As the start of the academic year approaches, it is evident that higher education professionals everywhere are concerned about how this year will turn out given that we are emerging from months of social distancing to continue education in the midst of a global pandemic. Student affairs professionals are anxiously wondering if and how they can provide quality experiences and supports for students, regardless of whether they are studying on campus or remotely - and students are asking the same question. With thousands of students looking to them for support, student affairs professionals are under pressure to work harder than ever while keeping a smiling face to ease students’ worries - but, how does one do this when they are both student and staff?
Graduate students in higher education administration and student affairs programs are at the intersection of two identities: current student and new professional. One thing that has seemingly been left out of the conversation in the higher education news cycle since the pandemic began is the wellbeing of graduate students, particularly those who play a key role as part-time staff in offices across our universities. It is important to consider the wellbeing of these graduate students, who too face many difficult challenges of their own yet are eager to dive into the work of transitioning university operations to alternative methods - all while working in new landscapes either at home or in-person despite the risks to their own mental and physical health.
Even more essential is to consider the distress brought on by the ever-changing and uncertain conditions of the pandemic that negatively impacts this population. As colleges and universities continue to slowly meter out information on what the academic year will look like and announce changes to their return to campus plans, graduate students must worry about the same needs as undergraduates like food, housing, and finances. The constant change in return dates, emails from university administrators offering daily blows to their plans, and the threat of losing on-campus jobs and education access is mentally exhausting. Nobody can function when they’re operating from a scarcity mindset, continuously bombarded with anxiety over their basic needs, educational and professional future, and holistic health. This rings especially true for those who rely on graduate school to serve as a safe place away from forms of abuse and have nowhere else from which to draw these resources should their plans suddenly change.
People who don’t have their basic needs met cannot perform at their best - and that high performance is exactly what universities need from new professional graduate students during this demanding time. This is a very basic concept outlined by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a staple of any student development theory or psychology course. If the point of higher education is to provide students with the resources, education, and experiences to reach their full potential, then we as a field need to think about how we can provide this same high level self-actualized thinking at the top of the pyramid when our students - both undergraduate and graduate - are currently unable to climb the bottom rungs.
Here are some recommendations for ways graduate students can create psychological security for themselves as they continue to serve undergraduate students in their graduate assistant roles this year amidst the physical and psychological threats posed by the pandemic:
- Recognize that students face personal challenges. Like you, they are concerned about their access to basic physical needs and may feel lonely being away from friends and family during this chaotic and fearful time. Consider the trauma of students for whom home is not a safe place. Be cognizant of the psychological labor that students undergo every time the institution announces yet another major change, even if doing so is intended to protect the health and safety of the campus community. This is something that we should be doing all the time, even without a pandemic.
- Seek out mental health resources and focus on self-care. This can be incredibly hard for some to do and it is one of those things that student affairs professionals preach to their students but often fail to practice. As a graduate assistant, there are both student and staff resources available to you, such as counseling, outdoor spaces to take a walk in, and identity centers.
- Focus on discernment. Remember why you wanted to become a student affairs professional and why your own undergraduate experience was special. Push yourself to stay motivated and innovative so that you can continue to find ways to help your students create similar experiences that guide them on their own personal and professional journeys.
Author: Alexa Paleka (she/her/hers) is a rising second-year student in the Higher Education Administration M.Ed. program at Vanderbilt University and a graduate of St. Norbert College with a B.A. in Communication & Media Studies. She is passionate about protecting education access for college student populations impacted by trauma and understanding the ways in which organizational communication theory plays a role in institutional responses to sexual misconduct. She currently works as a Coach in the Growth & Purpose for Students (GPS) Office at Belmont University helping students with academic and professional discernment, and her goal is to continue sexual violence prevention work upon graduation in May 2021. Alexa can be found on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandra-paleka/.