Recognizing COVID-19 as Trauma: Considerations for Student Affairs Educators and Faculty Developers

William L. Harder
Goucher College

Brian L. McGowan
American University

COVID-19 has disrupted the academic lives and professional trajectories of college students, faculty, and staff in an unprecedented manner. Over the course of a few frantic weeks in March 2020, higher education and student affairs educators began determining how to provide their services online and support students remotely. In addition, universities have been forced to move the vast majority of their courses from face-to-face formats to online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Institutional leaders have adopted new or expanded existing teleconferencing software systems such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, GoTo Meeting, Google Hangouts, Discord, and Zoho Meeting to hold professional meetings, teach courses, offer student support services including telemedicine or Telecounseling; academic advising; or recognize students, faculty, staff for their accomplishments.

Although universities have generally been able to hand most students the technical tools to sign-on and continue the courses they began on physical campuses, several questions remain about the nature of learning that is occurring in the wake of these unprecedented events. In addition, this pandemic has revealed the magnitude of housing, food, technology, and fiscal insecurities that many of our faculty, staff, and students are experiencing. While most universities have largely resolved the technical challenges of this shift, it is necessary to pause and critically examine the experiences of our communities at this time.

The pandemic, its associated economic and social contexts, and the unprecedented shift of higher education online together represent a traumatic event that university communities are experiencing together. Institutional leaders have made tough decisions during a time of duress where individuals have to practice social distancing; combat xenophobia and racism; manage being furloughed and unemployed; cope with the deaths of colleagues, friends, and loved ones; deal with significant financial losses; and manage new family responsibilities. Given the mental and emotional toll COVID-19 has taken on all who participate in higher education, we pose the following question: How much cognitive capacity do we have available for learning at the moment? Given our collective position as faculty members and administrators in a faculty development center, we have been thinking deeply about how to support faculty of varying ranks and appointment types during COVID-19. We have also been thoughtful about the ways that faculty and student affairs professionals care for students at this time. Our goal in this article is to brainstorm ways that faculty developers and student affairs professionals can collectively think about the impact of COVID-19 on our work.

Student Affairs and Faculty Development Fostering Student Success

Faculty development centers represent the primary institutional-wide point of contact for faculty on pedagogical topics. These centers create and implement learning opportunities for faculty to enhance their teaching and to create optimal learning environments for students. Student affairs professionals support students’ learning, growth, development, and success primarily via one-on-one conversations and programming. They are also dedicated to supporting the academic mission of the institution through the creation of deliberate co-curricular experiences for students. However, faculty development centers are voices that are too often absent from conversation with student affairs professionals. We contend that both student affairs educators and faculty development professionals would be better served by being more fully engaged with one another as they hear from students (directly and indirectly) in varying critical capacities.

During the initial response to the COVID-19 crisis, faculty development centers were key partners in facilitating the transition from face-to-face formats to online instruction. Similar to other institutions across the country, our faculty development center provided workshops, programs, and consultations to faculty. In addition, we implemented a faculty crisis-hotline to support faculty as they made this abrupt transition to moving their courses to the online environment halfway through the Spring semester.

While supporting faculty, we heard countless stories from them about what their students were feeling. It is commonplace for student affairs educators to hear similar stories from students and subsequently serve as advocates, mentors, and problem solvers. Student affairs professionals have also been called on to develop and implement new policies, procedures, and practices to do their work while continuing to care for students and maintaining connections in a virtual environment. A few weeks into this newfound reality for our faculty and students, we not only thought about the sheer existence of engaging in this new online space, we thought about the prevailing trauma that students and faculty are facing as they navigate COVID-19.

Toward a Trauma-Informed Approach to our Practice

Trauma stems from events or circumstances that are experienced by someone as “physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being” (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014, p. 7). Trauma is widespread and can occur at any point in our lives. Within educational contexts, the awareness of trauma and its negative impacts have become more prevalent (Davidson, 2017). For numerous individuals, COVID-19 has brought on a host of mental health issues such as depression, trauma, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.

