Embrace the ‘new’ in ‘new normal’: How higher education and student affairs can not just recover, but evolve

Share this post

So it’s happening. Change. Most didn’t see it coming and none of us asked for it. I know I’m not saying anything people who work in higher education and student affairs don’t already say to themselves in private, but I think it’s time to move it out of our psyche and bring it to the public domain: change is hard and I believe many would agree it’s even harder within higher education. Before COVID-19, you could resist change. You could give any and every reason not to change. You could see change as a disruption and move on from the idea.

However, this rapidly evolving health pandemic hit our communities. Our campuses were thrown a curveball they’ve never seen before and you might be feeling like the future suddenly became the present. You’ve had to transition your entire academic operation online. You’ve had to think differently, beyond what you and your communities may have ever been able to process before. You’ve banded together (virtually, I may add) to figure out how to provide the same, amazing service to your students as you do in person, but now from afar. To students stretched throughout the state, country, and world. You’ve been challenged with new questions like:

  • How do we continue our counseling services virtually?

These are some heavy, real, tough questions to find answers to. As a former student affairs professional, I know these questions are why you all decided to serve in this field. You’ve spent your careers preparing for these questions, for curveballs like this, for this type of change that is out of your control. During the coming hours, days, weeks I am confident you will find that you and your team are going to be better professionals and better people because of it. I know there is light at the end of this (what may be a fairly long) tunnel: all of the amazing (and very hard) work you and your campuses have been doing will matter after the dust settles. When your campus communities regroup and return to campus to kick off the very important recovery phase equipped with all these new tools, methods, ideas, and new ways of thinking — you won’t just recover, but instead evolve.

Let’s be honest, some part of each of you saw this coming. Not the ‘global health pandemic’ part, but the time that was going to eventually come to figure out how to meet Gen Z where they are. The time where you’d have to stop resisting the perception that students ‘overuse their digital devices’ and recognize that their level of digital engagement can be as effective as in-real-life engagement. The time to make the conscious choice to change and adapt with our students.

If you think about it, our own behavior and the behavior of our students have been telling us this for some time. There is a plethora of research that proves that Gen Z does not distinguish between online relationships and in-real-life relationships. They go hand in hand. They complement one another. A lot about our personal lives have already transitioned to the virtual world. Online gaming communities are thriving. Digital content sites are on the verge of breaking the internet. We are having virtual happy-hours to remain connected to our networks, communities and loved ones. Virtual dates are now a thing. Fitness and wellness have been digitized (I’ll be the first person to tell you how much I love my Peloton). We are discovering how many mobile apps there are for grocery and food delivery (too many in my opinion… come on world let’s figure that one out). So as we eventually return to campus, how can we, you, your teams not fall back into the status quo, not return to ‘business as usual’? How can we re-build our campus communities in a way that takes all of the positives of in-real-life engagement and fuses that with digital/virtual engagement you are working to facilitate as we speak? Well, I have some ideas:

  • Step 1: Breathe. Take a step back and take care of yourself. This has not been easy, but you are getting through it. Celebrate the wins! — now get back to work.
  • Step 2: The term ‘new normal’ implies you embrace the ‘new’ part. Accept that. Acceptance is the first step to recovery, right?
  • Step 3: Do something we do all the time in tech, have a retro — a retrospective. Allow your team, your students, and your faculty to internally reflect on this experience. Pinpoint what they liked, what they didn’t, what went well, what didn’t. Then bring them all together. Have open and honest conversations with each other as a community on how to move your campus forward in this ‘new normal’. Now I know what you all may be thinking: ‘this is going to take some time’. I get it. But you need to do it quickly. The point of a retro is to do it when thoughts and feelings are fresh. However, there is one key to a successful retrospective: leadership must set the expectation that we are here to change, we are here to improve, we are here to do better so next time another curveball is thrown our way, we’ve created a culture that can better adapt.
  • Step 4: You were forced to adapt your campus culture around a ton of new tools like Slack, BlueJeans, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. Don’t stop! When you get back to campus, capitalize on your experiences with these tools and infuse them into everything you do. I promise it’ll be for the better. If you have an honest reflection, you may find that your teams, offices, programs, and services have not been as accessible as you thought. This experience may be forcing you to think differently about that word: access. Here are some thoughts:
    • Ensure every (or as many as you can) event on campus has a virtual component or option. Utilize Zoom to digitally stream the event. Record it. Add it to a content library for your community to access after the fact. For in-person panels, discussions, events that support audience participation utilize Zoom or Slack to collect questions and facilitate discussion during the event and keep those channels live after the event so the conversation can continue.
    • Implement a virtual option for the majority of your services. Explore using chatbots and online messaging to ask and answer those yes/no questions and digital video services to meet with students who can’t make it into the office. You are likely to discover that some counseling, health, and advising services can be offered effectively through these tools. Continue offering this option and expand to other parts of your institution.
    • Find platforms and tools to centralize your campus, your life and your operation in every way. This experience has probably made you realize how disconnected your institution and campus really is. Communication channels, event calendars, student group activities, athletic events, standard operating procedures, and generally all of your stakeholders may have been operating in a fairly siloed way for quite some time. I think we can agree that silos don’t work in a time of crisis and if we are being completely honest with ourselves, they don’t work in times of stability either. Now is the time to come together as one campus and one community, and to break down those silos for good.
    • When there isn’t a global health pandemic you still have students who aren’t feeling well, students who are studying abroad in South America, students who are at home caring for a parent or child, students who just can’t make it to that program because they need to work, and yes, students who just prefer remaining engaged online. Meet those students where they are.
  • Step 5: Keep caring for each other. We as humans stepped up in a big way during this crisis. For ourselves, our families, our friends and loved ones, our colleagues, and our students. Don’t stop. Keep checking in. Keep asking people how they are doing. Keep taking time for yourself, to be well and be centered.


So as you work through the recovery phase, let’s think of it as more than just that. It’s not about restoring your campus back to its original state — it’s about evolving. It’s about extending the momentum from this sudden but imperative time of innovation and change. Celebrate the wins, accept what life throws your way, constantly encourage your team to reflect and adapt, strive to democratize access to your offerings, and above all continue to care for yourself and one another.

Don't forget to share this post!

Get more insightful data and fresh ideas straight to your inbox

Depending on your interests and preferences, we’ll email you no more than once per week – and never share your information.

Enrich your student experience exponentially
3d illustrated mountain made of the rings of the RahRah icon spread out and up, and placed on an island