ideas are born. At the beginning or end of a zoom meeting, there can only be one verbal conversation and, if you are an introvert like me, that one conversation feels so extremely awkward I could not engage if I tried. Then the host ends the meeting and we are all abruptly kicked out and directly into the next task at hand, with no time for reflection or opportunity to learn about each other or to discover new ways our work intersects.
The campus is empty. I mean so empty. My office is in the College Union, usually alive with people and conversations so enthusiastic I am annoyed and frustrated from the distractions; now, I find the silence distracting. I used to have meetings all over campus; now, I have no reason to go to other buildings and colleagues have no reason to come to my building (assuming they are even on campus). So I do not run into students or colleagues as I walk through campus or past their offices; no one stops by my office on their way to class or to a meeting in my building; my chair has remained empty.
There are so many wonderful and amazing things about technology that have made people and knowledge and ideas more accessible than they were eight months ago. We can connect with people who do not share our day-to-day, which has been wonderful! But, on a college campus, this also means that our students are not living here. It means our faculty and staff, mostly working remotely, are not contributing to the energy here. Our campus is silent. There are a lot of things happening and ways to engage, but they feel like they are happening somewhere else – online, on a screen, in the void. Things are not happening here. My chair is here. And our lives are not.
I started to hear voices again in November. They were not energetic, motivated voices, but, for the first time, I hear from students and faculty and staff directly that we have all been struggling to build new relationships. Maintaining relationships has been manageable during this time, but, on the whole, none of us have been successful in building new ones. And it is our relationships that connect us and motivate us. In Residence Life, as I am sure is true in offices and departments across campus, we usually do not have to think about creating new relationships. Our operations are set up so that our students and staff connect just by doing their jobs. Except, we have changed how we do our jobs: we have virtual meetings, virtual events, we write incident reports for having visitors in rooms and not wearing masks, we hesitate to invite someone into our office or to go into someone’s office, and on and on. All of these tiny shifts for COVID-19 safety have come at the expense of building new relationships. Relationships between students, with students, and among colleagues. Building new relationships is not something we can take for granted any more in our work.
Preparing for Another Pandemic-Centered Semester
Now that the buildings are (mostly) closed and most of the students have left campus for remote learning, we have time to plan for a semester where we still do not know what is coming, but we do know where to focus our energies: we need to build relationships. Let’s make minor adjustments to our operations, so that we become effective relationship builders again. We need to model it, do it for each other, and structure it for our students. If we do this one thing, I believe we will all start to feel the energy, support, and motivation that has eluded us this semester.
First and foremost, I encourage everyone to do things in person as they are able and as it is safe. Small, short, outdoor, and/or socially distant meetings, events, and interactions will make a world of difference. For college administrators: How can you send a message of relationship building and reconnecting among your employees? Can you loosen restrictions on children and families in the workplace? Can you set clear expectations about being in person, while making accommodations as needed? Is there work that can be taken off of our plates or redistributed so we have time to focus on relationship building? For college employees: come into the office; take walks down the hall and to another building each day; stand in the doorway of a colleague’s office and chat; schedule a walking meeting (one of my favorite pre-pandemic ideas). For students: meet in-person with them, they are so craving it – wear masks and keep your distance and keep the meeting under 15 minutes, but find a way; take the time to build one-on-one relationships, so students are comfortable attending new things (in person or virtually); find creative ways to get students out of their rooms and casually interact in the hallways; for virtual classes, try booking a room for them so they can zoom into the lecture together and enjoy the pre-class, in-class, and post-class interactions with peers; instead of a 50-person zoom call, try scheduling 10 in-person meetings spread out around campus. As case numbers stay low, change what you do to engage in-peson.
