A COVID paradox: I haven’t stepped foot on Duke’s campus since March 6. Yet, in the months between the start of remote learning, this past spring, in the face of COVID-19 and the start of the fall semester, I have felt more meaningfully connected to the Duke community than at any other time during my thirty-seven years as a member of its faculty.

After spring break, I looked through my laptop screen at eighteen first-year students in my Education seminar “What Now? Why Are We Here: The Purposes of College.”

A six-by-eleven-inch Lenovo screen with nineteen squares. Students apart geographically, seemingly confused at times—a feeling I shared, stunned and disconnected by all that is happening around us. This isn’t going to be easy, I told myself, even though I had rehearsed the technology surrounding Zoom. I wondered how these first-year students were feeling—and if we could substantially engage the themes of the course while grappling with our new classroom space, this technology, what feels like a singular moment.

By late April, as my seminar students and I became more acclimated to our new ways of thinking and being together, we began to have deeper conversations. I noticed that the nature of the students’ questions was changing; their questions become less transactional and more meaning-based. One student asked: “Why do we feel such a need to be so busy when we are on campus?” Another commented: “Now that I am sitting still with myself, I am beginning to see parts of me which previously were invisible.”

As the spring semester drew to a close, the students began to talk about their summers. Most of their plans, including internships, had been canceled. They seemed lost in not having a plan to pursue, as they described it, to “help themselves stay productive.”

I received word from Sue Wasiolek ’76, M.H.A. ’78, LL.M. ’93 that her Student Affairs division and the Duke Alumni Association were launching a “Keep Exploring” initiative with the goal of expanding connections, learning opportunities, and summer internships for students in the face of COVID-19. I joined the initiative, and, over the summer, we facilitated a series of student conversations, “Keep Being Keep Connecting,” to support the project.

Similar to my “What Now?” seminar, these summer conversations with small groups of students generated questions about how we might transform “the busyness” we all at times feel on campus to a slower version of our educational lives, ones with more meaningful connections and a greater sense of community.

Toward the end of the summer, our students composed reflective essays. One stated: “Since the beginning of high school, I have been stuck on a hamster wheel of measurable statistics to define my worth—be it ACT and SAT scores, awards accrued, or GPA. So when I think of college as a place where I am measured by what I do rather than who I am, it feels misleading. The truth is, I’ve been in constant search of this elusive notion of ‘success’ since I was fourteen years old, driven not by inner trust and authenticity but by what I’ve been conditioned to believe is necessary for a good and fulfilling life. So when I was told in March that I would be spending the rest of my second semester of freshman year at home, doing school remotely, I remember not feeling an intense grief for what was being lost but rather, a pit in my stomach unwinding. It was a feeling of relief.”

Another wrote: “While many Duke students were confused, upset, and even outraged when the decision was made that most of us students would be heading home to complete the spring semester, I almost felt relieved. It seemed like the universe was staging an intervention into my life. I may not have been willing to get my life together on campus, but by returning home, I was able to finally leave behind some of the more toxic habits I had picked up at Duke. Before spring break, I had been pulled around by my poor choices, like a puppet on a string. I felt unable to achieve the grades I wanted to achieve, to get the sleep I knew I needed, and to give my body the proper care that it deserved.”

Our students appear to have found more meaning and purpose in slowing down following the onset of COVID-19, sitting still with themselves, becoming fully immersed in the present moment. They are imagining new possibilities for their lives and those of their communities, some are awakening to injustice, interrogating assumptions, setting aside judgments, respecting silence, finding their voices, embracing the complexity of their stories, and turning to wonder.

I wonder whether we can find and hold space for the good in this moment alongside all the challenges, recognizing in this moment an opportunity to be in a learning community with each other in deeper ways than before. The “Keep Being Keep Connecting” conversations revealed to me that our students believe there is no return to normal. We can do better than normal. After all, as one student commented, normal never was the best version of our Duke selves.

This fall, I am teaching and mentoring differently. My productive days are defined by the fifteen minutes carved out in every class period in which students are invited to reflect on their well-being and deeper goals of pursuing an education. Because the intellectual content of my class centers on the aims of education, I am able to ask questions about personal purpose, meaning, and well-being that connect directly to our course goals.

Are students thinking differently about their own academic and career pathway? How might your other courses in biology, economics, and literature connect to this moment? How can we best balance individual freedoms and our responsibilities to the collective community? Does anyone have a joyful story to share?

These moments of deeply human connection and authentic conversation seem to resonate with students. Listening quietly as they speak is often the biggest statement I can make—“listening another’s soul into life, disclosure, and discovery,” as Douglas Steere wrote. I circulate an electronic sign-up sheet for individual meetings, leaving a buffer for these one-on-one conversations to run over as we discuss their hopes beyond Duke, things bringing them joy, and the ways in which the themes of our course speak and do not speak to their lived realities in this moment. Their silences in our conversations and class discussions speak just as loudly as their words. At the end of each class, I invite the students to reach out with the palm of their hands, to touch their computer screens in a symbolic gesture of our learning community; at first, it seemed silly, but over time, I think we all have come to look forward to this moment. Our students are yearning for connection, context, and community—I am trying harder than ever to find ways to provide these.

Malone is professor of the practice of education.

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