An open letter to college students

Hi everyone,

If you’re on the semester system, you’re just about at the finish line. This most unusual semester is soon to end. If you’re on the quarter system, keep on moving forward; you’re going to get to the finish line.

This past month or so has been one of discovery, frustration, relief, sadness, highs, lows and a whole lot more.

I hope this letter offers you the chance to smile and to think.

I hope it helps you see opportunities for you to be a student leader once we return to campus.

I hope after reading this, you remember that an overwhelming majority of your faculty remain your allies in your education. Our classroom might now be in our dining room, but we’re still there for you.

Over the past month, you’ve discovered how well your instructors handle technology. You’ve also found out just how savvy you are with various technologies. Sadly, you’ve also learned that many of your fellow students don’t have the amenities you take for granted; their struggles to complete assignments are real.

Sometimes these technology shortcomings are funny. “Why can’t I get this to work!” you might have heard an instructor scream as you watched him or her via a video feed. Everyone smiled, a few people laughed and one person — maybe it was you — had the answer. Class resumed. Learning took place, and another moment of levity was realized when your professor’s dog or cat demanded to join your class!

At other times, those technology shortcomings aren’t funny. It was eye opening for me, and I’ve been in higher ed for two decades, to discover how many students across the country need the campus Wi-fi and desktop computers to meet their instructional needs. Perhaps they live in a rural area with poor Internet service. Perhaps their parent(s) can’t afford it. Perhaps their smartphone also is their primary computer. My ignorance to reality is something I take with me into future semesters, and I intend to be more attentive to such situations; perhaps you will, too.

Chances are abandoning campus, regardless of whether you lived there, has been a wrecking ball to your mental health. Your network of faculty and fellow students evaporated as we raced to the secure place we call home. Ah, but you’ve also learned that a whole lot of your fellow students don’t have a really good home. The reasons for that are numerous, and they all lead to one conclusion: When Joe or Brittany told you that they hated going home, they weren’t lying.

In the future, be an ally to the next Joe or the next Brittany.

The past few weeks might have marked the first time in your life you acknowledged anxiety was dominating your daily life. Or perhaps for the first time in your life you struggled with getting out of bed, or keeping in touch with friends, or completing your homework, or meeting deadlines or just being you. You also might have heard your friends talking about these situations now more than ever.

You’re not weak, and neither is your friend. Don’t you dare fall prey to that ridiculous idea that suggests unless you’re an always perfect, smiling and positive person that you’re flawed. Nonsense. You call someone who will listen. You seek professional help. You never tell yourself that you’re going to be laughed at, or that your reputation will be ruined, by asking for help.

Whenever you return to campus, become a powerful advocate for mental health. Walk into your school’s counseling center and find out what you can do to champion it. Something as simple as agreeing to hand out the counseling center’s fliers in your campus dining halls might make all the difference to that one person who’s sinking into a spiral of despair.

Your physical and mental health also have been threatened by the fear of coronavirus. Far too many of us know someone who contracted this vicious virus; worse, some of us have lost someone to it. There is nothing more painful than having to say that final goodbye to someone who has been influential in your life; you’ll experience that loss more and more as you get older, and you’ll learn a lot about yourself when you do. Some people grin and bear it, and they act as if nothing as happened. Other people need a period of public grief. Be a friend to both people.

When you get back to campus, also walk into your campus health center and ask how you can help the professionals working there. (No matter the size of your institution, there are not enough people employed in your counseling center and your health center; your offer of help will be appreciated.) Once again, that simple flier that reminds students of the free flu shot might be really important.

All of us in higher education would like to promise you a normal fall semester. We’d be lying to you if we were to make such a pledge. You must trust your school’s president or chancellor to make the right decision about whether to re-open campus in time for the new academic year to begin as it should. It’s what he or she wants. It’s what the faculty want. It’s what you want.

Regardless of when that day comes, return to campus cognizant of the simple blessings you have — everything from overall good health to a bedroom you can call your own — and eager to help your fellow students who have less.

Do it in memory of the person you lost to coronavirus. Do it because you remember what it felt like to feel scared and anxious. Do it because you can.

We’ll see you on campus soon! In the meantime, keep enjoying the video conferences, the phone calls and the emails that are helping you advance in your college career. And if the cat or dog makes an appearance, hey, that’s even better!

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