Fall always brings great anticipation and excitement for us in student affairs – welcoming a new class to campus, orienting colleagues, fall athletic events, rituals and traditions around campus that excite our continuing students, and the promise of all kinds of new learning and beginnings.
While this is certainly the case this fall, there are also new and additional experiences on our minds and calendars, including vaccine mandates, distance learning requests, and COVID testing protocols. But with students and colleagues returning to our campus in days, what I'm most eager to experience again is a return to occasions of simple serendipity and happy happenstance.
Student affairs is a planful profession by necessity. Our students are dependent on our careful and intentional planning of programs, creation of varied and rich learning opportunities, coordination of living and programming facilities, and careful hiring and training of talented colleagues to put all of our plans into motion.
That work did not stop during the last 18 months of COVID-19 and, in fact it was in many ways heightened and intensified. But much of the happenstance of our student affairs work was lost as we were isolated from each other physically, relegated to Zoom boxes, and as so many of us had to clear our campuses of most human activity or at least force those left on campus to mask-up, stay six feet apart, and not gather together indoors.
The joy of fortuitously being in the right place at the right time was lost for many of us as we weren’t physically in places with others and having unplanned yet meaningful conversations and interactions, either on the way to something or simply on the fly.
This hit home for me last week when I was walking home for a quick lunch here at Hofstra (which I’m fortunate to say takes just five minutes!). As I walked past Calkins Quad I saw four folks wandering and chatting quizzically. It dawned on me that while running into folks like this had once been a happy daily occurrence, I had not done this very much lately.
So, I stopped, welcomed them to campus, introduced myself, and asked if I could be of help. What a lovely five minutes ensued – learning that they are a family from Washington State (where I lived for more than two decades), that the two parents have New York roots, and that they and their kids are spending a few weeks visiting colleges here in in the East. We had a lovely, brief, convivial chat and we were all thrilled to have connected – even if masked.
I then gave them directions to find their tour guide and bid them farewell – and as they walked toward the admission office it dawned on me how wonderful that spur of the moment interaction was and how much I had missed these unplanned and in-person interactions.
Now as our students arrive back on campus – fully in-person and vaccinated – I can’t wait for many more serendipitous occasions of happenstance, where members of this amazing campus community can again embrace proximity and bask in the glow of unplanned and uplifting interactions. Bring on Fall ’21 and its promise of simple serendipity and happy happenstance!
About the author: W. Houston Dougharty is vice-president for student affairs at Hofstra University on Long Island, where he has been for the last seven of his 39 years in student affairs. He is a member of the Scott Academy Board, a NASPA Foundation Pillar of the Profession, and received the Regions II and IVE dean’s award.