“And they were like, ‘Oh no, let’s just meet on Wednesday instead!'” Rico said. “I did not know how to say, ‘I do not want to meet.’ “”
Rico is an educational program advisor at California State University-Channel Islands, serving primarily first-generation students from low-income households and historically marginalized backgrounds. He is one of thousands of staff who have worked in overdrive since the pandemic began, to keep students physically and mentally secure, fed, placed, equipped for virtual learning and as engaged as possible in this Bizarro World version of college life. .
Rico loves his job. But by the end of the fall 2020 semester, he was exhausted, emotionally drained, and had a severe case of Zoom fatigue. (Although, after all, he attended the virtual book club.) He’s not an outlier. Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, has spent more than four decades in the field, saying he has never witnessed this level of exhaustion among professionals in the field of education.
Now everyone in higher education is familiar with burnout; student staff and administrators are no different. Often called the backbone of an institution, and their job descriptions ensured they would have a particularly trying semester. These staff deal with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, said Smita Ruzicka, dean of student life at Johns Hopkins University. Everything from shelter and security to civic engagement and cultivating a sense of belonging fall within their area of responsibility.
Pressure? And it is. Long hours? And it is. Recognition? Sometimes, but not enough.
Now that supporting students is crucial to their success and to the health of institutions, experts are concerned that some staff may be leaving the field for good through layoffs or burnout. By nature, professionals in the field of study are in crisis, said Martha Compton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. But “no one is meant to deal with a crisis for 10 months in a row.”
Compton said she has been heard from friends and colleagues across the country who have told her that they will plan certain activities that students should do, only to get taller people to say things like: “This does not feel fun enough … We are a high-touch institution and this is not a high touch. “
Compton understands why this pressure exists. But, she said, “we’re in a pandemic.” And when you’re in a pandemic, it can sometimes not be as much fun as you want them to be.
Student-behavior and staff-in-residence have had to monitor the students for a new range of behaviors: not wearing a mask, not social distance properly, gathering in large groups. Partying in a pandemic has increased danger and increased consequences. Enforcing these rules has not been easy. No one came into the field “because they love being the funny cop,” Compton said.
Dealing with parenting has been another challenging duty. For any family that thinks the rules of pandemic safety are silly, there is a family that is concerned about the health and safety of their students who want the university to crack down harder, Compton said. Staff are often caught in the middle. “There is a constant balance between trying to do the best you can,” she said, “knowing that no matter what decision an institution makes at the macro or micro level, it will leave someone dissatisfied.”
Aside from navigating new parent-related and student concerns, it was at many institutions that the Department of Study Affairs had to set up unprecedented testing, quarantine and contract tracing of infrastructure. At the University of Rhode Island, which administered about 5,000 tests a week last fall and plans to double that number in the spring, the elevator was “herculean,” said Ellen M. Reynolds, assistant vice president of student health and wellness.
Food security was another logistical boost. In Tennessee, Austin Peay State University’s pantry went from performing approx. 15 orders per week for approx. 20 orders a day when the school was back in session in the fall, said Loretta Ussery Griffy, assistant vice president of academic strategic initiatives and fund engagement. Students’ needs “rose sharply,” she said, so the workload increased along with it.
On top of the pandemic, student affairs professionals helped students cope with other unforeseen obstacles and traumas. First came George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests against police violence and racial injustice. Then came a presidential election, after which Donald Trump refused to admit. When there is tension or disruption on campus, it is often the students’ affairs that convey it, said Lakeisha Mathews, director of the Career and Internship Center at the University of Baltimore.
Employees in color often perform diversity work, such as advising Black Student Union or informally mentoring students in color, while also dealing with their own racial trauma and fatigue around these incidents, said Ruzicka, dean of Hopkins.
Shortly after a pro-Trump mob, spurred on by the president, attacked the U.S. capital on January 6, Mathews could see that members of her team needed to address what had happened.