I acknowledge that we will still need to do most things virtually. I attended a series of virtual workshops in November put on by Kristen Malek at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln called “Increasing Your [Virtual] Event Attendance”. It was a phenomenal set of workshops, I highly recommend you look her up online and on YouTube. I learned a lot, but she said one thing that I will never forget: “Students (and people) do not have ‘zoom-fatigue’ or ‘screen-fatigue’; they have ‘boredom-fatigue’. Zoom meetings and zoom classes are boring.” Now, I do think screen fatigue is part of our problem (see above for ideas to be in-person to counteract the screen-fatigue) and I do not think it is our job to become virtual entertainers. But there are small changes we can make to all virtual meetings or classes we host that will have an impact on participation and engagement and will be less boring for us and for attendees. First, do something fun at the beginning of the zoom call while you wait for people to log in: there are ice breakers that involve turning your video on and off or audio on and off or changing your name (with the added bonus of people practicing zoom tools). Many participants who would normally leave their videos off will join in a game for a few minutes and are also more likely to leave the video on after the game has ended. As people come into the zoom call, send them into small breakout rooms (3-5 people). If they know each other, let them chat like it is the beginning of an in-person meeting where we talk with the people near us at the table. If they do not know each other, give them a game or a task to complete in the breakout room. Even just a poll with some fun questions can bring some levity to the screen. After these five minutes, we can be more connected, more engaged, and, often, more focused on what is about to come. At the end of a zoom call, a colleague of mine suggested we consider not leaving or ending zoom meetings so abruptly: “I wait in the meeting as long as possible to see if anyone else wants to hang out or talk afterward.” She and I have had great reflections a number of times with this strategy. As host, if you need to leave, think about just leaving the meeting instead of ending it for all to provide the opportunity for others to connect.
There are also ways to try to bridge the in-person/virtual gap. Say you have a zoom meeting at 11:00 am: do not work on other things until 11:01 am and then hop into the zoom meeting. Stop at 10:50 am and actually walk “to” the meeting. Go to an open conference room in a different building (or just walk through your own building) and keep an eye out for people to talk to on your way. After your meeting, walk through that building checking to see who might be in the office that day. Do your work in common, more public spaces and look for opportunities to talk to people walking past.
Each campus has its own set of safety protocols and the above paragraphs are just things I have considered for my campus and my work. Take some time to think about how your pandemic operations have unintentionally created barriers to relationship-building in your area. Brainstorm solutions with your team and commit to making a change in the new year. Our campuses are filled with creative people with innovative ways to build relationships during a global pandemic. Let’s use our collective ingenuity to support each other to focus on and change how we build new and maintain already formed relationships this spring semester.
College campuses are special places. They feel different than just about any other place that exists. I have always attributed this to the presence of students: their energy, thirst for knowledge, the new perspectives they bring, and their excitement to make a difference. Now, I know colleges are special places because of the relationships that are built here and I know that because we had students here all semester and the campus was not its normal, thriving place. I am reminded of an article from my former Vice President and mentor, Bob Bonfiglio, entitled “Grit is Not Enough” (About Campus, November 2017). In the article, he pushed back against the growing literature that student success is correlated with the individualistic characteristics of grit and resilience. Bonfiglio (2017) argued that being able to bounce back from setbacks and respond positively to challenges is heavily dependent upon your community of support. This rings true with me after nine months of a global pandemic as the individuals who have been surviving and thriving during this time are doing so because of their support networks. But these were support networks created prior to the pandemic, not new or expanding support networks. Imagine what life has been like for our new students, who have no network on our campus yet. For a true community of support, we need a community of support where we are: here, on campus, where we live and work. We can and must build communities of support on our campuses again. I will start by inviting more students and colleagues into my chair.
I’m grateful to students, faculty, and staff who have had conversations with me about the effect of the pandemic on them in both our formal and informal settings. I want to send shout outs to my entire Residence Life team, specifically, Christopher Rivera, Molly Mattison, Laura Dulski, Taylor Gale, and Sarah Frank as well as Laura Swanson in Health and Counseling and Jessie Stack-Lombardo in Career Development who have provided valuable perspectives and experiences on the pandemic, time and space to reflect with me, and have sat in my chair!
Bonfiglio, Robert (2017). “Grit is Not Enough,” About Campus: Enriching the Student Learning Experience. Vol 22(5): 29-31. https://doi.org/10.1002/abc.21304
Saltzman, L.Y., et al (2020). “Loneliness, Isolation, and Social Support Factors in Post-COVID-19
Mental Health,” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Vol 12(S1): S55-S57. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000703.