Well, this is going to be different.
For returning students, your college experience this year will not resemble your past.
For new students, your expectations and hopes for the traditional college experience will have to wait for safer days.
Until then, we are faced with a great challenge. Yet in this challenge, we find opportunity.
There are many emotions that you will feel as you and your faculty transition to remote learning. Your interactions with peers and mentors will be virtual, and while you can still accomplish your goals, we all recognize that it is not the same.
Your generation has done more community service than any generation prior. Perhaps this year, your greatest act of service will be discipline.
Discipline in the form of wearing your mask and keeping your distance- to protect you and your community. Catching this powerful virus might not change your life, but it might change the life of your family, or your classmates’ family, as well as your faculty, administrators, and staff who call your community home.
This discipline brings sacrifice- and much of this will go unseen and unrecognized, and in fact, you might also be challenged and misunderstood. There will be temptations to go to parties, to break safety protocol, and to ignore best health practices. I truly can’t imagine how difficult this will be for you.
In moments of doubt, keep returning to science. Wearing a mask helps, as does social distancing.
In these moments of doubt, you can also return to faith. I am reminded of the temptations Jesus faced in the desert before he started his earthly ministry (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, and Luke 4:1-13). During this time dedicated to be isolated and alone with God, He wrestled with earthly temptations to satisfy his hunger, His ego, and His need to belong and to be loved. Jesus understood this time of isolation as key to building up His spiritual strength before He served.
We are all called to do the same.
This act of love will help us not only return to a traditional college experience, but it will secure that many more will still be here to accompany you and others on future journeys.
After Jesus faced these temptations, scripture tells us that the angels came and ministered to Him. There are many “angels” in your campus community who are here to accompany you. You do not have to face this year alone. Let us support you by listening and helping you carry your burdens.
There is also an opportunity that lies within the purpose of higher education.
This whole experience is one of self-growth and social change. Your education intends to form and transform you so when you enter into the next chapter of your life, you have not only the degree, but a greater sense of self and knowledge to change the world.
And there is much to change.
The injustices are many, and the pandemic brought them into the light. You can change these realities. We will do this together, and in many ways, we will follow your lead.
As anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Use this time to build your tool kit, to grow networks, to humbly learn, and to try and fail. Invite God into this experience and listen. God gave you unique gifts and talents to not only bring joy and peace into your life, but God also provided you these strengths to transform lives.
In other words, this is the time to answer prayers.
A closing thought:
One of the most beloved and adored figures in human history is St. Francis of Assisi. He is the subject of innumerable autobiographies and studies. Did you know that is was during a time of self-isolation that his life shifted from ordinary to extraordinary?
He was taken captive during war and fell severely ill, forcing him to remain isolated and distant from loved ones on several occasions. It was during these pauses in his life where he discovered his vocation. From dreams of being a great solider, he uncovered a call to serve those most in need, to understand what frightened him, and to find God in all living things and beings.
Those different days invited him to pray, to listen, to be silent, and to learn.
This same invitation is set before you as your academic year begins.
St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “love is inventive to infinity.”
Allow these different days to re-imagine your life, to reconnect with God, and to love others by creating a more just world. Be inventive and create a new reality for yourself and for others.
Yes, this academic year will be different. Let’s pray that when it ends, we and our communities will also be changed for the better.
Dr. Jimmy Walters is the Director of Catholic Scholars and Residence Ministry, and a Faculty member in the Institute for Core Studies and the Graduate School of Education, at St. John’s University in Queens, New York.