Maintaining Optimism in a Covid-Altering Semester
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Maintaining Optimism in a Covid-Altering Semester

I texted a coworker on the first day of the semester with “can we just acknowledge that this is really hard?” – Covid, being remote, being hybrid/hyflex, the constant changes, the conflicting information, the unknowns. For those of us in study abroad, internationalization, and the mobilization of students, the uncertainty of this semester, let alone spring or next summer, makes our roles exponentially challenging. If you are like me, this summer was filled with so much preparation for every possible scenario that it never felt like I wrapped up spring 2020 before the first day of this new academic year hit. And it is hard. And it is also going to be okay.

As we are trained to do, we adjusted, pivoted multiple times (do you hear Ross’ voice in the Friends couch scene??), and we partnered with one another to provide some amazing opportunities for our students and campuses that without Covid we would have missed. My campus, Vanguard University, was able to have a student participate in L&LI’s Global Virtual Internship and she thrived! She was able to work with an organization based in Ethiopia and the work she produced is being used in incredible ways. She and our campus would have missed that without a forced global pandemic.

What I have been discovering as I’ve navigated these last several months with our students is that their creativity and resiliency can be fostered in a new dimension not in spite of Covid, but through the unknown that is Covid. Like staff and faculty, students have faced a plethora of challenges moving to remote or hybrid formats, being quarantined with their families or stuck notable to travel home and so much more. But in all of it, they still want to move. They want to act. They want to do something with purpose and meaning. So whether you return to campus in person, or will be fully remote, or maybe doing the hybrid/hyflex model, there will be challenges – and there will also be new ways of engagement if we can look at this season with a different lens.

My role at Vanguard is to assist students to find those intersection points of where their skills, education, and passions intersect with real and Kingdom needs.College is not a time to press pause on the rest of life, but a season to engage in the fullness it has to offer. So when we ourselves are finding it challenging to navigate this Covid-altering season, may I suggest that we can actually do it well, and even with optimism, if we do it honestly. While the goals of my department remain consistent, the methods of my approach have required shifting at multiple levels.

First, my students have needed to know that they are cared for holistically and that the five components of the soul that they are and have – physical, spiritual, emotional, social, mental – are a priority to attend to.[1] This means that we can walk together, acknowledging the overwhelm and the blessing, and holding our plans loosely. When we treat people as people first, it is amazing the level of work, learning or progress that can take place out of that.

Second, we adjust our expectations. Things that I have done annually during our study abroad emphasis week will not happen this year. In fact, the entire week is already being planned in a virtual format in the anticipation of continued social-distancing. If we come closer to the time and find that we can do more in person, wonderful. If not, we are in a good position. By adjusting our expectations of what the week will look like, I have seen my students embrace ingenuity and launch new ways of sharing and promoting learning of culture that we never would have thought. A side benefit of adjusted expectations (when communicated), is that frustration levels decrease, creating space to embrace the what is.

Lastly, we celebrate the wins and mistakes. For those students that perhaps never fully transitioned back to campus after studying abroad last fall, or are still processing a shorted study experience in the spring, navigating the ups and downs of re-entry is hard enough, let alone with the addition of a pandemic. I work with some talented and passionate students who are often much harder on themselves that anyone else is. In my department, we make it a priority to celebrate when someone makes a mistake (I’m talking cheer and applause… or snaps) – it is crucial for them to learn mistakes are a part of life and that they can continue to walk forward. So when my study abroad alumni appears to be dropping the ball or not engaged, we lean in just a bit more into that and keep walking through the jumble of it all.

While these three strategies above may not seem to make much linear sense, I can attest to when a student feels known as a whole person, is aware that things will look differently, and understands that their success and slip ups will both be celebrated and welcomed, the level of learning and growth that takes place can be exponential. Covid has magnified divisions and oppositions in a dramatic fashion and there is real pain felt in this season. But there is also an incredible opportunity to show up, to engage and to challenge our students to take what they are learning in the here and now and use it to meet real andKingdom needs around the globe. They don’t have to leave the US for a global learning experience – this we knew. What we didn’t realize (thank you Covid!),is that they actually don’t even need to leave their bedroom to engage in meaningful, purposeful and actionable education. May this next academic year look invitingly different!


[1] Benner, David. Care of Souls (1998)


About the Author:

Kayli Hillebrand is the Associate Dean of International and Experiential Education atVanguard University when she oversees local and global outreach efforts, study abroad programming, international students, and experiential education. Kayli is currently working on her doctorate degree in Leadership and GlobalPerspectives from George Fox University. Her favorite role, however, is mom to7-month old Caleb, who has made the quarantine and work-from-home so much more interesting, challenging, and fun.

Fun fact: Kayli has a continual goal of having traveled to as many international countries as she is old. She’s currently 2 countries ahead of schedule!

Passion: Creating space for students to discover how they can mobilize and enhance their education in meaningful ways for themselves and others. It is so much more than a degree!