As we experience fall breaks or the midpoints of terms, I reflect on what happened just a short seven or eight weeks ago – the start of the academic year. Traditionally, at the start of each term we welcome new students to campus. For us, this is a normal part of each year but for the students, it is the beginning or continuation of a journey. Typically, the beginning of the year is full of excitement, transition, and hot weather! New students arrive having completed or ready to attend some type of in-person, online or hybrid orientation, and continuing students return to start the term anew. Students and those who are important to them bring their belongings to campus and carefully arrange them in their new living spaces. They also bring their hopes and dreams for their futures. As families and friends leave campus and the term begins, a general sense of excitement permeates the campus community.
I have worked at a myriad of types and sizes of institutions, and each campus hosts a different set of traditions and boasts a unique environment, but that transformational power of education was evident in each space. The students arrive driven by an understanding of what they want to study and the career they want to pursue, with a desire to pursue multiple paths to find the one that suits them or somewhere in between. They arrive as students who identify as first-generation, legacy, with many resources, food or housing insecure, from all parts of the United States and from different countries. They identify with different races and ethnicities and bring support from a small number or huge community of people. Despite all of these and other differences, the consistent nature of that transformation is apparent.
As we continue to wrestle with more and more individuals choosing not to attend college and the aftermath of the pandemic, I am concerned about how the transformation of learning, growth, and development will occur. This is compounded by our worlds growing further apart ideologically and the chasm between our perspective growing alongside our willingness to listen and explore others’ perspectives.
For many traditional-aged college students, higher education is a time of growth and development for their life and career path. For older students, college can be a time for rebirth, a way to obtain credentials for career growth or to explore new topics. Regardless of the time in life that students experience college or the way in which they attend, higher education has been a focused time for transformation.
During the height of the pandemic, the NASPA Enrollment Management Knowledge Community worked with Larisa Hussak from EAB to better understand how the pandemic was affecting our student population. From her research, Larisa summarized that there was a great deal of loss our students were experiencing in the college environment. This included a loss of experience, quality, and trust and an overall devaluing of long-term goals, replacing them with a focus on short-term transactions. She described students as being digitally savvy and noted when the in-person aspects of their world were forced into digital formats, they did not experience quality. Additionally, many students believed that higher education had prioritized profits over everything else during this time. These experiences resulted in a heightened consumer focus for students. Additionally, students experienced a great deal of flexibility during the pandemic and sought a continuation of that flexibility as well as more opportunities to customize their college experience. Moreover, students believed everything should be negotiable about their college experience and replaced the formal processes for addressing concerns with a path directly to those in senior leadership.
The resulting perspective from Larisa’s presentation was that the effects of the pandemic added to the current disruption of this transformation, but I am hopeful as we continue to understand the changes our students have experienced and their emerging expectations for higher education that we can work together to forge a new path for growth and development. As we continue to welcome students to campus, I challenge us to remember the incredible gift we are given by students and those important to them, when they place their trust in us to help them reach their goals and experience the transformational aspects of higher education.
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Despite the pandemic, chasm of intolerance and state of the world, I still believe in the transformational power of higher education and through each of our campus cultures, the abilities we have to help students find their path and transform their worlds and ultimately all of our worlds for the better!
Jeanine Ward-Roof serves as the vice president for student affairs at Ferris State University in Michigan and is a member of the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board.