Being Students in COVID-19: Intergenerational Dialogues

By Bill Durden, Ph.D.
President Emeritus, Dickinson College
Courtesy Professor (research), School of Education, Johns Hopkins University
Authored for LifeRamp

Being a student during COVID-19 is a most stressful experience. There are not only health concerns surrounding you and your families as well as the community at large, but there is the uncertainty about your education in the future–Will it still be online in the fall? If you are back on campus or at school, will social distancing still be in effect and what will that mean for you, your classmates and your teachers? What will the college application process and the job market look like? Will a full choice of colleges still be available or will numerous close due to failing finances during the pandemic? Will your entry job market be limited?

These are all serious questions at this point without answers and, therefore, it is quite natural that you would be concerned. Not to be concerned would be quite unnatural. But you are not alone. Worry is intergenerational—your generation and those of others. It is good to talk with friends and those whose opinions you respect—parents, relatives, friends—about the challenges that face you.

In the spirit of intergenerational exchange, I offer one bit of advice as you engage the immense challenges ahead.—knowing that yes, at some point, the pandemic will recede and life will go on enriched by your contributions in so many areas of confronting shared global challenge made all the more real by the pandemic— e.g., climate change, income inequality, healthcare, financial stability and commitment to the common good. I offer advice that could influence positively your future in college or launching into a job, as far-fetched as that might seem to you at this moment of uncertainty.

Turn Seeming Deficits into Assets.

Often what are judged deficits are actually assets. I wrote about this seeming contradiction some years ago in the online journal Inside Higher Ed in relationship to first-generation college students, that is, those whose parents, grandparents, etc., did not go to university. In that commentary I claimed that first-generation students need to be told early and often that, while they face formidable societal constructs to impede their progress, their very experience brings with it advantages that other people don’t have. And that experience, when recognized and cultivated, can permit them both to excel and make changes in society itself –

As students of the COVID-19 pandemic you are seemingly “deficited.” You, unlike many generations before you,  cannot complete your school year in the live presence of your classmates, faculty and administrators. You cannot enjoy all the extracurricular activities that being in school offers as well as in many cases graduation amongst classmates, friends and family. Your learning is being conducted online and while much praise must be given to your schools for responding so fast to permit your education to continue at a distance when the pandemic required such measures, arguably, online education cannot replace all that a live environment affords you educationally.

This situation sounds like a deficit and yet, appreciated in another way (and seeing things in another way makes all the difference in your life success), it may well provide you an asset for your later engagement in college and employment.

Online learning is not easy, especially when you are isolated in your own home with numerous daily distractions. To be successful, you need to apply motivation and persistence, two qualities that are highly desired by many colleges, if you are now a high school student, and by employers, if you are about to enter the job market. The task for you, however,  is to recognize that you are applying these traits to your activities and to be prepared to cite this period of learning and how you approached it when asked by college or job recruiters in the future.

While you are living through the pandemic, record specific moments when your motivation and persistence were tested and how you dealt with that you keep going. What was it in you that carried you forward. Remember these moments when writing a college essay or sitting for a job interview.

As mentioned above, during the pandemic you are required to practice social distancing, a wise and important measure to stem the spread of the virus. Such isolation could be judged a deficit. And yet, when examined with an eye to life success, you are gaining incredible experience in a key practice that colleges and employers like to see in applicants—the ability to work well in teams—intergenerational teams. For hours on end you are living and working—doing chores—with parents and siblings, perhaps even a grandparent in your home. You have to adjust to this intimacy and daily routine to make the social group with whom you are isolated a success. There is a give and take—naturally tense at times—but manageable so that you can emerge as a unit whole after the challenge. You have to play your part in your “team’s” success. Again, the key for you now is to appreciate the skills you are acquiring in this seemingly strange environment and refer to them with specific examples at a later point when inevitably asked whether you have experience working in teams (and in this case, under unprecedented pressure).

The secondary challenges of the pandemic that you now face, such as learning online instead of being live in school and practicing social distancing at home can be viewed as deficits. That is quite understandable and unfortunately, many students are doing just that. But those of you who are appreciative of how assets can always be found in deficits will emerge from the pandemic with a further contribution to your life ramp to success. What you are doing is engaging a critical component of life success—engaging the journey of self-reflection on the way to self-realization through education and employment.