“And they were like, ‘Oh no, let’s just meet Wednesday instead!’” Rico said. “I didn’t know how to say, ‘I don’t want to meet.’”
Rico is an educational-opportunity program counselor at California State University-Channel Islands who serves mostly first-generation students from low-income households and historically marginalized backgrounds. He’s one of thousands of student-affairs employees who’ve worked in overdrive since the pandemic began, scrambling to keep students physically and mentally safe, fed, housed, outfitted for virtual learning, and as engaged as possible in this Bizarro World version of college life.
Rico loves his job. But by the end of the fall-2020 semester, he was exhausted, emotionally drained, and had a serious case of Zoom fatigue. (Though he did attend the virtual book club after all.) He’s not an outlier. Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, has spent more than four decades in the field and said he’s never witnessed this level of exhaustion among student-affairs professionals.
By now, everyone in higher ed is familiar with burnout; student-affairs staffers and administrators are no different. Often referred to as the backbone of an institution, these workers have job descriptions that ensure an especially trying semester. These employees deal with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, said Smita Ruzicka, dean of student life at the Johns Hopkins University. Everything from shelter and safety to civic engagement and cultivating a sense of belonging falls under their purview.
Pressure? Yes. Long hours? Yes. Recognition? Sometimes, but not enough.
Now, when supporting students is crucial to their success and to the health of institutions, experts worry that some employees might leave the field for good, through layoffs or burnout. By nature, student-affairs professionals deal in crisis, said Martha Compton, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration. But “nobody’s meant to deal with a crisis for 10 months straight.”
Compton said she’s heard from friends and colleagues across the country who have told her that they’d plan certain activities for students to do, only to have higher-ups say things like, “This doesn’t feel fun enough … We’re a high-touch institution, and this isn’t high touch.”
Compton understands why that pressure exists. But, she said, “we’re in a pandemic.” And when you’re in a pandemic, sometimes things can’t be as fun as you want them to be.
Student-conduct and residence-life employees have had to monitor students for a new range of behavior: not wearing a mask, not social distancing properly, gathering in large groups. Partying in a pandemic comes with heightened danger, and heightened consequences. Enforcing those rules hasn’t been easy. No one entered the field “because they love being the fun police,” Compton said.
Handling parents has been another challenging duty. For every family who thinks the pandemic safety rules are silly, there’s a family who is concerned about their student’s health and safety, who wants the university to crack down harder, Compton said. Staff are often caught in the middle. “There’s a constant balance of trying to do the best you can,” she said, “knowing that ultimately whatever decision an institution makes on a macro or micro level is going to leave somebody unhappy.”
Aside from navigating new parental and student concerns, at many institutions the student-affairs division had to erect unprecedented testing, quarantining, and contract-tracing infrastructure. At the University of Rhode Island, which administered about 5,000 tests per week last fall and is planning to double that number this spring, the lift was “herculean,” said Ellen M. Reynolds, assistant vice president for student health and wellness.
Food insecurity was another logistical lift. In Tennessee, Austin Peay State University’s food pantry went from fulfilling about 15 orders a week to about 20 orders a day when school was back in session in the fall, said Loretta Ussery Griffy, associate vice president for academic strategic initiatives and foundation engagement. Student need “skyrocketed,” she said, so the workload increased along with it.
On top of the pandemic, student-affairs professionals helped students cope with other unforeseen obstacles and traumas. First came the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests against police violence and racial injustice. Then came a presidential election, after which Donald Trump refused to concede. When there’s tension or disruption on campus, student affairs are often the employees who mediate it, said Lakeisha Mathews, director of the Career and Internship Center at the University of Baltimore.
Staff members of color often fulfill diversity work, like advising the Black Student Union or informally mentoring students of color, while also dealing with their own racial trauma and fatigue around these incidents, said Ruzicka, the Hopkins dean.
Shortly after a pro-Trump mob, incited by the president, attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, Mathews could see that members of her team needed to process what had happened.
