written by: Jacqueline Hodes, Orkideh Mohajeri, Jai-La Aponte, Summie Bledsoe, Katherine Canazzi, Katherine Clay, Cara Fordenbacher, Jayla Godfrey, Gianna Machado, Melissa MacPherson, Nicholas Marcil, Kathryn Melvin, Catherine Purcell, MaryClare Rae, Emily Rooney, Elizabeth Roberts, Lauren Sealy, Darryl Thomas
In a time of loss and isolation, we chose resilience.
How we shared the same room but not the same space,
existed somewhere between together and apart,
on the same journey, but different paths. (Jocelyn)
Never did we ever anticipate the events of these past two years. As we boarded the plane in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for Nashville, Tennessee to attend the annual ACPA Convention, our graduate students were combing the airport searching in vain for hand sanitizer. At the opening keynote for the 2020 Convention, we were encouraged to bump elbows in greeting each other as we ironically sat almost atop each other in the connected auditorium seats to take in the wisdom of Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. COVID-19 seemed far away and a precaution but not an inevitability.
Later that evening, Jackie was standing outside of the conference hotel when Orkideh told her that faculty on our campus were discussing the possibility of holding classes on Zoom. We dismissed the thought. Never did we ever believe that what seemed impossible and improbable in Nashville would be reality five days later in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
We traveled home to Philadelphia on a full flight, having experienced the devastating Nashville tornado that killed 25 people and injured many more. Many of our students attending the conference were witness to the destruction and deaths that occurred. Never did we ever believe we would be supporting a student who was lucky enough to narrowly miss the path of the tornado only to find herself trying to revive someone—a stranger to her—who did not survive.
We headed home to collect ourselves over Spring Break with plans for end-of-semester rituals and relief. Never did we ever expect the email notification that arrived mid-week. Our institution made a bold and difficult decision to move to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, one of the first universities in the region to do so. A staggering amount of information followed via email, in a blur of constant decision-making and shifting plans. As we balanced our own personal lives and concerns, we were also cognizant of the many needs of the students in our program. These graduate students, many having just experienced the synergy of thousands of colleagues gathered together to learn and celebrate higher education and student affairs at the Nashville Convention, were now finding themselves isolated, alone, worried, and confused. And so were we.
The remainder of the spring semester was fraught with anxiety, worry, concern, and an understanding of the reality of moving our work and lives to Zoom. In this time of apprehension and unease, our faculty colleagues were determined to meet students with kindness, compassion, understanding, and reassurance. They did so while responding to the unknown and unprecedented reality that was changing on a daily basis. Each day brought new information and decisions that required responses that were measured, thoughtful, empathic, and strategic. We were exhausted and depleted, and so were students. Never did we ever anticipate that we would shift our energy from planning celebrations to planning how to support students whose parents and loved ones (many who were essential workers) had contracted COVID in the early days of the pandemic.
And then we all witnessed the recorded murder of George Floyd.
And this documented barbarity partially roused the nation from its slumber, allowing us to momentarily “see” the murders of other Black Americans, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Alton Sterling, and many others.
Students were devastated, scared, confused, and angry. Many were compelled to participate in protests and conversations that occurred that summer. In classes and program spaces, we talked, read literature, assembled resources, grieved, recited poetry, turned to music, and engaged in discussion—connecting our anger, confusion, rage, and disappointment to course content and a critique of white supremacy and police brutality. We watched as one student was called to duty in the National Guard, not just once to work with COVID protocols, but a second time to help quell violence related to the uprising after the murder of Floyd.
Suddenly, one local high school got rid of its Native mascot—no town halls, debates, or prolonged processes needed! Suddenly universities and colleges in the region and across the nation were having conversations about anti-racism, and some were taking quick action to rename buildings and remove statues on quads. What had previously been cast as intractable, complicated issues were now easily resolved in the wake of the egregious murder of Floyd and the unassailable, recorded evidence. Never did we ever believe we would witness the sudden changes that occurred, especially from companies and corporations wedded to the benefits of capitalism.
