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IDEAS

Half the reason for college is missing now

It’s the most underappreciated problem facing education this fall: the absence of non-academic student activities that give rise to new connections and ideas.

The campus of California State University in Chico was sparse on Aug. 31, days after the fall semester started. Chico moved all its classes online that day and told students to vacate campus housing because nearly 30 people had tested positive for the coronavirus.
The campus of California State University in Chico was sparse on Aug. 31, days after the fall semester started. Chico moved all its classes online that day and told students to vacate campus housing because nearly 30 people had tested positive for the coronavirus.Carin Dorghalli/Associated Press

Any other year, the Rev. Alison Boden would have stood before a grand assemblage in a gothic chapel this month, delivering a benediction to an entire class of incoming students. At Princeton University’s annual “opening exercises,” Boden, Princeton’s dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel, would have welcomed students, faculty, staff, and any and all deities who might be in attendance, to “Join us on this day of new beginnings — of hope, and joy, and expectation — as we enter, together, a new adventure of teaching and learning.”

That age-old ceremony, meant to prompt reflection on the purpose of one’s education, isn’t happening at Princeton this year. Not even on Zoom.

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Likewise, nearly every element of the experience that education administrators call “student life” in colleges (and high schools) has essentially been canceled for months, presenting the most underappreciated problem facing American education this fall: the absence of activities that account for at least half of the point of education.

Religious life. Service learning. The arts. Racial and many other kinds of identity/affinity spaces. Sports, robotics competitions, clubs for hobbies of every conceivable and many inconceivable kinds. And last but perhaps most importantly, millions of informal, in-real-life discussions about how to imagine and shape a collective future that will be a lot different than the one we imagined even a few years ago.

All canceled. Undone.

Maybe these sound like trivial matters, #firstworldproblems, compared to more obvious impacts of COVID-19. Certainly, the academic, financial, physical, and mental health of students, faculty, and staff is of critical importance. And I’m hardly against shutting down campus communities — like the ones I myself tend to, having spent 16 years as a chaplain at two universities and a quarter century enmeshed in campus life — in order to stop the virus’s spread. In fact I am a passionate supporter of physical distancing, masks, and other scientifically based guidelines set forth by latter-day saints like Dr. Anthony Fauci. On a summer Zoom call with fellow MIT chaplains about whether we could reopen our Office of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life to in-person events in the fall, I sent them all the GIF of basketball legend Magic Johnson shaking his head and saying, “I’m not gonna be here!”

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Still, educational institutions and those who care about them risk everything if we forget that non-academic student activities help students become fully human. As we face some of the scariest, most disrupted and disruptive semesters in the history of modern education, we need a nationwide educational culture centered on cultivating and retaining our humanity, not just grades or fighting for every last dollar in an unstable economy.

I still remember my own freshman orientation in Ann Arbor, late summer of 1995. E. Royster Harper, the University of Michigan’s longtime vice president for Student Affairs and one of the first Black women to hold such a role anywhere, passed out index cards to each incoming student and asked us to write a kind of time capsule to ourselves, holding on to the card for at least four years as a reminder of our commitment to become better and wiser people.

Harper’s moving message, at least as I heard it, was about becoming more than just a cog in the wheel. You were supposed to get involved in college, to express yourself. And, wow, did I. Several hair colors, poor fashion choices, and literally several thousands of events and meetings later, the quarter century I’ve spent on college campuses as an undergraduate, grad student, and chaplain has, at its best, been less devoted to academics and more to this ideal of being human.

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Now, many of us will be fighting to stay human during this pandemic, and I’m one of many campus professionals nationwide who will be experimenting, in the coming months, with new ways to address these issues.

As schools shut down in March, I worried about students left mostly alone to cope with not only the academic and logistical but also the moral dimensions of this crisis. What does it mean to maintain healthy relationships, to fight for the common good, or simply to hold out hope for the future, under these unprecedented conditions? In any other kind of disaster, I would have called meetings to discuss such questions. Lots of meetings. But that was out, so I started working on a podcast. The project, “Staying Human,” is currently in production, and I’m eager to explore how online dialogue might best nurture our faith in our common humanity, when we most need it.

We’ll need many kinds of conversations. To help us convene them, we might lean more on professionals in the field of student affairs, who are experts in the work of cultivating humanity.