Seeing a Confederate flag waving in the Capitol building was jarring, she said. “We need to help our students understand that. We need to help them unpack it. But we must also help our employees to do so. “
Mfume, Assistant Vice President of Student Success and Retention at Morgan State University, now regularly sends his final email of the day around 6 p.m. 1 She catches five or six hours of sleep, wakes up, showers, dresses in professional clothes (at least from the waist up; she wears comfortable sweatpants that stay out of the frame on a zoom screen) and is back at it. 9 Her boss even has a hashtag for the division management team that Mfume is on: #TeamNoSleep. It’s a joke. Kind of.
Mfume said she knows she is blessed to be able to work from home. But the boundary between work and rest has become more porous. And the work itself has been intensely personal and emotional, Mfume said. She reaches out to any student who withdraws from university to find out why. They have told her about their own mental health struggles, that their family members were fired, that they are unsure of where to live.
Mfume has noted that she and her colleagues have “put us in the background so we can worry more about how the students are doing,” she said. “How are they? What is their anxiety? What is their stress? What are they unsure of?
“Which means I’m still sitting in my cramped chair, hour no. 16.”
Alex Yepez, a student success and support specialist at Ventura College, a community college in California, said his workload has certainly increased. Yepez used to focus on a specific population of students – those on or at risk of being put on academic probation. But after the pandemic began, he engaged in an “all-out flash” to ensure that all students, especially those who had fallen behind, got some sort of contact from the college.
As a triangular point on campus, the load can sometimes be “overwhelming,” Yepez said, but is manageable.
Karla Aguirre, an academic advisor at the CSU-Channel Islands, said she is learning to set boundaries. Like if it’s over at 19, she should not be in front of a computer screen anymore, even though there are unanswered emails in her inbox.
“I want to help them,” Aguirre said. “But also, I want to make sure I take care of myself as a person, otherwise I may not be able to provide the services or the attention they need.”
Aguirre is new. She started as a counselor just two weeks before the pandemic really got underway in the United States. So far, she has not fallen victim to burnout. But she knows she has to find work-life balance, because “if you ask me next year, it could be different.”
Yet university leaders are clearly concerned about the potential long-term consequences of the pandemic for employees. In a recent study, conducted by the American Council on Education, ranked college and university presidents collectively mental health among faculty and staff as their third most pressing concern. Students’ mental health ranks first, followed by the long-term economic viability of their institutions.
Compton, the student behavior association president, said she sees younger and younger employees asking if they can continue in the field. They might decide $ 30,000 a year, and free housing is not worth it, she said. Some also express dissatisfaction in the direction of, “This is not what I signed up for. I did not sign up to endanger my health and well-being, “said Kruger, Naspa president.
Leaders can take certain steps to ease the burden. Compton recommends that they have clear conversations with employees who are expected to enforce policy on what these policies are and what the expectations for enforcement are. That conversation is much easier to have at the front end, she said, so employees don’t have to cross their fingers and hope they did the right thing at the back end.
Ruzicka, the Hopkins dean, said that over the summer, the distribution of study affairs coordinated with other parts of the university to establish “meeting-free” days so people could get a breather.
Kruger recommended that leaders explicitly mention fatigue and burnout and provide rewards when they can, such as Fri.
That’s easier said than done. Austin Peay State is not in for a financial crisis, said Griffy, assistant vice president, but it feels like one could be just around the corner, just from observing what’s happening across the country. She has seen other institutions lay off staff and cut budgets. So there is internal pressure not to take time off to “continue”, she said.
What is certain is that the pandemic and the heavy workload that came with it will not go away any time soon. The cases are increasing. Problems still pop up like whack-a-mole.
In light of this security, some employees, like Mfume, have decided to change their habits. The assistant vice president told her boss that her New Year’s decision is not to be on email at 6 p.m.
For her own well-being, she said, she should be on #TeamMoreSleep.