Given this prevailing distress, we advocate for SAMHSA’s (2014) trauma-informed approach that adheres to six key tenets that could help ease or impede people’s capacity to cope with traumatic situations. These tenets include: (1) safety, (2) trustworthiness and transparency, (3) peer support, (4) collaboration and mutuality, (5) empowerment, voice, and choice, and (6) cultural, historical, and gender issues. Educators should keep these tenets in mind and adopt trauma-informed principles and sensitivities in their work as we continue to make meaning of COVID-19 and its impact on our lives. Employing a trauma-informed approach involves a paradigm shift and requires an examination of institutional culture, policies, and procedures (Davidson, 2017).

What does a trauma-informed praxis look like in your work? How do you employ the above mentioned six tenets of a trauma-informed approach? How are you supporting students who are the most vulnerable at this time? How are you creating equitable and inclusive environments in the online setting? How are we extending grace to ourselves, our students, and others? These are questions that we have reflected upon and invite other faculty developers and student affairs leaders to do the same.

Guiding Questions for Reflection

Drawing from our own experiences in our faculty development center, we pose five guiding questions and encourage individual reflection and conversations with others as you process your own experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, we offer our own brief observations on each question within the context of our work with faculty.

How do we support our communities beyond providing the technical capacity to hold class in a virtual space?

The initial transition to a virtual space largely focused on logistical questions of technological competency, capacity, and access. These topics represent an important first step, but provide an incomplete set of resources as they only address some of the issues faced. To be sufficiently responsive, universities must set the bar higher than simply addressing immediate technical needs. Many faculty members reached a minimal technical competency to facilitate class online fairly quickly. It was common to hear the refrain from faculty at the outset of this programming, “This is crisis management. I’m not looking to think about pedagogy, I just need to figure out the technical part.”

However, in our experience, by the end of a workshop the questions posed by faculty often moved beyond technical issues and focused on the pedagogical implications of their new virtual environments. As faculty move beyond technical capacity and toward pedagogical richness, faculty development professionals represent valuable thought-partners in effective ways to recreate student learning-environments in virtual spaces. Because they are typically located external to departmental units, faculty development centers can also serve as an important university-wide hub to bring together faculty from across the university to share their varied experiences with these approaches.

How do we collectively process the shared trauma of this moment and allow our students to center their own individual, lived experiences?

The current pandemic presents an important moment for us to consider both the collective and individual dimensions of trauma being experienced by our campus community members. We are all experiencing differing forms of trauma alongside adhering to governmental and university policies that are oftentimes top-down in nature. While the expansive and wide-ranging nature of these events can construct a collective experience for classroom communities to process together, they also present a situation in which individual experiences of trauma may be masked and minimized.

In this light, we must consider how we can best share our collective experiences and acknowledge the disparate individual experiences of our communities, particularly from those who are most vulnerable. Though all members of the community are exposed to some form of trauma, the nature of that trauma will vary. Some of this variation will be due to random chance, while others will be the product of systemic inequities. Acknowledging these dual producers of trauma with our students is an important aspect of our practice.

Policies of both governments and educational institutions are rarely equal in their impact across communities. As a result, communities of color and other historically marginalized groups often disproportionately bear the weight of these outcomes and as a result are exposed to additional trauma. Already, there is evidence that Black communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 deaths (Thomas & Anoruo, 2020) and Latinx communities are disproportionately impacted by pandemic related job-loss (Krogstad, Gonzalez-Barrera, & Noe-Bustamante, 2020).

