In the long and ongoing period of our global pandemic, many of us have felt the weight of loneliness. Some people, including many older adults, have suffered being completely alone, while others—living in various familial configurations—have still felt removed from a larger sphere of social interaction. Daily, I read news reports about the negative impact of the pandemic on young people, and I am so grateful that Saint Mary’s has been able to continue face-to-face classes and residential life through this period. Of course, it has looked a little different to see classrooms full of masked students, and there certainly have been disappointments: Some students missed their opportunity to study abroad; others lost a year of athletic competition; others were unable to participate in a play or a concert. But overall, there has been a lot of “normalcy” in the college experience here at Saint Mary’s.
Lately, I’ve also been thinking about the impact on faculty and staff, not only their obvious exhaustion from the taxing demands of the past two years, but also what it has meant to be cut off from their research and practice communities as most meetings and conferences moved online. As this spring semester unfolds at Saint Mary’s, I think there’s reason for renewed optimism. I’m talking to more people who have returned to team meetings and travel. I myself have attended three in-person conferences this semester, and I was struck by the pleasure of learning with and from colleagues—even with masks on! The higher education community thrives on—and depends on—opportunities to share research discoveries, to exchange promising practices, and to reflect on our common purpose and values.
Each of my conferences also offered a remarkable engagement with this unusual moment in history and the lessons we have learned from it. And each left me feeling more confident about the future of our specific kind of undergraduate experience—an experience where individualized attention, intellectual challenge, spiritual vitality, and community engagement are paramount.
In early January, the President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges took up the theme of “Recovery, Reckoning, Reinvention” and challenged participants to think about what is durable and desirable from our pandemic practices: Will we reinvent ourselves on the other side of the crisis or return to past ways of teaching, meeting, and decision making? How will these decisions influence public perception about the value of higher education?
More recently, I was in Washington, DC for back-to-back conferences. The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities offered expertise, experience, and fellowship under a resonant theme: “Called Together.” Many of the sessions challenged us to think about our “calling,” about the special ways Catholic colleges and universities remain true to their missions. We had extraordinary opportunities to hear from speakers such as US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy on “The Importance of Human Community in this Moment” and Father James Heft, SM on “The Future of Catholic Higher Education.”
Most of the presidents of Catholic colleges went on to the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which sponsors the Higher Ed Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. I was pleased to join other leaders from private colleges in Indiana at meetings with our senators and representatives. It was a wonderful opportunity to thank them for the financial support that helped us through the pandemic, to let them know how we had used it, and to share with them some of the outcomes from our institutions that they, as Hoosiers, can be proud of.
Upon reflection, I think all of us in the Saint Mary’s community should be proud of how we have managed to thrive during the pandemic. From the very beginning, we’ve carried the weight of it not alone, but together.
Katie Conboy, Ph.D.