Our students are back, and perhaps more than ever they are looking to the future.
When I talk to students on our campuses—on new college days, as part of undergraduate convocations, even during the law class I’m teaching this semester—I constantly hear that students are ready to move on.
They are ready for renewal. They are ready for change.
That is of course traditional at this time of year. Across the province, the school season is a time to refresh and rethink, to return from the beach or the mountains and pin on a new year of projects, endeavors and growth, ideally with a fresh perspective. School-to-school renewal is by definition a reality in schools—in colleges and universities.
But this year, more than anything else, I’m hearing from students — and seeing by their behavior — that they’re ready to put Covid behind them. The past two and a half years have been challenging for all of us. It was particularly grueling for university students. Many of them lost large parts of the high school experience through lockdowns and homeschooling. In some of their prime years exploring the world around them, they were forced to do so on laptop screens. In some of their peak years for social development and interaction, they were forced to do so via Instagram stories and TikToks. They were careful, they did their part, they were vaccinated as soon as they qualified and boosted when they could.
And now, quite reasonable, they want to have a normal student experience.
It’s up to the rest of us—faculty, administrators, parents, friends, bosses—to recognize the challenges these students have gone through and help them achieve the new normal they seek.
That means we need to appreciate what they’ve been through, and provide support and avenues to help them achieve their new goals. We need to focus on socialization and social development because so many of these students lost too much time with others. We need to offer skills training and hands-on experiences because too many of these students miss out on internships, vacation jobs, and other opportunities to learn how the real world works. We need to recognize the learning loss that has occurred and be understanding in the classroom as we provide assistance, such as tutoring and mentoring outside of the classroom. We must underline our continued focus on DEI priorities, especially in the wake of the national racial and social justice reckoning.
We must also recognize the full impact of the past two and a half years, and the ongoing challenges that trauma may have created for some students. There are health effects, economic effects, emotional effects. Some students lost loved ones. As we help most students move into the new normal they so desire, we also need to be alert to those who face additional challenges, and we need to make sure they get the mental health support they need to move forward. to come.
Finally, we must be vigilant about unsafe behavior. Campuses that have been successful for the past two and a half years — and at Pace University, where I’m president, we certainly have — have done that, but we were careful, responsible, and looked after each other. We will maintain our vaccine mandate, for example to ensure that our students, teachers and staff are protected. As students move beyond Covid and as they emerge from periods of lockdown, we will need to monitor and address reckless behaviour. Students who leave their parents’ house for the first time often spend too much; I imagine we’ll see that on an even bigger scale this year. We need to continue our public health campaigns and work even harder in the past to educate students about risky behavior.
But in the end we all have to do this because our students deserve that normal experience they ask for.
Because despite everything they’ve been through over the years, they remain as optimistic as any group of incoming students I’ve ever met. Maybe more. They see a time when seemingly everything is in flux, when society is changing, and they see opportunities ahead to bring about real, positive change in the world.
They are a diverse generation and they are proud of that. They reject traditional roles and expectations and respect each other’s differences. They long for a world that is more equal, more open and more accommodating. They don’t want to continue with the same arguments that have plagued our country for so long.
I am an optimist by nature. I am always excited about new people, new ideas and new plans. Let’s make sure that a group of incoming students, young people who have been through so much, remain eager and eager to tackle what comes next.