The summer brought more ambiguity as our institution contemplated the return to in-person instruction, but ultimately decided on another remote semester. Never did we ever imagine we would welcome a new cohort of graduate students with a remote orientation, online classes, and virtual graduate assistantships. But we did. We became more adept at Zoom, from scheduling meetings to creating backgrounds. We figured out how to put students in breakout rooms for more intimate conversations, how to engage student feedback in the chat, how to unmute ourselves, and how to share our screens and audio.
And we had important conversations about how to shift our curriculum to include more content related to racial justice, whiteness as a power formation, and activism and action. Never did we ever believe, just a few semesters later, that we would revise our curriculum to have incoming master’s students begin their degree program with a new, required course entitled Critical Genealogies of Race in Higher Education and Student Affairs. Part of the intention behind the creation of this course and its positioning in the first semester is to explicitly center racialization as a force that has always already shaped higher education and young adult development in the U.S., and to grow a habit of critically analyzing the productions and strategies of racialization as higher education and student affairs professionals.
As we proposed these changes in our curriculum, we also did what many others did. We stepped back, critically reviewed the situation, and began to pivot. We went back to basics and relied on what we knew to be true about supporting students. And we challenged ourselves to think critically about those basics and adapt them to the needs of the students in the moment. We made internal programmatic decisions about ways to satisfy internship requirements, reducing the required 500 hours to 400. During these life-changing simultaneous pandemics, students were completing the program’s capstone project, A Critical Action Research Thesis Proposal. This non-traditional culminating project asks students to identify a question or concern about higher education and student affairs. Then, through literature review, examining best practices, and the lens of coursework, students design and amplify an intervention to address the concern. We spent hours meeting individually with students on Zoom as they wrestled with their writing and attempt to “solve” a problem with a critical lens.
We brainstormed ideas for continued engagement over the summer and through the following academic year. We held Zoom scavenger hunts, created a mentor/mentee matching program, sent small packages, postcards, and personal messages through the post office to connect students to us, to the program, and to the University. And much to our surprise and joy, students found creative ways to connect on their own, including forming online writing groups, virtual happy hours, and, in a few cases, romantic relationships.
Now, in May 2022, 28 graduate students, who experienced much of their graduate program online and virtually, who questioned if they would make it through the program during that first virtual year, will be graduating and preparing to take on new or enhanced professional positions in higher education and student affairs. It is a testament to their resilience that all who began that journey with us in August 2020 are ending it with us just two years later. They tell their stories in their own powerful voices. Those stories parallel the stories of so many students across the country who also worked to make meaning of this moment in time. Below, we share student narrative responses to the prompt, “Never did I ever.” This is followed by important themes that emerged across the set of written reflections. Never did they ever:
…imagine that I would be where I am today. The pandemic completely uprooted my life. I have never felt as lost as I have during these past two years. Thinking back, this time two years ago, I was traveling to new countries (and getting paid for it!) and living my life to the fullest. Today, I can’t go anywhere without a mask, a spare mask, and some hand sanitizer. I can’t get my students to answer emails. I sometimes can’t even find the motivation to do my schoolwork. (Reese, 29, heterosexual, female, white, international student services)
Never did I ever think a global pandemic would provide me with the opportunity to go back to school. I had wanted to pursue a second master’s degree for several years but it was never “the right time.” While the online format was not what I would have chosen in an ideal world, it was a low-risk entry point, as it allowed me to keep my full-time job while attending classes, as both were able to happen inside my house. (Bonnie, 33, heterosexual, woman, white, immigrant)
Never did I ever imagine in 2020, I would be raising a 3-year-old, be a full time graduate student, continue to work in-person full time as a student affairs professional, all while trying to survive in a pandemic. (Leilani, 28, heterosexual, female, Black, mother)
Never did I ever think that I would build the greatest relationships with my current student staff, never did I ever think that I would meet people who would support me though the good, bad, and ugly, and never did I ever think I would develop into the best version of myself. (Georgette, 24, pansexual, female, white)
