Welcoming a fresh start as the new academic year begins (opinion)

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When I was in my 20s and feeling stressed out in my first job after law school, I discovered insight meditation. “Have you ever heard of the concept of starting over?” my meditation teacher asked me. “At any moment,” she said, “you can tell yourself that you are starting over. Let go of what has already happened and any judgments you might have about it, and start again, as if for the first time. A fresh start.”

I found this concept quite useful at the small nonprofit organization where I once worked. We were running a campaign to close abusive youth prisons in California. Because of my passion for the cause and tendency to be a perfectionist, I was incredibly hard on myself any time I made a mistake or had a conflict with a colleague. The idea of a fresh start allowed me to brush myself off, let it go and start again.

I applied this teaching in my personal life as well—for instance, as the parent of young children. When they would fight over toys, making dramatic accusations at each other and sobbing, I would ask them, “What do you think about having a fresh start?” They would pause for a second to consider it, and then they’d magically say, “OK!” and run off to play with something else.

As we prepare for a new academic year, I have found myself wishing that we all could have a collective fresh start. The pandemic was an incredibly stressful time. We had to figure out completely new ways of working, budgets were cut, our children’s schools were closed and many of us lost loved ones or lived in fear of losing them.

When the pandemic began, my children were 3 and 5 years old, and I had just filed for divorce. I had recently started a position as vice president for university initiatives with a brand-new team of staff members. I became chair of my university’s COVID response team and was sometimes on back-to-back Zoom meetings from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., juggling three different babysitters and trying to stop my youngest child from banging on my door for snacks when one of those sitters canceled.

On a daily basis, my colleagues and I grappled with difficult questions: Should we offer in-person classes? Will we require testing, and if so, how will we enforce it? What size events should we allow? How will we care for students who become infected? Can we require vaccinations?

I know that all of you are all too familiar with these questions and more. The weight of such decisions felt heavy, and the conversations could become heated at times. We were exhausted and fed up with Zoom. I remember a particularly fraught meeting before vaccinations were available when student testing rates were low and we were at our wits’ end trying to figure out what to do about it.

In some ways, the pandemic brought many of us closer together. I saw colleagues put aside past tensions to work together to distribute vaccines to our campus community and send each other care packages when they tested positive for COVID.

In other ways, long-held frustrations came to the surface. Faculty and staff members expressed a desire to have more input into decision making. Some felt that returning to in-person instruction and campus operations was too risky.

I saw how many colleges and universities, including my own, took people’s concerns seriously and responded by investing significant dollars in mitigation strategies, like free testing and masks; increased communication and transparency, such as through weekly briefings and detailed dashboards; and strengthened partnerships with shared governance groups.

As we begin a new year when campus operations at most colleges and universities will fully resume, I feel tremendous awe and gratitude for my colleagues who have shown such strength and commitment during the pandemic. As I have run into certain colleagues for the first time since it began, I have sometimes had to offer a humble mea culpa along the lines of, “Sorry for that one time that I got all riled up over that particular issue …” In every instance, my colleagues have been incredibly gracious, acknowledging that it was a difficult time and we all had moments when we were not at our best.

I have noticed that many of my colleagues seem to be experiencing a mix of emotions as we transition back to campus for the start of a new academic year: excitement to see one another and return to pre-pandemic projects, some feelings of burnout and grief at the many losses we have experienced, and a tender vulnerability as we try to adjust, yet again, to new ways of working together.

My staff members and I have been talking lately about how we feel as though we have become patterned for crisis. At the slightest problem that arises, we might feel a rush of adrenaline and jump into action, still staying up late to solve the issue, even when it is no longer necessary.

Here and there, I have seen a campus colleague respond harshly over a seemingly insignificant issue. I can’t help but wonder if this is resulting from the lingering trauma of the prior pandemic years, much of which is probably still unprocessed.

A fresh start means giving each other grace and compassion as we navigate through this late-pandemic period. Workplace conflicts can sometimes turn into deep-seated resentments that drain our energy and create feelings of tension and isolation. Such conflicts can last years or even decades. Letting go and starting fresh can feel liberating, freeing up energy for connection, creativity and innovation.

It is important to note that a fresh start does not mean suppressing our feelings. Making time to experience all our feelings related to a conflict supports our ability to let things go and make fresh starts.

I am also not suggesting that we ignore any inequities or power differentials that might be involved in a conflict or stop advocating for issues we are passionate about. Giving voice to how we or others have been impacted is often important for our own healing and creating transformational institutional change. In some circumstances, a true fresh start may require genuine acknowledgment and apology.

At the end of the day, I think we all want to find connection with one another and a sense of belonging. We may struggle to find the words to repair after conflict, but underneath, there is usually a good deal of care. As college and university employees, I know we share so many common values and goals related to the success and well-being of our students, faculty, staff and broad communities.

We have great challenges and opportunities ahead of us in higher education. The pandemic is not over, and many universities are wrestling with how to best respond to new variant surges and meet the needs of incoming students, many of whom struggled while attending high school online. Beyond COVID, we live in turbulent times, and we will continue to be called upon to tackle complex and important issues.

Although there will be challenges, I am excited to partner with my campus colleagues in the coming year to take them on and to embrace new opportunities. Building pipeline programs to increase faculty diversity and inclusion, responding to the needs of LGBTQ+ students, and expanding family friendly policies and resources are just a few.

I know that all of you have amazing ideas and plans in store for the coming year as well.

So what do you think? Fresh start?

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