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4 Things I Want My Students to Know about College During a Pandemic

After finishing spring semester 2020 in a virtual instruction learning environment, Bethel took unprecedented steps to bring students, faculty, and staff safely back to campus. Though this season holds challenges, it also presents a unique opportunity for students to reflect on why they’re attending college—and why a liberal arts education is more important than ever.

By Chris Gehrz, Professor of History

January 20, 2021 | 10:30 a.m.

Four Things

A Bethel history professor encourages students to see the bigger picture in the midst of the challenges of COVID-19.

Bethel University Professor of History Chris Gehrz originally published this article on the “Anxious Bench” blog. The story subsequently appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Bethel Magazine

This semester is unlike any of the 32 that have preceded it in my Bethel career. Like thousands of other colleges and universities in the United States, Bethel brought students back to campus in the middle of a global pandemic. Each semester, I help students transition back into academic life, to orient them to what we’ll be trying to accomplish in each class. But this fall, we’re all navigating uncharted waters together. Here is what I told students as we dove in together:

  1. We’re excited to see you.

I’ll never complain about having summers free to spend time with my family, read books—and sometimes research and write them—and generally decompress. But by August, even the most introverted college professor can’t wait to get back on campus and start forming and reforming relationships with students. You all energize us. I love seeing students’ faces filled with wonder, confusion, joy, anger, laughter, sorrow, determination, and all the other feelings sparked by the adventure of learning. 

Like every other year, I’m excited to challenge, equip, and encourage you to make your faith your own, to seek both God’s glory and your neighbors’ good through your studies, and to help you hear God call you to that place where your distinctive gladness and the world’s deepest needs meet. Like Paul praying for his friends in Philippi, I pray that “your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (Philippians 1:9). But like him, I also “long for all of you with the compassion of Jesus Christ” (v.8). We can teach at a distance—like we did last April and May—but it’s not the same as being present with and for each other.

  1. 2020 is not college as you’ve anticipated or experienced it.

So I believe the surveys: Most of you hated the idea of spending this fall online and were as eager as I was to get back to campus. Sitting in front of a computer in your parents’ house is not your idea of college. But this fall is nobody’s idea of college either—a COVID-shaped college semester looks very different. Yes, you are in classrooms…wearing masks, sitting at (and cleaning) socially distanced desks to which you’re assigned for the semester, while I stand in one spot up front wearing a face shield. Oh, and I simultaneously try to teach to those of you who aren’t in the classroom, but are watching on Zoom—either because the class is too big for the reorganized classroom and it’s not your turn to be there, or because you felt sick and stayed home. Or you might be asymptomatic but in isolation after testing positive for COVID or being exposed to someone who was.

You have no more than one roommate. Dining services are circumscribed. Chapel is shorter and delivered online for most of us. You can’t attend football games or volleyball tournaments. You won’t be able to look forward to spending January term in Spain, Belize, or New Zealand; those trips—like semesters abroad—have already been canceled. And you might end up back in your parents’ house anyway. Bethel could decide it’s no longer safe to host in-person classes—or the state could decide that for us.

“We must live out the biblical standard of membership in the body of Christ (Romans 12:4). At times, we are asked to give up some of our liberties for the good of those around us. We have to do things we wouldn't otherwise do in order to protect those in our community who are most vulnerable.”

— Bethel’s Guiding Principle for Our Life Together This Year
  1. This is a semester to think more intentionally about why you’re in college.

If this fall overturns your expectations about college, that’s not a bad thing. At this point in American history, the expensive act of attending college has become so routine that you can glide into it without much sense of why you’re there. Once you’re into your college career, it’s easy to forget what a remarkable privilege it is—still out of reach of most of the world’s population—to spend four of your most formative years devoting yourself to learning. So welcome the disruption. Let this semester awaken you from gauzy dreams about lakeside campuses and football games and force you to pay attention to why you’re here. Look at all the work to make it possible for you to be in classes and your dorm, and ask why it’s worth it. Let this experience prompt you to ask at least two questions that you might not have asked yourself before:

First, why did you choose a Christian liberal arts college? Most of you are at Bethel to prepare for a profession in business, education, healthcare, social work, or sciences. So why do so at a place that requires you to take classes in other areas, like my history courses? Oddly, it might be easier to answer that question in the middle of a pandemic. First, you may have watched the effects of COVID on the economy and wondered if it’s actually wise to spend four expensive years of college focused on preparing for work in a sector that might suddenly collapse. Even if you’ve been trained to think of college primarily as an economic transaction—you pay tuition; we give you professional training and a credential that opens doors to careers—you might find it advantageous to take classes that equip you with broader knowledge and skills that translate across multiple industries and serve you well in multiple professions. 

