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A Change Is Going to Come: Managing Challenging Transitions

Health, Safety, and Well-being Student Success Senior Level
December 6, 2020 Alan Acosta University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 4, November 2020

Fostering Moral Development: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Alan Acosta HeadshotIf the COVID-19 pandemic has taught higher education professionals anything, it has certainly provided lots of lessons about managing various forms of transition. In the Spring 2020 academic term, most institutions had to pivot from the traditional in-person educational experience to a 100% remote learning model. In the academic terms to follow, continuing to the time of this writing, most institutions are navigating the numerous unexpected challenges the pandemic has presented. Those transition challenges have included reorganizing classrooms to allow for in-person instruction while maintaining social distancing, offering outside of classroom engagement opportunities while maintaining students’ health and safety, and reconceptualizing how faculty proceed in the tenure and promotion process.

These are just the transition challenges unique to the COVID-19 pandemic and does not address many of the usual transitions students and higher education professionals need to manage in a given academic term. Life transitions such as adjusting to a new academic term, becoming familiar with a new institution/city/state, meeting and forming relationships with others, understanding new job responsibilities, and learning how to manage day-to-day life stuff get added to an already difficult mix of transition in the higher education environment.

I have also been managing numerous transitions in my life recently. My partner and I moved from Florida to Massachusetts, started new jobs, settled into a new house (and have been progressively fixing it up), and added a puppy to our family; we did all of these things in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we certainly are not the only people to be managing a lot of change during these times, even at this stage of my life, I recognize that there are times I feel wholly unprepared to stay energized, focused, and prepared to feel like I am successfully handling all of the various transitions and changes happening.

I think the COVID-19 pandemic has given higher education professionals an opportunity to teach ourselves and our students about how to deal with the many transitions that life brings about. This is going to be an essential life skill, as no one can predict the future, and we want our students and our peers to have the ability to know how to respond to all of life’s transitions. The first thing we need to learn and teach is that there is no one universal “right way” to manage or complete a transition. Each of us and our students as well as the transitions we face are completely different. Expecting each person to follow a step-by-step guide on managing each and every life transition is preposterous, unrealistic, and a recipe for disaster. Each person has to find our own way for effectively and healthily managing the many transitions that life presents us. Sometimes that can be difficult to do because we can fall into the trap of comparing our abilities with others. Helping students and colleagues realize that comparisons to others’ capacity for effective transition management is not only misguided but unnecessary is one of the best gifts we can give.

Once students and higher education professionals realize there is no one way to handle a transition, I think it is worthwhile to encourage seeking the resources and assistance needed in navigating those transitions. Resources to support managing transitions can include sending links to helpful websites, referral to individuals who might have useful knowledge about the transition, as well as leaning on and talking to friends and colleagues who can provide physical, mental, or emotional support. Students and colleagues can also utilize mental health resources, financial assistance opportunities, and find activities that provide rest and rejuvenation, all of which can help individuals move forward in the transition process. As higher education professionals, it is important to remember resources are not just for students; resources are very helpful to higher education professionals as well.

Additionally, I think the COVID-19 pandemic has taught many students and higher education professionals to be more patient with and graceful to ourselves and others, particularly as we navigate numerous hard transitions. I often feel like prior to the pandemic, higher education professionals were subliminally (and sometimes overtly) taught that achieving “success” in the industry came at the cost of unhealthy, and at times damaging, habits. These destructive work habits included working long, strenuous hours, putting one’s job in front of relationships or leisure activities, and putting oneself through a grueling physical toll. Some professionals may suggest that such expectations still exist or have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they would not be wrong. In my experience, I have found more higher education professionals checking in with each other, encouraging colleagues to take breaks and be intentional about taking care of themselves. I have also found professionals of color finding times and places (often virtual) to be in community with each other and engage in some necessary healing following high-profile acts of racial discrimination. This emphasis on holistic well-being is highly important, and one that I hope continues going forward.

Transitions are hard. Whether they are unexpected, like navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, or anticipated, such as accepting a new job and moving across the country, each transition presents unique challenges to be managed. But each of us and our students have within them the necessary aptitude to handle any transition thrown our way. Teaching students how they can build the skills, resilience, and capacity to efficiently and effectively respond to and navigate transitions will benefit their holistic development. Navigating transitions also is an opportunity for higher education professionals to practice what they preach when faced with transitions of their own. Becoming more effective at managing transitions might help each of us contribute to successfully transitioning to a more just, inclusive world.