Our student survey results were crystal clear. UNW students can’t wait to be together again. Anticipating being on-campus, in-person, in the midst of the community they thrive in, feels like approaching an oasis in the COVID desert. I can reinforce that the staff and faculty are eager for that, too! I’ve been on multiple teams and subcommittees researching our options for fall, studying the decision-dominoes that happen with each scenario, and making recommendations on next steps. The shifting sands of COVID rules have us measuring classrooms for social distancing; drafting massive plans on how to keep students and staff as safe as possible; and pouring over CDC recommendations, MDH guidelines, and the governor’s latest executive orders. In my experience, there has never been a summer where your higher education professionals have worked harder to be ready to serve students well. Still, regardless of our preparation, we know compliance with safety standards will be an uphill battle.
National statistics tell us that our college students are in the age group dramatically on the rise for COVID-19. However, CDC data also shows a smaller percentage of younger people hospitalized. According to the NY Times (6/27/2020), Dr. Robert Redfield, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicated that while younger people “may not be highly associated with hospitalization and death, they do act as a transmission connector for individuals that could be at higher risk.” Unfortunately, the greater resilience of our students reinforces their natural sense of invincibility. You remember it---that “it won’t happen to me” feeling that comes with youth, and the “if I get it, I’ll bounce back quickly” attitude that results in carelessness and potential exposure for themselves and others. That seriously complicates the planning of administrators across the country who are eager to open universities, resume athletic events, and find their way to a new-normal. While we can do our best to keep our students safe at home or on campus, our biggest challenge might be battling that mindset.
The headline for a June 2020 Inside Higher Ed article read, “Students Aren’t the Best Rule Followers: Just knowing how to keep themselves safe is not enough for students to actually do it.” Our campus leadership will spend the rest of our summer on extensive mitigation plans to manage health and safety concerns. However, our success will count on students managing their own behavior. I’ve been working with students my whole career and am well acquainted with what DOESN’T work in gaining compliance. I generally avoid the words “required” and “mandated.” That approach works for delineating credits needed for a degree, but not for shaping behavior. I imagine you’ve likely had an experience where you shared your greatest wisdom with your student, only to feel ignored, but your student comes home bursting with the same great counsel they received from someone else. Let’s try not to see those experiences as insults. Our advice from another source may be effective for a couple of reasons. 1) Our students are “adulting” and NEED to build a sense of their own ability to make right choices, and 2) There is power in repetition (more about that in a minute).
Compliance isn’t a new challenge for college campuses. It’s just that the stakes have never been so high. It’s not my intention to be overly dramatic but the truth is, in order to make in-person courses happen, we are facing some tough decisions. More than ever, the actions of a single person in our community operating out of an assertion of person freedom (or carelessness) could cause great harm to others. We have students, faculty, and staff members facing underlying health conditions for themselves or a family member. They will be weighing the risk of being in a community where some folks may not be compliant with a request to wear a mask, maintain social distance, or be vigilant in their personal hygiene. We have zero desire to police student behavior but we are also preparing to be on the front lines of a health crisis that could, quite literally, take the life of a student, colleague, or family member at risk. This is serious stuff.
So how can we earn a student’s compliance as a campus community eager to be back together in the fall? If coaxing students to follow the rules were easy, we would always have students signed up for advising appointments well in advance, no trouble rounding them up when a fire alarm sounds in the residence halls, and no violations of community contracts to talk through together. The fact is, information alone is not enough to change behavior. We have posters ready with Screech the Eagle (campus mascot) wearing a mask. We have resources and instruction ready on theROCK. Orientation will include information on safety procedures. Still, knowing how to stay safe will not be enough for students to choose to follow through.
FORTUNATELY, WE HAVE THE GREAT ADVANTAGE OF PERSONAL CONVICTIONS TO RESPECT AND RESPONSIBILITY.
We have an advantage in being believers living in community. At UNW, our behavior is ultimately driven by our love for one another instead of our reliance on rules. Our most critical manual for how to operate in community is not a book of policies. It is Scripture. The Bible uses the Greek word allelon 100 times in the New Testament, which means “one another, each other; mutually, reciprocally.” Most of those examples are imperatives, or commands, teaching us how to behave toward one another. We are told to LOVE one another (John 13:34), HONOR one another above ourselves (Romans 12:10), CARE FOR one another (I Corinthians 12:25), SERVE one another (Galatians 5:13), LOOK TO THE INTERESTS of one another (Philippians 2:4), be COMPASSIONATE to one another (Ephesians 4:32), EXHORT one another (Hebrews 3:13), and SUBMIT to one another (Ephesians 5:21, I Peter 5:5). It is clear that our behavior choices as believers ought to be motivated by our RESPECT for others and our personal RESPONSIBILITY to put their needs ahead of our own. The power of care should supersede efforts at compliance.
We have that natural advantage--except for the problems of sin and brain development. College students are not thoughtless but they are young. Both parents and administrators need to operate with an understanding that our students’ prefrontal cortex, the part of their brain wired for good judgment and mature choices, is still a work in progress. They need what Lee Burdette Williams calls the “developmental power of redundancy.” That is, they most likely need repetition of the same message from multiple sources before the conviction-to-care will click.
We have the advantage that students are motivated by care for their families. Family influence is a key part of reinforcing convictions. I know that the support that comes from you, in advance of arrival, will help set the stage for a successful on-campus semester. Please consider reinforcing the messages that are consistent with Scripture and a Christian community navigating COVID. Your students will see signage encouraging masks, but not because we want to curtail their rights. We want to protect our community, just as you want them to make choices that protect your family. That intrinsic motivation is a great foundation for discussions about responsible behaviors that are respectful of others, whether that be acting out of care for their grandparents or their classmates.
We have the advantage that students are motivated by care for their community. As an Assistant Dean, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk to students about personal choices that did not set them up for success. We usually get to the right page of personal conviction and an opportunity to redeem a choice. However, I’ve noticed over the years that while students can be slow to own their personal behavior, they are usually quick to own choices when consequences affect a friend. In general, they are more concerned about taking care of those they care about than avoiding high risk themselves. I’m thrilled that some of our senior nursing students are stepping up to the plate to help our Health Care team create a messaging campaign for their peers. Students will receive messages from our president, but they will also receive messages from their peers, which may be among the most influential.
Let’s aim for the WHY without overlooking the HOW. While the HOW is important (when to wear masks, can we have visitors in our rooms, how to be seated for class), the WHY (my personal responsibility to demonstrate respect for others) is the most important message. We are grateful for your part in the “developmental power of redundancy.” It would be altogether too easy in our massive preparations, to overemphasize compliance. However, if families can be intentional and deliberate in conversations about choices that reflect Christ BEFORE we get to campus, we will be setting the stage for a grand opportunity to see our community culture transformed by care for one another in a challenging time. Imagine that…in the midst of COVID, God is gifting us with a chance to practice how to live together with respect and responsibility in our Christ-centered learning community.