A strengths-based, student-centric approach to emerging from the pandemic allows us to see our students’ incredible fortitude.

With the end of the pandemic on the horizon, many of us have begun imagining a post-pandemic university. After nearly a full year of remote work and a depopulated campus, the thought of returning to a life that is more familiar is exhilarating. At the same time, we are all exhausted. The stress brought on by the radical changes to our daily lives – which has been compounded by social and economic strife, racism and growing frustration about policing, and a very contentious election year – makes “returning to normal” feel like a daunting task. Even if it is a welcome change, both collectively and individually we are tired, and change takes energy.

We also know that this fall we will face the challenge of reorienting 20,000 undergraduate students to campus, many of whom will have spent only one and a half semesters in college before the pandemic started. We will also have to orient another 19,000 first- and second-year students who have never studied or worked on campus. There is ample concern about how well-prepared students will be after spending the prior 18 months learning remotely. Some express concern that these students will be less academically prepared – or at least differently prepared – for success in college compared to students who matriculated into the university prior to the pandemic.  But I caution us to avoid taking a deficit mindset as we think about our students.

Modern higher education has never confronted anything like this pandemic.  Its scope and scale are unlike anything seen in the lives of those of us working at colleges and universities today. Unlike prior generations who had their college educations disrupted by global calamities, today’s students transitioned from in-person to online. Never before have we had the ability to pivot from in-person to remote learning because it was impossible prior to the widespread availability of the internet. So, we have little on which to base our assumptions about how this experience will impact our students and what they might need coming out of it.

Last month’s student survey gives us some measure of our student’s experience. They reported generally positive experiences with their instructors and their online courses. They told us that, while not ideal in some cases, most were making due with the technology to which they had access. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that our students chose to convert less than 18% of their grades to “Satisfactory” last semester. As difficult as high school and college students are finding life during the pandemic, many of them seem to be doing well in their classes.  At the same time, large numbers of respondents told us that they felt stressed or sad, so we know that we have to be especially attentive supporting their social and emotional needs as they transition back into in-person learning and onto our campus. 

Summer “camps” or early start programs are an often-offered solution to the assumed difficulties that next year’s first- and second-year students will face. The hope is that with a few days or weeks of intensive attention, we could remediate the shortcomings in our students’ academic preparations that were produced by the pandemic. This might feel like an attractive solution because it centers the problem squarely on the shoulders of the students. It assumes that a one-time treatment applied to an ill-prepared student could prevent us from having to undertake the much more difficult task of addressing the student’s on-going needs after they matriculate.

Rather than focusing on remediating students before they arrive here in the fall, I would like to see MSU prepare itself to educate the students we will have this fall. That is, abandon deficit-thinking about how potentially ill-prepared our students might be because of the pandemic and focus our remediations on our formal and informal curricula, both inside and outside of the classroom. We have many faculty experts on campus who have been engaged in designing student-centered courses both before and while we have been teaching and learning remotely. There is much we can learn from their evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning.

A strengths-based, student-centric approach to emerging from the pandemic allows us to see our students’ incredible fortitude. They have learned how to live and learn under tremendous constraints and absent the social support systems that are so useful in promoting emotional health and student success. Many have thrived through a global pandemic and the loss of face-to-face interactions with friends and faculty, and they have learned new ways to manage their time and their academic workloads. They did this all while navigating the emotional and logistical demands of a global pandemic. Now, as they look forward to their college careers, we look forward to being with them again on campus.

A student-centric university will welcome an amazing community of students to campus this fall. Let us accept them as they are and leverage their strengths to ensure that they learn, thrive, and graduate.

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email largent@msu.edu.

Mark Largent is the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.