Given the disparate nature of these traumatic experiences, educators must determine how to provide space for discussions of trauma. When engaging in discussions on these topics, consider offering multiple pathways for students to engage with the topic that both present opportunities to interact with the wider class and privately with the instructor. Though the nature of trauma will vary across students, the collective nature of the pandemic and the institution’s response make it imperative to be addressed in some way. Research shows that in the wake of traumatic events impacting entire communities, students both appreciate even the most minimal acknowledgement of the event by faculty and negatively take note when discussion of the traumatic event is absent or minimized (Huston & DiPietro, 2007).

Lastly, it is essential that faculty members are aware of the services and resources provided by their student affairs colleagues. Often, free and confidential counseling services are available within student affairs. Additionally, some student affairs professionals have extensive training in facilitating dialogue related to equity, diversity, and inclusion and can help with this work in the classroom. During this time, faculty members should be intentional about providing information on campus services and partnering with student affairs in and beyond the classroom.

How do we support the entirety of our university communities during this process?

As we consider the various forms of trauma that individuals will be exposed to, we must also think about how the entire campus community is impacted by the pandemic. In addition to the impact on populations outlined above, it is important to understand the disparate traumatic impacts that this event can exert on other groups and individuals in our communities. For instance, we must consider what the reality of a return to a childhood home may mean for members of vulnerable populations including those in the LGBTQ+ community. We should also be mindful of increasing instances of domestic abuse worldwide (Taub, 2020). This is another opportunity for faculty members to partner with student affairs staff to ensure students have access to resources. 

For many students, the exodus from campus meant a return to their parents’ house, but there are others who were unable to return to their families for a variety of reasons. This includes students living in on-campus emergency housing and populations of students living off-campus who have elected not to or were unable to return home. Segments of the institution’s international student population are likely to be included in these groups and may be experiencing their own trauma due to COVID-19 closures and uncertainty about the future.

Much of the broader discussion around higher education’s response to the pandemic has focused on the undergraduate population. However, it is also important to reflect on how the experiences of this trauma in adult learners and graduate populations are likely to look different.

For our adult learners and graduate populations, impacts related to the pandemic may be more immediately and directly tied to their current and future economic and professional contexts.

Finally, institutions must consider the impact of this pandemic on our service, custodial, security, grounds, and other support staff. It is all too common for these staff populations to be rendered all but invisible during the normal functioning of the campus. Their work is literally deemed essential. Institutional responses to COVID-19 must keep these individuals in mind as they are the backbone of our colleges and universities and without them higher education cannot function.

How do we support our community as we move beyond the immediate moment of the Spring 2020 semester?

What happens after final grades are posted and the last virtual meeting of the semester is concluded? Many students will not have culminating experiences to celebrate their graduations and our students will likely face a summer that looks dramatically different than they had planned. For instance, many internships and summer programs have been canceled and some people may not secure employment due to hiring freezes. Travel to summer opportunities abroad will be nearly impossible. Due to the shift online, students will face this reality largely without the formal and informal university support systems in the form that they have come to know and depend on. For many students, this summer is likely to be an incredibly isolating time.

While it is important for faculty and staff to take a moment at the end of the academic year to exhale and practice some much needed self-care, it is also important to ensure that we do not abandon our students for the summer. Although many institutions will face significant budget reductions, colleges and universities should think critically about the services and resources that they will offer students during this summer. This is particularly true given that effects of trauma may manifest after the initial experience of it (Strøm, Schultz, Wentzel-Larsen, & Dyb, 2016) and that rates of trauma-related exit from college are higher for certain traditionally underrepresented populations (Boyraz, Horne, Owens, & Armstrong, 2013).

Summer 2020 will also likely look very different to faculty and staff than most previous academic summers. Pre-college programs, first year orientations, bridge programs, and other summer offerings will likely be impacted if not canceled. Not only will these changes impact the students who would have attended these programs, but they may also bring with them unexpected changes to supplemental summer income that faculty and staff had been anticipating.

