Reaffirmed Purpose: Shaping a New Lens for Belonging in Higher Education
The following post was written by Liana Marin, Delta Eta–San Diego State University.
The pandemic has forced us to reevaluate everything around us. If education fuels knowledge, we are going back to the basics of connecting with others.
Before the pandemic—before life as we knew it changed—I was selected to serve the Fraternity as a Leadership Consultant for the 2020–2021 academic year. I still remember getting the highly anticipated call while at Disneyland with my family. I was ecstatic over this next adventure. From keeping this big news a secret to creating Pinterest boards for packing and styling the perfect LC outfits and making an Instagram account to document my travels, it seemed to be a defining moment in my life. It felt like my reward for doing all the “right” things in college. In many ways, being a LC was my dream job and what I thought was the ideal way to spend my gap year before attending graduate school. Unfortunately, the circumstances of COVID-19 took this opportunity away from me and I was forced to re-evaluate.
So… I pivoted my purpose. I am now on a different path, adapting to this ever-changing world while still wondering how I can make a difference in higher education and empower student leaders. This term, I started my master’s program in Postsecondary Administration Student Affairs at the University of Southern California. As I embarked on this new chapter, a pressing question remained at the forefront of my mind and heart: How do I show up for my students?
Then came the follow-up questions.
How do I teach leadership and where do I even begin when so many are struggling to rise to the occasion? How do I support the freshmen who graduated amid a pandemic and missed out on senior year traditions?
How do I make this different college experience equitable and enjoyable? How do organizations and institutions lead during uncertainty?
As a student myself, I have so many more questions than answers at the moment.
At USC, I serve as a Graduate Advisor for Recognized Student Organizations and Undergraduate Student Government. This collaborative and dynamic role allows me to bridge the gaps of engagement for new students. From conversations with new and returning students that take place in this virtual space of involvement fairs and office hours, I keep hearing the same needs expressed in different ways. Simply put, students are looking for connection, community and compassion.
If the world labels this moment as “unprecedented,” then now is not the time to operate “business as usual. “Now is the opportunity to adapt, evaluate and reaffirm our position as an Organization, and to let women know they are worthy of love. Difficult conversations are still happening. There are needs to be met. How are we showing compassion to ourselves and others?
As we are all reminded of our common struggle and humanity, this moment requires leading from the heart.
A common challenge I face is getting students to become involved in campus activities now that they are mostly virtual. The most affirming reason I have heard from student leaders circles back to connection. Navigating college is hard enough without having someone in your corner.
Along with everything else, we’re now navigating time zones and shared screens. We might as well do it together! When I think of connection, I think of it in terms of allowing yourself to be seen and heard by another person or group of people. Connecting with yourself at this time can be incredibly restorative. Taking the chance to connect with others will give you another reason to stay true to your purpose.
If we lead from a place of compassion and give ourselves the opportunity to connect, we can create community.
In the moments leading up to my first day of teaching via Zoom, I was terrified. I felt incredibly intimidated and wondered how connection could be possible through a screen. It has had its challenges, but it has taught me the importance of starting with the basics.
On our first day of Intro to Leadership Theory for freshman, I set ground rules for the class and virtual environment. I asked my students: What kind of space do you want to create here? What does it look and feel like? Who do you want to be and how do you want to be seen and heard? These questions allowed us to address how we were going to move through this new world and environment.
Connection is still hard. Screens freeze and the awkward silence is inevitable. But creating a space that allows us to show up as we are is incredibly affirming. We need a space that celebrates our identities and resilience.
So, my parting message to my sisters is this:
Give yourself the opportunity to be seen, know the power you hold in spaces. Be intentional with the environment you want to create and how you want to move through this new and ever-changing world.
This is how we reaffirm our purpose.