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  • Writer's pictureLiz Gardner

Risky Business: Re-opening College Campuses this Fall

So very glad to read this Op-ed in the New York Times by Laurence Steinberg, Temple University professor and author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence ”— which takes a harder look at some of the more fantastical ideas to re-open college campuses amid what will no doubt be an ongoing re-spike and influx of coronavirus cases and the usual challenges of the adolescent brain (in a nutshell: enlarged pleasure center + diminished executive function + lack of self-control = high risk behavior in a sea already white-capped with risky business all around). GAH.

"These plans,"he writes, "are so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff." Yep. And also, GAH again.

Back in May, Michael Sorrell, in his essay"Colleges Are Deluding Themselves: Institutions are letting their financial and reputational worries cloud their judgment about when they can safely reopen," highlighted the dilemma at the crux of the decision: "In this environment, we face fair questions about higher education’s business model, cost, and long-term prospects—and about whom higher education ultimately serves. Do we serve the students and families who appear at our doors each fall full of hope and faith? Or does self-preservation come first?"

Why are colleges presenting as being so confident and decisive about their re-opening plans? I understand the need to get back in the swing — for many reasons — and for their desire to come off as being in full command of their decisions and plans — particularly in the face of so much uncertainty. The enthusiasm and excitement behind the "Let's do this! We can do this! And this is how we're going to do it!"can-do attitude reminds me of how I often coach my students to trick their brain into thinking they aren't anxious but excited — something that can help them move with greater ease through challenging tests, pressure-filled performances, and interviews. A power pose in the form of a mindset shift. And it works! Colleges have reason to be anxious; why wouldn't they be nervous? Maybe the veil of enthusiasm and confident is simply that. What do we know anyway?

"My suspicion,” Susan Dynarski, a University of Michigan economist, wrote on Twitter, is that “colleges are holding out hope of in-person classes in order to keep up enrollments.” She added: “If they tell the difficult truth now, many students will decide to take a year off,” which “will send college finances into a tailspin.” Yep again. GAH. I can't say that enough these days.

So what should, can a student do? In the same breath, students were thrown out of the nest and then forcibly brought back to the nest and told to stay there — not the way it is supposed to be for fledglings! And yet holding tight to any hope that things will get back to "normal" or to any expectation of how things are supposed to be will only result in even more frustration — and suffering. Things are different now; they may never go back to how they were. And do we want them to? I'd say the jury is still out on that, but the word on the street is that we may very well arrive soon at an emphatic NO, thanks. Some things, perhaps, should be conserved, but much of the world order needs to crumble, systems of injustice actively dismantled, and then re-imagined from the ground up. Community by community. We know this. There is much that is under consideration right now in the world, including the way we've thought about the college experience, with all its in-person, hands-on, interactive juice and connective tissue fueling a more full-throttled, vibrant, multi-layered education in all ways, and how online classes simply can't come close to providing or replicating the experience, the benefits. We can acknowledge this or not. Or work harder to do it better. Can colleges do the work to move beyond this, to accept the harsher realities of the growing need for a massive, systemic reconfiguration, and then do the work to figure out how to keep their communities safe while creating new, dynamic ways of educating our young people that serves, protects, and honors the full complexity of their tendencies, strengths, and needs within a fast-changing world?

Given the possibility that students may return to college (or start their freshman year) only to have most of what makes a college education full and rich and worth the ridiculous amounts of money people must fork over yanked out from under them — or not return at all because schools have decided at the last minute that it is indeed delusional and unsafe and revert back to online classes without giving faculty and students enough of a heads up to plan ahead for making it way better than the spring was — is it even worth hoping that a return this fall is on the map?

Or should students take a year off and re-imagine the possibilities? And if they do that, what exactly are their options, given that most GAP year programs will be canceled, given the perils of traveling in general and gathering in large groups, the difficulty in finding paid work and internships, of navigating this new world?

Students of all ages, like the rest of us, have basic needs that must be met if they are to gain traction in their lives: to stay connected, feel capable, and as if they count, a particularly challenging task when so much is changing, uncertain, different. How then to be an active, engaged, contributing member of the community, both small and immediate and global? Of a family? How to feel fly at a time when feeling fly is so critical to stepping more fully into themselves? How to move forward, continue learning, growing, giving shape to who they are, to who and how they want to be, to find their place, where they can be of greatest use, of greatest good? How to simply gain traction in their lives? Start supporting themselves? Gain critical experience, insight, and mentoring so they can more easily transition into the workforce — and cultivate a strong toolkit so that they, too, might help others create possibility in their lives as well, so that that ecosystem of support, mentorship, and encouragement can remain strong and active?

As more and more of what and how we do things is being re-designed, my hope is that there will be more encouragement and opportunities for young people to shift and still find themselves in a place of possibility and wonder for the world. There are opportunities NOW for young people to do the work to figure out ways to open their maps so they can see many different pathways for themselves — to create this new landscape of possibility, especially when so much seems to be reducing and restricting their world to "impossibilities," and re-position themselves and find new ways of growing into their strengths where they are most needed. But they will need help — to find and see their starting point, imagine the possibilities, figure out their next steps, and then lean into the more systematic rigor of remaking their world — the beginning of a great adventure, perhaps, for them, yes, and for all of us, too.

“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don't know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don't know.” ― Pema Chödrön, "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times"

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