COVID-19 might appropriately be called the “One World Virus,” underscoring our shared destiny. The global pandemic has triggered the ultimate disruption in higher education as almost every campus in the country manages its repercussions. This moment will likely redefine the significance of student affairs work and the worth of practitioners as strategic, compassionate, and collaborative institutional leaders.
At George Mason University, the president convened daily meetings with the executive team to share national, regional, and local up-to-the-minute public health information to inform daily decision making. Student affairs professionals worked collaboratively on university-wide financial, academic, and operational issues. The director of student health services, the institution’s de facto in-house medical authority, provided public health updates. Absent a medical school, there was an increased reliance on health practitioners who served students along with the expertise of the campus emergency health and safety team. Faculty researchers in the university’s College of Health and Human Services lent their expertise to create a COVID-19 risk assessment available online to all students and faculty.
Regular communication through daily virtual meetings with student-serving units is now essential with Webex and Zoom meetings as the primary means of connection. Continued strategic discussions include the development of a COVID-19 emergency fund, virtual commencement, orientation planning, virtual student employment opportunities, implementation of telehealth, online counseling services, e-recreation, e-engagement activities, and career success for graduating students to name only a few topics.
In addition, vice presidents for student affairs (VPSAs) found ways to support students for whom online instruction created additional hurdles: students with home bases not conducive to online learning; students with little or no access to technology or internet; students experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, and grief for themselves, loved ones, and family members; and students at risk of losing or who have lost their means to pay for and pursue their college careers.
It has become even more essential—and more challenging—to convey core institutional values in an online environment. While they do not intuitively convert from in person to online, student affairs professionals must find ways to communicate values despite the challenges. Institutional core values assure students that the campus remains the same place they chose, the place they love, and the place that will support them through these uncertain times to ultimate success.
The agility of student affairs practitioners to manage multiple student concerns in this moment is extraordinary and all-consuming, which underscores the need to consider the well-being of staff members. Continuing to make human connections, checking in, acknowledging that many staff members are managing grief and anxiety, finding opportunities to express gratitude and appreciation, and providing time for staff to regroup and re-energize are vital to relational work with colleagues and students.
Intelligence, kindness, and understanding are vital to unpacking the complexities involved in the decision-making process, as VPSAs continue to make educational and potential life-changing decisions that will affect students’ futures. The ability to accompany students through this shift in their educational experience will require continued compassion, flexibility, and authentic care and concern. Although practitioners may be stretched in unimaginable ways, student affairs staff must continue to move forward, incrementally, to do the next right thing. Student affairs work will accelerate a continued shift in the business of higher education with student well-being and holistic success at the center of all institutional decisions. Be prepared to lead the way.
This article was original published in Leadership Exchange.