Let me start with two simple but very honest and heartfelt words: Thank you.
Thank you for being here to serve and instruct our wonderful students, and for supporting each other during a difficult and stressful year.
Thank you for preparing and moving forward to the start of another fall semester – one that we had all hoped would be about new challenges, new directions, and new opportunities, not about masks and vaccines and social distancing.
Thank you for your commitment.
For as long as I’ve been in higher education (and that’s a long time!), I’ve watched students proceed on their academic journey. I’ve seen very clearly what it takes for students to thrive and succeed. Along with financial, emotional and academic support, and hard work, there is an additional attribute that often determines whether a student will persist and achieve their academic goals; and that is what some refer to as “grit” or “ganas” which means a desire to succeed despite the odds. Students who have it make it through, even when life throws a curveball and circumstances change. They adapt and they keep pushing forward because they won’t allow changed circumstances, no matter how unpredictable and daunting, to stop them.
As COVID threw one of life’s biggest curveballs at all of us over the past year, I have recognized that those characteristics that we value and cultivate in our students are exactly the same characteristics we all now must adopt and demonstrate.
We need to continue doing what’s best for students while remaining flexible to the continued challenges COVID presents and actions it requires. And yes, I realize that can be physically and mentally exhausting.
This has been a tough year and a half, for some even harder than for others. I recognize that some of you have had some very real physical and mental health challenges and some of you who have appeared healthy have nonetheless suffered while watching loved ones become ill, hospitalized, or worse. I believe we’re all suffering from some level of PTSD. Because we can’t possibly know what each of our colleagues or students has faced, we need to demonstrate empathy for others, show respect, and be a bit less quick to anger or become frustrated.
At the same time, we need to push even harder to do what’s right for our students and our communities, because all indications are that it’s not going to be an easy year. But we should find strength in the fact that we did it last year, and we can do it again.
Most importantly, even though it’s becoming increasingly clear that COVID will be here for a long time—some say even forever—we can’t let these past 18 months define higher education’s path forward. We need to restore confidence in those we serve that we still have the ability to change lives and that the value of what we do and our ability to do it safely has not been diminished.
Long before the pandemic caused such disruption, and even as more and more jobs and careers required a postsecondary credential, we saw opinion polls and surveys suggest that the public is losing confidence in the ability of higher education to improve lives. We know that perception is wrong, and that higher education continues to be the single best pathway to a better and more fulfilling life, to thriving communities, and to a stronger and healthier democracy.
We need to demonstrate that belief and that value to our students – every day.
Let me finish where I began: Thank you.
Best of luck on a new academic year.