I recently talked with Jane Fried, a longtime scholar-practitioner in the field of student life, about the history of her profession. In the 1930s, American educational paradigms focused on character development gave way to a German model emphasizing science and research above all else. Scholars such as Esther Lloyd Jones, however, fought back against “arid intellectualism,” insisting that universities are meant to promote higher truths about the human experience. The discipline has evolved since, responding to waves of students flooding campuses after World War II, to the upheaval of the 1960s, and to increased campus diversity more recently.

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Fried, a therapist who chose student affairs because she wanted to be a rabbi and women weren’t ordained back then, is one of many current professionals in the Esther Lloyd Jones tradition. Student life, she insists, helps us determine “what matters,” both to us as individuals, and collectively. Without it, much of academics is either absurd, or coercive, or both. Because without a why for learning, what good is the endless devotion demanded by our classroom and work lives, beyond simply serving powerful interests who are happy to see our lives amount to little beyond their more clearly defined ends?

Which begs the question: Short of reopening campuses, how can we make the educational experience meaningful this fall and winter?

Boden, the Princeton dean, encourages more virtual meetings. She’s not preaching theology, just constantly reminding students to “opt in” to connection.

Cynthia Evers, interim vice president for Student Affairs for Howard University, spoke to me on a busy first day of her first-ever all-virtual semester. Evers is taking an ambitious approach to “developing the whole person,” citing Howard’s motto of “excellence in truth and service” as a guiding principle for a wide variety of offerings, including online yoga and wellness, book clubs, expanded counseling and mental health support, and virtual programs in partnership with the nearby Smithsonian Institution. Less formally, Evers will undertake a “calling campaign,” to simply check in on the well-being of students who may have missed prom, commencement, and other milestones along the road of a young adult’s interpersonal development. “Individuals with a high sense of belonging are more engaged learners, happier, and more productive,” says Evers, citing research influential in her field.

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Ohio University’s vice president of Student Affairs, Jason Pina, invokes “sense-making” as a core principle for his 350-member staff and the thousands of students they serve. They emphasize the need for campus leaders to get to know one another’s life stories in order to help each person to make sense of a world that can be chaotic even in the best of times. In these times, nearly all the best practices Pina would have drawn upon during his 26th fall season in Student Affairs, are impossible this fall. For example, the 2,000 part-time jobs for student employees who would have gained a multigenerational community, learning valuable life lessons while employed part-time in the university’s dining services have been eliminated. The university has adapted, nonetheless, improvising opportunities for students to produce a professional online music festival and comedy shows, in partnership with local professionals; it has also doubled down on initiatives in development before COVID-19, such as a leadership development program aiming to improve students' adaptability, self-awareness, and intercultural understanding.

Campus leaders elsewhere are doing the same, with infinite variety.

Still, building a sustainable and meaningful campus community will be hard this fall. Not even the generations of scholarship and expertise amassed by people like Boden, Fried, Harper, Evers, or Pina are enough to fully prepare us for this. Or at least, while I found it comforting and edifying to speak with each of them, I still feel unprepared. I appreciate, therefore, Pina’s transparency with staff and students alike. He often tells them “I just don’t know” all the answers to the dilemmas this semester will pose.

“I just don’t know,” fortunately, turns out to be the heart of a lesson I learned years ago, when a popular campus community center I spent a decade building was preparing to close, to the great disappointment of myself and other participants. Wondering how to transition to whatever would come next in our lives, we turned to research by the late William Bridges, a preeminent authority on coping with change. The aptly named Bridges was known for his theory that life transition starts not with a new beginning, but with grief and loss, which cause a process of what he called disengaging, dismantling, and finally disidentifying with the thing you’re transitioning from. Certainly, for students whose time on campus may be brief, campus life, as previously imagined, is over.

But Bridges also found that, after endings, successful transitions are marked by an extended period — months, even years — in what he called a “neutral zone” of uncertainty. Turns out, allowing ourselves to experience confusion and rootlessness boosts our ability to eventually emerge refreshed and ready for what will feel like a truly new beginning.

We don’t need to know exactly what to do on our campuses. We just need to move forward honestly, vulnerably, lacking familiar options, but determined to simply . . . be human, searching for meaningful connection until we somehow create it, together.

May every student of life remember to put humanness first — or at least on equal footing with academics — this year.

Greg M. Epstein is the humanist chaplain at Harvard and MIT and author of “Good Without God.” Follow him on Twitter @gregmepstein and sign up for his newsletter here.