Never did I ever think a global pandemic would change the trajectory of my life, but two years in, I am about to take another leap to a new job and none of it would have been possible without that virtual year and the investment of my mentors at WCU. (Bonnie)
Never did I ever imagine finding good company in another professor like I did during undergrad. When you have these trying times in your life, it is hard to find someone who understands, and who is there to support you. It is hard for me to open up about struggles, for fear of how I am perceived, or if professors think I am just making excuses. I never shared my feelings directly with these professors, but it came out in some of my work. (Reese)
Never did I ever think I would be starting my graduate school journey online at home in Florida. While in my first semester of graduate school, I made friends with openly and freely queer people, who showed me the possibilities for queer people in a way that I never knew was possible. Never did I ever think I would meet a group of people who lived in their queerness so beautifully… I decided to come out to my family, and shortly thereafter, the world. Never did I ever think it would have the reaction it did… but never did I ever know how truly freeing it would be. (Felicia, 24, queer, cisgender woman, white)
As the proud new owner of my very own pandemic baby, I never imagined the adventure that pandemic graduate school would bring. Like every new parent, navigating life with a newborn was an adjustment but COVID added a new layer of difficulty. Learning to e-read while soothing a fussy baby was full of acrobatic fun. I quickly learned to love the closed captioning function on web calls so that I could participate while she slept. My cohort was unphased by random toy sound effects during our meetings. Some of them were even kind enough to take notes while we did baby bicycle legs. (Kennedy, 35, heterosexual, female, white)
The above narratives illustrate how much the pandemic was unexpected, and how much it shook up individual student lives. In the midst of this turmoil, many students moved back home with parents, while still looking for new ways to learn and grow, including starting graduate studies. Overall, however, the pandemic forced us all to slow down and contemplate our purpose and our choices, as described in the next segment.
A Moment of Pause
Students navigated uncertainty, confusion, political polarization, misinformation, and new information on an evolving and complex global crisis every day. Mona (24 years old, lesbian, ciswoman, white) shared that she “struggled in the first six months of the pandemic, trying to navigate graduate school on Zoom, barely leaving the house and not seeing my friends in person.” Many echoed these sentiments of uncertainty and confusion. But cohort members also noted that the pandemic and the lockdown had unexpected benefits. In the same reflection, Mona also remarked:
The time at home allowed me to do something I had never had the chance to before. I was able to just exist with myself. I was not trying to form or shape or fit in but was growing more comfortable with who I was and who I wanted to be.
Leilani, a full-time graduate student, full-time single parent, and full-time employee at a neighboring university, explained that “the pandemic allowed us to finally take a look at where we were in life, at work, at home, and essentially let us ask that dreadful question you ask [yourself] after Year 2 on the job, ‘Am I happy?’” Other students shared the following:
Looking back, I remember being alone and just laying around all day, but there was so much peace in that. You see, one way of coping with my trauma was to always be busy. [I] always had to be over-involved in something. I was always too over-committed. However, COVID was the first time in my entire life I got to experience my pain instead of bottling it up. In this apartment, I was able to process everything that occurred, especially what occurred with [the loss of] my older brother. (Sarita, 24, queer, female, white)
However, this notion of ‘Maybe it was exactly the time I needed to do this!’ kept coming [back] in[to] my mind. I would be gaining this unique experience of learning about and from students during a time of social justice global awakening and in a format that has never been seen before. So, once I finally found a GA, I decided to give it a shot. (Paloma, 25, bisexual, woman, white)
A pandemic that put a lot on pause
It gave a fresh perspective
On what I wanted to do and what I wanted to see…
I was grateful for the little things I had and what I could do
A time of great reflection on my own life and struggles
Better understanding of myself and the world (Newman, 24, straight, male, white)
Although students struggled with the time alone, the time at home, and the time in contemplation, they also recognized the opportunities inherent in this pause. They pushed themselves to consider the gift that lay within the silence and the slowing down. They also gradually built a new community of friends in the program cohort and found connections that could help them manage the uncertainty and difficulty of the moment.