To see a Confederate flag waved in the Capitol building was jarring, she said. “We have to help our students make sense of that. We have to help them unpack that. But we also have to help our staff members do that, too.”
Mfume, the assistant vice president for student success and retention at Morgan State University, now regularly sends her last email of the day around 1 a.m. She catches five or six hours of sleep, wakes up, showers, gets dressed in professional clothes (at least from the waist up; she’ll wear comfy jogger pants, which stay out of frame on a Zoom screen), and is back at it by 9 a.m. Her boss even has a hashtag for the division leadership team that Mfume is on: #TeamNoSleep. It’s a joke. Kind of.
Mfume said she knows she’s blessed to be able to work from home. But the boundary between work and rest has become more porous. And the work itself has been intensely personal and emotional, Mfume said. She reaches out to every student who withdraws from the university to find out why. They’ve told her about their own mental-health struggles, that their family members were laid off, that they are unsure where they’re going to live.
Mfume has noticed that she and her colleagues have “put ourselves in the background so we can worry more about how the students are faring,” she said. “How are they feeling? What’s their anxiety? What’s their stress? What are they uncertain about?
“Which means that I’m still sitting in my cramped chair, hour No. 16.”
Alex Yepez, a student success and support specialist at Ventura College, a community college in California, said his workload has definitely increased. Yepez used to focus on one specific population of students — those on or at risk of being put on academic probation. But after the pandemic began, he engaged in “an all-out blitz” to make sure that all students, especially those who had fallen behind, got some sort of contact from the college.
As a campus triage point, the load can get “overwhelming” at times, Yepez said, but is manageable.
Karla Aguirre, an academic adviser at CSU-Channel Islands, said she is learning to set boundaries. Like, if it’s past 7 p.m., she shouldn’t be in front of a computer screen any longer, even if there are unanswered student emails in her inbox.
“I want to help them out,” Aguirre said. “But also, I want to make sure I’m taking care of myself as a person, otherwise I can’t be providing the services or the attention that they need.”
Aguirre is new. She started as an adviser just two weeks before the pandemic really got underway in the United States. So far, she hasn’t fallen prey to burnout. But she knows she needs to find work-life balance because “if you ask me next year, it could be different.”
Still, college leaders are clearly concerned about the pandemic’s potential long-term implications for employees. In a recent survey, conducted by the American Council on Education, college and university presidents collectively ranked the mental health of faculty and staff members as their third-most-pressing concern. The mental health of students ranked first, followed by the long-term financial viability of their institutions.
Compton, the student-conduct association president, said she’s seeing younger and younger staff members who are questioning if they can continue in the field. They might decide $30,000 a year and free housing isn’t worth it, she said. Some are also expressing dissatisfaction along the lines of, “This isn’t what I signed up for. I didn’t sign up to put my health and well-being at risk,” said Kruger, the Naspa president.
Leaders can take certain steps to ease the burden. Compton recommends that they have clear conversations with staff members who are expected to enforce policy about what those policies are, and what the expectations of enforcement are. That conversation is much easier to have on the front end, she said, so that employees don’t have to cross their fingers and hope they did the right thing on the back end.
Ruzicka, the Hopkins dean, said that over the summer, the division of student affairs coordinated with other parts of the university to establish “meeting free” days so that folks could have a breather.
Kruger recommended that leaders name exhaustion and burnout explicitly, and provide rewards when they can, like time off.
That’s easier said than done. Austin Peay State hasn’t entered into a financial crisis, said Griffy, the associate vice president, but it feels like one could be right around the corner, just from observing what’s happening across the nation. She’s watched other institutions lay off employees and cut budgets. So there’s internal pressure to not take time off, to “keep on keeping on,” she said.
What’s certain is that the pandemic, and the voluminous workload that came with it, isn’t going away any time soon. Cases are on the rise. Problems still pop up like whack-a-mole.
In the face of that certainty, some employees, like Mfume, have decided to change their habits. The assistant vice president told her boss that her New Year’s resolution is to not be on email at 1 a.m.
For her own well-being, she said, she needs to be on #TeamMoreSleep.