Let’s Talk: Reflecting from a social distance

Let’s Talk: Reflecting from a social distance

Assistant to the President for Mission Integration Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos

Assistant to the President for Mission Integration Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos is organizing a series of reflections from students, faculty and staff during the coronavirus crisis. The letter below is dated Monday, March 16. To keep up to date on the University’s response to the coronavirus, please visit udmercy.edu/coronavirus.

My daughter is home after moving out of her dorm unexpectedly this weekend because of COVID-19. Out of an abundance of caution, I am staying home after waking up to what I would, at any other time, expect are simply symptoms of seasonal allergies I have not yet gotten under control. As I sit and look across the table at my daughter who is online for her morning class, I want to reflect on a few things I have been thinking about since she got home and began sharing stories from her friends in Seattle. They have been home for almost two weeks now.

One story I have found most striking is of a friend who had to leave the relative quiet of his dorm room to return home to a household with extended family that include his little cousins who are home from school. While my daughter and I have the privilege of being able to work in an apartment with easy wifi access and relative quiet, the same is not true for this friend and I suspect for many of our students. Some of our students have gone home to families with younger siblings, children or cousins running around after being made to stay home from school. Finding a quiet place to log on for classes may not be as easy as some of us imagine. Now I wonder if wifi and hardware access is an issue. I confess I have been taking these as givens in all the conversations about moving to online instruction I have had. I am sure others at the University have been considering these kinds of issues from the beginning. Until my conversation with my daughter, I had not even thought about the frustration that some students may experience because they want to continue their studies with all seriousness but their circumstances at home present major obstacles.

My son, who has been home for a couple of weeks now, will be taking finals this week. He goes to school in the greater Seattle area. His habit prior to the move to online instruction was to go to class, head to the library to study for a few hours, either alone or with friends, before hitting the gym or going to throwing practice. Classes were the first to go. In the beginning, group work and group study were still encouraged or at least permitted. Those were the next to go. At least he could still channel his energies to going to the gym or out in the field with his throwing team. But that ended last week as well when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared the closure of schools in three counties until April 24, an order that has been extended in scope since and likely to be extended in time given the new CDC recommendation of no gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks. He has found it a challenge to stay focused and engaged in courses that were intended to be face-to-face. It has become even harder to maintain the study rhythm he had when he had access to the library and study group. He and his friends did still try to study together at someone’s house, but that seems to have ended as of this weekend. Parents began to discourage even small group congregation and began keeping their kids home. The social distancing is taking its toll.

As I type, I look back up at my daughter 30 minutes into her class. She is hanging in. She looks engaged. I suspect the fluctuating level of interest I see on her face would have been there even if she was in the classroom with peers and a professor. Then I think back to her friends, remembering they do not have a study space where the only other person in the house is also working quietly.

Detroit Mercy will relaunch classes online tomorrow to minimize the disruption of COVID-19 on our students’ learning. Many who read this will have been working especially hard over the last few days since the announcement of the move to this alternative mode of instruction to ensure the best possible experience for our students. I want to applaud and thank faculty and staff who have given so much of their energy to make this transition. As we move into the implementation stage, I hope we continue to keep the success and learning of our students at the forefront of how we proceed. As we do this, let us remember that some of our students are not going home to the ideal isolated study situation others will have. Some may have to face some chaos with children at home or family members that may be demanding their attention because our students are present. While remembering our own efforts to continue to give them access to learning, the anxiety and stress that has come with the current situation is something they are likely experiencing. They may not even be fully aware of it.

True to who we are and who we aspire to be as a community bound by our shared mission to educate our students in the Mercy and Jesuit traditions, let us continue to care for them as whole persons, even from a distance. In a period of social distancing, I know that we will work even harder to ensure good communication with our students to ensure they know of our commitment to them not only as learners but as people who are likely struggling with the disruption and uncertainty they are experiencing. As we work together as employees of the university, let us aim to hold one another even more closely in spirit and seek ways to let one another know we care. I am confident that compassion, patience and understanding will continue to mark the way we engage with one another, especially our students, as we seek ways to respond to a rapidly changing situation. Adaptability is another characteristic of Jesuit and Mercy education. Let us all lean into it.

As we continue to discern the best way to attend to the needs of not only our students and our colleagues but also our families and loved ones at home, let us not forget to take the time to care for our own mental and emotional health. With the morning sunshine, maybe a brief walk to take in some fresh air and the singing of birds can be an opportunity to give thanks for the be part of the effort to create a community of care and compassion in these challenging times. In the words of Catherine McAuley: “a community in which this universal charity reigns is capable of surmounting all difficulties.”

Finally, here is the link to an Examen for Life During COVID-19 offered by the Ignatian Solidarity Network, to serve as a guide for daily reflection in this time. Let us all stay safe and healthy as we continue to attend to one another and our broader community.

Holding our community in prayer,
Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos
Assistant to the President for Mission Integration