Republican-Eagle Op-Ed: "Students: We See You"
By Chad Dull, Vice President of Academic Affairs
Minnesota State College Southeast
Remember the movie Avatar? One of the big emotional payoffs is when the main characters say "I see you" to one another. It's a substitute for "I love you," but it's also more. It is acknowledgment of another's existence and importance. It resonates with me as an educator because good education is interconnected and interdependent. I am concerned that this pandemic will cause us to retreat to safety and isolation, when I believe the better choice is to recognize and celebrate our interconnectedness, even if we have to be distant physically. We have to see one another. Let me tell you how MSC Southeast is trying to make sure our students know we can see them.
MSC Southeast is invaluable as a tool for social mobility of individuals and for the economic vitality of our communities. We believe proximity to students and their stories is the reminder we need when things get hard. So what should we do in this time when it's harder to hear from our students? Our solution was pretty basic: We asked them.
We were concerned about how students were handling the incredible amount of change thrust upon them, so we sent them a one-question survey. It said: "We know this is a challenging time to be a college student. Please let us know both what is working for you and what you are struggling with." The answers we received were illuminating. Here is a little of what we learned.
Students are resilient. We heard answers like, "I am doing good. Staying indoors is important for myself and my (child) as (they) has a weakened immune system. We don't even go for walks due to the fact that this virus is so contagious. I have been keeping busy by doing school work and doing crafts... Other than that, things are going pretty good for the most part." Another student wrote, "I am just struggling with (class) but the instructor has been more than helpful. The real struggle is staying sane at home quarantined." Even with a change they had never asked for, these students were making the best of a difficult situation.
Even the students who were frustrated were surprisingly kind, with answers like, "Well, we've all been thrown a bit of a curve ball...we have GREAT GREAT GREAT teachers...not being able to have them face to face and missing all the hands-on stuff (which just can't be done online)... I'm just venting a little here... I will continue to do my best and hope it's good enough. I have hope that everything will work out in the end. Thank you for listening." I appreciated the student saying, "Thank you for listening." It's hard to not be able to fix all this, but we want them to feel heard and seen.
Students are struggling, no matter how much we want that to not be true. Statements like these told us the story of struggle: "My main problem is WiFi issues." "I am scared that I am going to fail this quarter." "I still have kids at home and trying my best to do everything. At the end of the day I did not chose online classes and it is extremely difficult." "I even felt like dropping out and that is not my goal at all because I do want to finish." There were many more responses, but the theme was clear. College can be hard, and the pandemic is making it harder. As a college that cares, these are not comfortable moments, but they are important. If we can't hear and see what is really happening, how do we change the world for these people who trust us to help them chase their dreams?
I believe the other side of this pandemic will look different in many ways. We don't know what all those changes will be, but it must start with understanding the journey of our students. The stories collected in our one-question survey tell us a lot about our students. These students are amazing. They are operating on thin margins, and they are counting on post-secondary education to make a difference in the arc of their lives. It is an awesome responsibility, and we work day and night to figure out the best way to continue the work of providing social mobility through education to the widest possible audience. If we don't SEE the students we serve, really see them, it will be too easy to give in to our own fatigue. If we could talk to them right now, we would want them to know, we see you!