Students noted surprise and gratitude for the close and vital friendships they were able to make with one another, despite distance and format. Paloma explained that she “met my classmates from the chest up, with their childhood bedrooms in the background. We bonded in GroupMe chats and late night Jackbox sessions over Zoom.” In fact, via Wi-Fi and over class readings, love bloomed and two long-term partnerships were formed among cohort members. Additionally, many formed meaningful connections with faculty and staff, especially at their various virtual graduate assistantship sites. Leilani exclaimed, “Never have I ever been so inspired by a group of people [as the members of the cohort]!” Additionally, the following reflections were shared:
I was able to make surprisingly deep friendships online in a way I never had before, bonding over the shared experience of ‘Everything is so weird right now.’ They could show me their bedrooms, their pets, items that were special to them, in a way they wouldn’t have if we weren’t looking through little windows into each other’s homes. (Kaya, 25, bisexual, female, white)
Never have I ever thought that I would meet an intelligent and caring group of classmates, professors, and graduate assistantship coworkers in higher education. (Donovan, 25, straight, cismale, Black)
These friendships and connections became an integral part of the graduate program experience and have continued to serve students as they near graduation and their first professional roles in the field. But change did not stop with just the year at home in isolation. Another significant change was the return to campus for the second year of the program.
Transition within Transition
There were multiple layers of transition for everyone, including the transition when students came back to campus in Year 2 of their degree program. This transition included coming back to graduate assistantship offices, to Residence Life work and residence hall management, and to the classroom—masked and cautious. This return to a version of “normalcy” also constituted another substantial transition. Students explained:
When classes turned to in-person in my second year, I had to reevaluate the accessibility of the program for me. Much of my experience in the program has taught me about leadership, good company, and setting boundaries—to be able to focus on what is important to me, which led me to the decision to leave my full-time job for a graduate assistantship on campus. This felt like a big risk at the time, giving up the financial security [of full-time employment], but my previous position was not serving me or my values, and my new assistantship provided me with so much more than I could have imagined. (Bonnie)
And yet, there was something I didn’t feel until I was in person, a certain level of connectedness with the reality of this program I didn’t feel before. In many ways virtual learning made things easier for me, and I’ve been ruminating on what that means for my graduate school experience. The determination I’ve come to is that virtual learning made this program feel possible for me—socially, financially. And once I was in it, doing the work, I realized I was capable of it.
In having both a virtual and in-person graduate school experience, I cannot say which way is ‘better’, only that each way has its own benefits and drawbacks, and that each was vital to my development as a person and a Student Affairs professional. (Kaya)
Though challenging, the ability to adapt, grow, and occasionally thrive in the midst of transition constitutes strength that students can continue to draw on in the future. Students reflected in meaningful ways on their own self-growth with an understanding that there was a juxtaposition of feelings and experiences that sometimes conflict. They realized they were resilient and vulnerable, strong and flexible, and strategic and adaptable.
As we write this reflection, students are busy putting finishing touches on their master’s theses, busy editing and finding that final citation, and looking forward to graduation in a few weeks, where they will celebrate in person with family and friends (although perhaps masked again since the Omicron BA.2 variant is sweeping the Northeast). As the current discourse about the future of student affairs, the bubble of higher education, the Great Resignation sweeping the nation, the demographic cliff, and lack of student engagement swirls around us, we are bolstered by the resilience of these graduate students poised to take on the great challenges. They also realize how far they have traveled and how much they have grown:
I have learned that I am adaptable, flexible, determined and resilient just like the students I serve. I have had the privilege of learning the art of pivoting from professionals also processing the world’s social climate. I could not have dreamed of a different outcome to my post-graduate experiences, and I have never been prouder of myself for accomplishing what I have to date. (Morgan, 25, straight, female, white)
Never did I ever imagine this is what the world would be like. We are in a world, in a field, where so much has changed and we are forced to change with it. As students, as early-career professionals, and experienced mentors in the field, life, school, and work have changed drastically, and it makes me wonder what lies ahead. (Reese)
This whole process has taught me that I am stronger than I think, and I am braver than I knew I could be. (Kennedy)
Never did I ever imagine considering doctoral programs, and when I started applying, I was most definitely not expecting to get accepted to any. Writing my statements of purpose was daunting because I still cannot believe that two years have passed since the pandemic began… As the process went on, I could not believe that I was asked to interview, and I still feel like my first acceptance letter was not real. (Reese)
Lived experience is a great teacher. Now, we know in our bodies that we can do hard things. We know that we can slow down amidst turmoil. We know—in a deeper, embodied way—that self-reflection leads to insight and growth. We know that we have each other to turn to and rely on. And we know that we have a unique commitment—a core value—in this field of higher education and student affairs that is not necessarily as explicit in some other fields: the commitment to serve others, the dedication to the growth and development of others, even in the midst of global upheavals, immense uncertainty, and hate-fueled violence. This value can serve as a touchstone as we continue to navigate disorientation and change, on personal, professional, national, and global levels.
