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Other Duties as Assigned: Surviving a Pandemic as a Student Affairs Practitioner

Health, Safety, and Well-being Supporting the Profession Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Graduate Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level
September 27, 2020 Amanda Morales Texas A&M University Corpus Christi

Never in all my years of student affairs experience would I have pictured a year quite like 2020. No amount of emergency management training, leadership development programs, higher ed law seminars, conference programs, graduate classes, HR onboarding, safety webinars, or personal therapy sessions could have prepared me for the absolute learning curveball that Covid-19 has thrown at us all.

As a Res Lifer, my career has been all about creating a home away from home where students learn, grow, have fun, and live in close quarters. Bringing students together is what we do best. This year, though, we have had to keep them apart. For me, personally, the last six months have meant trying to figure out my job as a newly minted housing director halfway across the country from my family and friends while simultaneously working on pandemic response. 

Throughout this pandemic we have all done a lot of work. Sometimes this work has been outside of the purview of our normal job functions. We’ve removed or rearranged furniture and limited or outlawed guest visitation. Masks and social distancing are campus mandates everyone has to enforce. We have updated policies and procedures throughout the past six months. Classes and trainings have been pushed online in the blink of an eye. Faculty and staff across campus have been asked to recreate entire programs that took months, if not years, to hone into great student experiences. We’ve spent hours/days/months on the phone with upset parents and students (I’ve literally lost my voice several times). Some of us have been laid off, furloughed, or had our job searches halted as budgets across the country crash and burn. All this and more in the midst of a mind-bending pandemic featuring everything from Joe Exotic to a heated presidential campaign, from murder hornets to massive civil unrest due to current and systemic injustice (or due to the inability to get haircuts for some folks). Not to mention being worried about catching—and potentially dying from—an unbridled, proliferating virus with no cure that has spread faster than glitter in a student work room and caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people in the US and almost a million worldwide.

“Other duties as assigned.” Well sh*t, y’all (in my best Leslie Jordan impression).

Other duties as assigned has always been the catch all for us as student affairs folks (and many other types of careers, I’m sure). Run to Walmart for $400 worth of hot dogs and buns for an event—other duties as assigned. 2 am emergency—other duties as assigned. Pie a professional day—other duties as assigned. Plan the staff potluck—other duties as assigned. Although some “other duties” are enjoyable or infrequent or both, it seems that pandemic “other duties” have been never-ending and challenging to say the least.

From what I can tell in talking with other SA folks and reading articles and comments in SA groups, many people have been facing pandemic “other duties” (PODs, for the rest of this post) that have no relation to their actual job. Taping off six-foot spaces. Checking temperatures. Delivering meals. Distributing PPE. Some are facing not just one or two PODs, but literally the changing of their entire way of work. And let’s not even talk about how our personal lives are going as we are stuck in the house, maybe working from home, teaching our kids, all while trying not to die from the ‘Rona.

So, what can we do in the midst of what has turned into a very intense year (COVID-19 and otherwise)? One thing we can do is to try to embrace the PODs, but not at the risk of your family and health (this includes your mental health). Speak up when you feel something in the process isn’t right. Advocate for and protect your team and the students you serve. In order for us to maintain we have to all work together and roll with the punches, but we shouldn’t do so at the expense of ourselves and those we love. Right now, especially, we can really see our universities (the good and the bad). Take note and move accordingly. If change is needed, be the catalyst.

Be there for your students! They need us right now. Imagine being in their shoes and starting or continuing your academic journey during a pandemic. They need our support, our empathy, our patience, and our guidance as we all work to navigate this new norm.

We should also be able to ask for help. I don’t know about you, but “Help” is something I have thought/whispered/said a lot throughout this pandemic. It is important to ask for help when we need it. No one is expected to be a superhero right now. Let your boss know when you can or can’t take on one more POD. If you need help, speak up. If you can help, speak up.

In addition, we need to take advantage of our resources. Use your health insurance and EAP programs. Take your vacation and sick days. Link with your student affairs colleagues to discuss and refine policies and practices. Join the listserves. Utilize the free webinars. Check out the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief website for a collective list of available resources. There are a ton or resources out there, y’all.

Finally, I think one of the biggest things that we can do is be gracious with ourselves and others. This goes for students, faculty, and staff. On the first day of classes I sat outside with one of the nursing faculty members. We were with another staff member under a tent in a courtyard wearing masks and gloves, seated six feet from each other. One was swiping student IDs while myself and the nursing faculty handed out a facial covering and small bottles of disinfectant, respectively (POD, for sure). She and I talked about our summers and how Covid has affected things. As a new staff member, I expressed that I was worried I was not doing my actual job correctly since I was having to take on so many PODs. She, a seasoned member of our institution, told me to quit being hard on myself. The achiever in me winces a bit at this notion, but I do agree that right now we may need to focus on maintaining, not excelling, this year. With strained and excess duties, new and everchanging procedures, budget cuts, and a pandemic looming over our heads, we cannot realistically expect that every task we take on comes out golden. So, we must be gracious with ourselves and others.

So, in short, embrace change, be there for students, ask for help, use your resources and stay gracious. Nothing mind-blowing, for sure, but sometimes we can all use the reminders. Especially when we are trying to survive a whole pandemic.

Be well, friends!

Amanda's current research interests are in educational access/equity, poverty theory, and student leadership development. She obtained a BS in History from Francis Marion University and a MS in College Student Personnel Services from Arkansas State University. Sunsets, long walks, deep conversations, and anything fun are a few of her favorite things.