Second, and more importantly…even if you haven’t suffered the symptoms of COVID-19 yourself, you’ve experienced some of its economic, social, and cultural effects and have watched it become an object of intense debate. You’ve probably been asking yourself some profound questions: 

  • What is true? How can I know whom to believe or what to expect?
  • Why is this pandemic affecting America as it is — and why does it afflict some Americans more than others?
  • How do we balance competing priorities, as individuals and as citizens? Am I behaving ethically? Can human beings flourish under these circumstances?
  • Have we been through this before, and can we learn anything from past crises?
  • Where is God in all of this, and what does a pandemic mean for the church and its mission?

As it happens, those are precisely the kinds of questions that the Christian liberal arts are meant to answer. At a place like Bethel, classes like mine don’t just give you names and dates about the Cold War and don’t just equip you with marketable skills like research and writing. They free you from ignorance and assumption, to seek what is true. They free you from selfishness and bias, to do what is just. And they help you live in the tensions produced by such complicated and contested concepts. At least, they do if we all do our part of the work. For me, that means modeling the curiosity, humility, vulnerability, faith, hope, and love that are part of the calling of the Christian scholar. It means planning and facilitating conversations—between past and present, among divergent points of view—that help you become scholars yourselves. 

For you…well, it means asking yourself one more question. What is your role in college?

First, you need to ignore all the voices telling you that you come to college as a consumer, someone who shopped for an experience customized to meet your preferences and now deserves to receive the services for which you paid. That attitude will not only make you resent the limits being imposed on you this fall, but divert your attention from your actual role. Everyone comes to Bethel as members of a Christian learning community, bound together by shared affection for Jesus and a common commitment to the mission that He entrusted to no individual, but an interdependent body of believers. When better than in the middle of a crisis to think seriously about our responsibilities to each other?

That starts with your responsibility to be prudent and conscientious. It’s not fearful or faithless to keep your distance, wear a mask, clean your desk, or stay home when you’re sick—or when you’re asymptomatic but shedding a virus. It’s a way of loving your neighbors. But for all the time people like me have put into thinking about how to safely structure our physical and virtual learning spaces, I also want you to pay close attention to a sentence that should appear in every syllabus you get at Bethel: “Expect to work at least two hours outside of class for every hour you spend in class.” That’s right: Most of your learning is meant to happen when I’m not even there. Even if you’re taking a typical first-year load of 13 to 14 credit hours, that means that you need to think about “college student” as a full-time, 40-hour-a-week occupation. An honest-to-goodness job that requires you to review, read, research, and write, usually when no supervisor is looking.

Because, again, the learning we’re after won’t happen if you put in the minimum required to get a piece of paper that boosts you into a higher salary range. It’s not about feeding you the right answers to regurgitate. It’s about asking fundamental questions that will suddenly come back to mind while you’re eating, jogging, praying, or sleeping. It’s about honing skills that you’ll need when you’re no longer spending any time in class. It’s about your calling as a Christian, which others can help you hear, but you need to follow yourself. Most years at Bethel start with such pious niceties, to be heard once and quickly forgotten. This year, though, I think you owe it to us, and—much more importantly—to yourselves, to take these words seriously. All summer, people have moved heaven and earth to allow our community to gather safely and fulfill its mission, for the sake of the church God established and the good of the world God loves. Now, it’s your turn.

  1. You can do this.

I know it sounds like I’m asking a lot. The impossible, even. If nothing else, we need to be kind and patient with each other. I know we want to act like this fall will go more smoothly than last spring, when teachers and students alike understood that the abruptness of the transition online demanded grace all around. Though we’ve had more time to prepare, we’re bound to make mistakes, get frustrated, and generally feel like we’re not doing the best we can. But among the many other things it is, college is a place to fail, to have your reach exceed your grasp. That’s not just true of using technology, managing time, and remembering to wear a mask, but of the things that really matter: You’ll ask life’s most important questions and struggle to find answers; you’ll listen keenly for God’s call and hear noise, or nothing.

But if you can persevere through those moments, let alone a bad quiz or subpar paper, college will also reveal itself to be a place to grow. A place where you don’t just question your own assumptions, but you make me question mine. A place where you discover abilities that even your parents and favorite teacher didn’t recognize in you. A place where you encounter God in new ways and learn to see the world in new ways, with all the compassion and hope of His Son.

Christians have experienced such learning in the midst of persecution and revolution and warfare. It will happen in the midst of COVID, too. With God’s grace and a little help and encouragement from people like me, you can totally do this.

Learn from faculty who care about your journey. 

When you study at Bethel, you’ll learn from highly credentialed scholars and experienced professionals who are also deeply committed to their faith and their students. Our faculty choose Bethel for the same reason our students do: to pursue truth within a dynamic Christian community. 

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