Having come back around to a deeper knowing of our resilience, care, and ability, as well as the nature of our chosen profession, we close our collective reflection with the last two stanzas from a poem written by Cora (27 years old, queer, ciswoman, white, artist):
I used to perform to be seen
But now I wish to see others
Helping them turn the lens on themselves–
Giving testimony to their growth
My purpose has transformed into a living entity
With the knowledge that I was never a singularity
And that the unexpected
Arrived on time
Jacqueline Hodes, Ed.D. (she/her) is a Professor of Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.
Orkideh Mohajeri, Ph.D. (she/her) is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.
Jai-La Aponte (she/they) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a Resident Director & Student Life Coordinator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Summie Bledsoe (she/they) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a Hall Director for two residential communities.
Katherine Canazzi (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate assistant in the Dub-C Autism Program, the Greg and Sandra Weisenstein Veterans Center, and the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Katherine Clay (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate assistant in the Center for Civic Engagement and Social Impact.
Cara Fordenbacher (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate assistant in the Office of Residence Life & Housing Services, serving as a Graduate Hall Director.
Jayla Godfrey (she/her/they/them) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate assistant in the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities.
Gianna Machado (they/them) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University, a graduate assistant in the Office of Wellness Promotion at West Chester University, and a graduate assistant for programming and events at Ursinus College.
Melissa (Missy) MacPherson (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate assistant in the Office of Off-Campus and Commuter Services.
Nick Marcil (he/him) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate assistant in the Center for Civic Engagement & Social Impact.
Kathryn Melvin (she/they) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and employed as an International Student Coordinator at Swarthmore College.
Catherine Purcell (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University, a graduate assistant within West Chester’s Success Coaching Program, and serves as the Assistant Director of Career Development at Moore College of Art and Design.
MaryClare Rae (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate assistant in the Office of New Student Programs.
Elizabeth Roberts (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and a graduate student in the Office of Student Leadership & Involvement.
Emily Rooney (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and employed as the Associate Director of International Programs at West Chester University.
Lauren Sealy (she/her) is a second-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and is approaching her sixth year as a professional in Student Affairs.
Darryl Thomas, Jr. (he/him/his) is a third-year graduate student in Higher Education Policy & Student Affairs at West Chester University and serves as a graduate assistant in the Office of Student Conduct.
 Specific quotes and contributions from co-authors—such as this poem—are attributed throughout this manuscript with pseudonyms. This choice was made to allow space for individual voices while protecting students who continue to be particularly vulnerable at this moment in time.
 Related resources with a particular focus on 2020 include: Al Jazeera’s interactive presentation, Know Their Names: Black People Killed by the Police in the U.S., Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Girls – a report from the Urban Indian Health Institute, and Violence against the Transgender and Gender Non-conforming Community in 2020 at the Human Rights Campaign website.
 We choose to list student demographic characteristics so that readers could both note the range of diversity among the graduate student population and also connect with these narratives and experiences, all while maintaining a level of anonymity. We use the exact wording offered by students in regards to identity markers.