Faculty development centers also have a vital role to play in helping faculty make meaning of the experiences that they had throughout the initial COVID-19 response. As the intensity of the semester gives way to isolation of an academic summer coupled with social distancing, faculty development centers can create spaces for faculty to come together to reflect on the experiences they had during this period and project forward to the next academic year. It is also important to consider how we prepare for the experiences our students will bring back in the fall. This is again an opportunity for partnership in learning and development with student affairs. Based on the recent experiences, what opportunities are there for these two areas to connect in order to support students, share information related to student struggle, and engage in powerful ways in the future?

The pandemic will continue beyond Spring 2020 and the public health and economic impacts will be felt for years. Rather than stories of summer internships, jobs, and travel, our students are likely to return in the fall with a wide range of new trauma experienced since we last saw them on campus. Faculty and staff should be mindful of the types of students who will enroll at their institutions for Fall 2020.  How we have come to understand online learners, low-income students, and adult students will be redefined due to the pandemic. We as faculty and staff would do well to devote time this summer to considering how we will support them when we are afforded the opportunity to see them again.

How do we show grace to our students and ourselves during times of crisis?

The final question that we pose also contains within it our only truly prescriptive recommendation: find ways to show your students and yourselves grace during this time. A pandemic, or any large-scale crisis, is wrought with both collective and individual traumas. As we, and our students, encounter and process these traumas, our interactions should be guided by empathy, understanding, and kindness. The ways in which to do so are numerous and individual, but we offer some considerations that may guide your praxis.

First, we can show grace to our students by attempting to reduce uncertainty in our interactions with them wherever possible. This can take place both within and beyond the course environment. Periods of stress and trauma are ripe with instances of uncertainty that can reduce our students’ cognitive capacity and impair their ability to be fully present in our classes (Verschelden, 2017). By offering increased certainty in the form of explicit instructions, clearly communicated changes, and a window into our own decision-making logic as faculty and staff, we can help our students regain the cognitive capacity that the larger context may have striped from them.

Second, we can show grace to our students—and ourselves—by explicitly naming our own vulnerabilities, uncertainties, and struggles to students. By modeling this behavior, we normalize struggle and the difficulty of the situation we find ourselves in. This behavior both humanizes us in our students’ eyes and gives them permission to be human themselves—something that can easily be lost when interacting in solely virtual environments.

Third, we can show grace to our students and ourselves by actively listening to where our students are and meeting them there. During this move online, many educators have put hours of work into transitioning courses and work into formats they believed would work online, only to come to the realization that they did not function the way we imagined they would. These realities may be due to a number of reasons, but a common one is that the students engage with the content and technology in ways different than we anticipated. See these moments as opportunities to invite our students in to co-create this newfound virtual space. Just as we deliberately co-create brave classroom spaces (Arao & Clemens, 2013) with students in the first few weeks of a face-to-face class, we must do the same in the virtual environment.

Finally, we can show grace to our students and ourselves by celebrating moments of resilience both large and small. In this time of uncertainty and isolation, moments of resilience are easy to be missed or minimized. As we name our struggles, we must name our victories. Given the impact of COVID-19, new questions have emerged for faculty developers and student affairs educators as we continue to engage in activities to support students’ curricular and co-curricular experiences. By adopting a trauma-informed approach in our work, we can create a culture of care that benefits all members of the campus community. 


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Author Bios

William L. Harder, Ph.D. is the Director of Faculty Development and Teaching Excellence at Goucher College where he directs the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching. He also holds a faculty affiliation with the Center for People, Politics, and Markets. Most recently, he served as the Qualitative/Survey Research Methodologist in the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University. His research focuses on inclusive pedagogy, research methods pedagogy, social media, and state politics.

Brian L. McGowan, Ph.D. is the Associate Director of Pedagogy and Higher Education Research in the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning and Associate Professor of Education at American University. He has held several professional roles in higher education including housing and residence life, a higher education research center, and a faculty member in higher education and student affairs graduate preparation programs. His research focuses on Black male college student and faculty experiences in postsecondary educational contexts.

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