Sometimes, personal and professional lives overlap in interesting ways, such as what is unfolding in the Joseph household. Ivan Joseph is vice-provost, student affairs, at Dalhousie University. On October 1, he will begin a five-year posting as vice-president, student affairs, at Wilfrid Laurier University. His son, also named Ivan Joseph, is an incoming first-year engineering student at Western University. He has opted to live in residence on campus. Recently, the two Ivans compiled a few questions and sat down to talk about the upcoming student experience, on and off campus.
What has it been like for you leading into September?
Vice-provost Ivan: Every university is trying to balance health and safety with what students want, which is an exceptional university experience. So, we are trying to figure out how to create that online. Meanwhile, many universities have decided to have small numbers of students on campus, which creates a level of concern.
None of us wants to put students at risk or have a situation like what happened in North Carolina, where the students showed up and a week later were sent home. So we are striving to find a balance without knowing in advance exactly how that can happen.
First-year Ivan: Right when we as a group were coming into the best part of high school, when you have your uni acceptance and get to hang out with your friends, we all had to stay at home. And the quarantine made us lose events that mark our transition to this next phase, like graduation and prom. Now, we won’t have the normal frosh experience.
It feels like this big step into individuality keeps getting pushed back and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. I think we all understand what is happening, but it’s challenging to live with so much uncertainty and have something you’ve been waiting for so long continually delayed.
What are your priorities for the student experience this year?
First-year Ivan: Every student cares about succeeding in their program, but that’s more of a long-term consideration. I think the main priority for first-year students is interacting with new people. It’s a phase of your life you never get to relive – a time when you are around people your age and everyone is new. When you can go out and find your tribe.
It feels like a time when you lay a foundation for your whole university experience. Now, there is a worry that if it can’t happen, it won’t happen. How do you find community if you are learning online? How do you connect when you are six feet apart with masks on and you can’t see their smile?
I think new students are hoping there will somehow be opportunities for casual normalcy, unstructured settings where it’s possible to connect with new people. For me, that was really the motivation behind wanting to live on campus.
Vice-provost Ivan: It’s the students who create a thriving university community. But how do you create a sense of connection and spirit on campus when people aren’t in residence halls, in the seats, or in the stands? And for students who are on campus, how do you find safe ways for them to connect?
What’s at stake isn’t just trying to deliver a great experience for students. If we don’t help students connect, people will fall through the cracks. And that will result in lower retention, lower persistence rates and more academic dropouts, which isn’t good for the students or the university.
For student affairs teams, it feels like walking a slackline over a gorge. We are putting protocols and processes in place to protect the health and safety of our community, while also trying to create a sense of belonging. It’s a challenge unlike any I have seen in my career.
How are students viewing the health and safety measures being put in place?
Vice-provost Ivan: Universities have established guidelines intended to keep everyone safe, such as wearing masks in public spaces, staying six feet away from your colleagues, and not gathering in groups. Somehow, we need to convey that campus life is going to be different than what students had in mind. We also have to emphasize that, by the way, this is for your own safety. But I can imagine it’s going to feel awfully paternalistic and authoritarian to the students.
First-year Ivan: If you arrive at the first time you have lived without your parents, and the first message you hear is, “Actually, no, you’re still under lock and key,” it’s going to be tough to follow all of the rules. Everyone knows this is a deadly virus. And we are mindful that we aren’t the victims – people have lost their homes and jobs. But we have lost something as well.
We don’t want to focus on feeling robbed of an experience. We want to embrace the unique experiences that are coming our way. If the measures being put in place are reasonable and there are still opportunities to connect, that will help us to go forward.
When you think about student mental health and well-being in a pandemic, what comes to mind?
Vice-provost Ivan: Universities have spent a lot of time on this topic. We know that living in isolation without meaningful interactions is a problem. We know students need opportunities to be active and engage outside the classroom. We can’t just say, “Okay, those of you who are here on campus have to stay in your room and sit on your computer all day.”
We also have to keep in mind that there is an entire student population staying at home and having their university experience from their basement or kitchen table. How do we now create opportunities for them to make meaningful connections with people who have similar values and interests yet live across the province, country or world? Because those connections aren’t just nice to have. They are essential to student well-being.
First-year Ivan: For those of us who are going to live on campus, the pandemic restrictions create a new set of concerns. Rather than worrying, “What if I don’t fit in?” it’s going to be more like, “Will I even get the chance to meet people? What if I pick the wrong 10 for my social bubble and I don’t like any of them? What do I do then?” Because the ways that a student might intentionally navigate meeting new people aren’t going to be available with social distancing and other barriers. I think that’s a big source of stress at the moment.
What big-picture considerations should university administrators hold in mind?
First-year Ivan: I think you need to tailor the experience to your school’s identity. From what I can tell, a lot of schools are relying on a shield of ambiguity. They say things like, “We’re going to give you as much freedom as we can under the World Health Organization guidelines.” That makes perfectly good sense for any logical person in power.
But you have to understand that students didn’t sign up for the World Health Organization University. They signed up for Dalhousie, Waterloo, Western, St. FX and so on. Every student who picked their school did so for a reason. I think what students want you to say is, “This is who we are, and we are going to do this our way.”
Vice-provost Ivan: This is a time when administrators and their teams have an even greater responsibility to take a holistic approach and think about the whole student from a developmental perspective. What I am hearing clearly from Ivan and other students is, “How do we make connections?” I also feel administrators have to expect students to flounder or make mistakes. Those of us overseeing the student experience can’t be quick to drop the hammer on every student misstep. We have to proceed with grace, compassion and understanding.
What’s one key takeaway you’d like to convey?
Vice-provost Ivan: More than ever, this is a moment for universities to meet students where they are. We have to work through this with the students, rather than just putting policies in place and expecting that they will follow them.
First-year Ivan: As an incoming student, I want to say, “Let’s work together to create livable guidelines that allow for safety as well as community.”