A short essay based on conversations with my daughter.
As a faculty member, being at home during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been difficult for me. I am an introvert, despite what people may assume, and I love solitude. I navigate crises well and tend to do my best work during the most difficult periods of my life. I’m not a fan of phone calls or Zoom meetings, but I do them as they are vital for being in touch with students, faculty colleagues, and collaborators across the country. For me, the most eye-opening aspect of being home during COVID-19 has been watching my 21-year-old college junior navigate the pandemic and listening to her concerns. We are very close and often spend time talking about any and every issue, but I have been purposeful in my questions to her about her experience, her mental health, and her perspectives. I’ve also spent time asking how her friends are navigating the pandemic as they represent a diverse group of young people in terms of race, class, religion, sexuality, and region of the country.
Yesterday, as she turned 21, with a birthday party for just us given that we aren’t leaving our home, we sat and talked about her thoughts on the pandemic, her future, and the thoughts of her peers. She shared that although she is concerned about health and looks to science for direction, she and her peers want to go back to campus in the fall. They want an on-campus college experience, the tradition, the camaraderie, and that they enjoy the interaction with faculty in the classroom. She mentioned understanding that there are many types of colleges and ways of learning, a byproduct of being my daughter, but that she had chosen to attend a small liberal arts college and to live on-campus purposefully because that is the best environment for her. She hoped that colleges and universities wouldn’t rush to make a decision about whether fall classes should be online, but rather that they think this decision through thoroughly and consider the health precautions and the perspectives of students who want to grow, navigate life, and learn.
My daughter expressed concern for students who are pursuing majors that require hands-on work, such as the sciences or art. As a fine arts major with a focus on printmaking, she can’t do her work without a studio space and large equipment. Her friends in science need to be in a lab to collaborate with faculty on experiments. My daughter shared that she’s afraid that she won’t learn everything she should in her major and that she won’t be prepared for the future.
So often, I hear the general public say that there isn’t much difference between online learning and on-campus learning. Although it’s possible to have a rich learning experience in a virtual space, the campus experience is incredibly different. When I asked my daughter to tell me about her virtual experiences, she noted that her professors were trying really hard to provide the best learning experience possible. She understands that most of them have never taught virtually, laughing about one of her professors who wouldn’t even accept an electronic paper submission prior to COVID-19. Learning online is satisfactory, however, what she misses the most are the on-campus experiences with friends, in clubs, and most of all the traditions and milestones to be marked with her classmates.
As the conversation moved to her future—she will graduate next year—she admitted that she feels terrible about the country right now. Just when she and her friends think that it can’t get any worse, it does, and for so many people, but especially people of color, immigrants, and low-income individuals. Although my daughter is excited to vote for the first time in the upcoming presidential election, and said that of course she will vote for the Democratic candidate, she wishes that there was a candidate who was closer to her generation and who understood the needs of people her age as well as the kind of nation they want to live in; a more just and humane nation. She worries about the increases in racism, xenophobia, homophobia, White supremacy, classism, and the lack of education around the pandemic. She shared that from her perspective and that of her friends, tensions are high, people are divided, and policies are not progressive. They are all worried about opportunity for their generation.
During and after these conversations with my daughter, I reflected on how we often think that we know what is best for people her age and that we rarely ask college students for their perspective on their learning process. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in its impact and scope, but it also provides an opportunity for all of us in higher education to re-think our approaches and to invite students to be part of that process. I hope we will consider listening a little more closely, finding ways to solicit student perspectives and to be more humble in our certainty that we always know what is best for the generations that follow us.