Serving by Meeting Students’ Basic Needs

Ann McElaney-Johnson reflects on what the pandemic taught her about students’ basic needs and the obligations of the institution she leads to help meet them.

May 10, 2022
 
 
A black ball-point pen.
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I often wonder what we will ultimately learn from the COVID-19 virus. What lessons will we take forward? How will we be different? Will we be wiser? More present? More thoughtful? Even as I ponder this, I notice that I am already returning to old habits, habits that I had shed in the early months of the pandemic when commutes were replaced by walks after work and a greater time for reflection. Yes, there was the dizzying array of Zoom meetings and COVID-19 briefings and extended workdays, but I also had greater bandwidth to try endless new recipes and bake for the first time in years. I read more, I developed a routine of alternating fiction and nonfiction, and I finished books in the pile by my bed.

But most of all, the pandemic changed my conversations with students. No longer was the perfunctory “how are you?” actually perfunctory. I slowed down to really listen to their answers—and I learned more about my students than I had known before. I watched them pivot from in class to on Zoom, and as the equalizing forces of campus life (available food, beds, computer labs) disappeared, I came to see how different our lives were—and how truly expansive our responsibility to serve them is. Students in my first-year seminar were generous in their lessons that have transformed the way I wish to lead and serve.

As president, I know all the statistics that describe the student body at Mount Saint Mary’s University. As I write this, 62 percent of our traditional undergraduate students are eligible for Pell Grants, 67 percent are the first in their family to go to college, 85 percent are Black, Indigenous and people of color, and 100 percent receive financial aid. As is true of university leaders in general, I spend a lot of my time advocating on their behalf at the state and federal levels and with foundations, friends, alumni and supporters. Our students, like students across this country, come to us with big dreams, and I consider it our sacred responsibility to provide them what they need to not only meet their goals but to dream bigger than they may have ever imagined. This was true before COVID-19, but this pandemic provided me a unique opportunity to better understand the complexity of the lives of the students who grace our classrooms and our Zoom spaces.

In fall 2020, constrained by the rampant spread of the COVID-19 virus in densely populated Los Angeles, we were operating through the world of Zoom. Each week I gathered with my first-year seminar students to discuss issues around race, ethnicity and gender while helping them navigate the university and our many resources, programs and opportunities—all virtually. I supplemented the class session with one-on-one Zoom meetings with each student so that I could try to gauge the challenges they faced and offer advice on available resources to support them.

As the semester progressed, I noticed one student in particular, a bright and talented nursing student, looking more and more anxious. In our one-on-one conversation, I asked this student how things were going. The student shared that he was struggling in his anatomy class. When I asked what might be helpful, preparing myself to speak about our virtual tutoring program, our telehealth counseling services or our loaner program for laptops and hotspots, the student’s answer stopped me short.

“What I really could use is a pen.” The student went on to elaborate that a small whiteboard would be helpful, too. I pressed my student to make sure I understood as I thought about the many, many orders my family and I made on Amazon in those early months of the pandemic. What I lacked, I ordered—and usually received by the following day. My immediate reaction was to get his address and send him the supplies he needed. But, gratefully, a wise colleague expanded the lesson further. When I asked for the student’s address, my colleague took a breath and suggested that there might be a better way. Rather than solve this student’s immediate problem with a delivery, we needed to create a new structure to address what was undoubtedly an issue for other students. My colleague got to work setting up an account through our bookstore that provided a certain dollar amount of supplies to students free of cost. And then he got the word out to students.

My student’s story is not unique. COVID has taught us much, and one of the most important lessons is both the laying bare and the exacerbation of social inequalities that impact families across our communities. We have seen students doing the entirety of their academic program on a single device—reading books and texts, writing papers, preparing presentations and attending their Zoom classes, all on their cellphone. We have seen the stress of our students increase, and we have seen many students step away from their studies because it is just too hard. COVID made it harder, no doubt, but it did not create the challenges that so many college students, including my own, face.

Since becoming president of my university, I have often turned to a poem by W. B. Yeats, so beautifully cited in Sir Ken Robinson’s well-known TED Talk, “Bring on the Learning Revolution!” Robinson quotes those haunting words as he evokes the lives and needs of our students:

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

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Over the years I have read this poem many times, and I would think about our responsibility to provide academic programs, co-curricular offerings, internships, study-abroad opportunities and learning support systems—all of the facets of a contemporary university experience—to ensure that our students had what they needed to meet their full potential and achieve their boldest dreams. I still read this poem, but since COVID-19, my lens has changed. The pandemic has taught me that as important as all of these opportunities are, sometimes our students simply need a pen—and a structure that ensures that their basic needs are met.

COVID-19 has taught me that if I take the time to ask, my students are generous with their honesty and patient with my learning curve. And if we are truly in the business of transformative education, it only makes sense that our universities—and we as their leaders—are transformed by our students.

Nowadays, I sometimes struggle to get in an occasional walk. I find that I start reading more books than I finish. However, when I advocate to our state legislators, to members of Congress and to our donors and friends on the importance of financial support for our students, I do so with a greater sense of clarity and urgency. Some may say that a university can’t take care of the myriad needs of its students. They may be right. But once you start with a simple pen, you realize it isn’t as hard as it looks.

Bio

Ann McElaney-Johnson is president of Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles.

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