A Class Act

    This spring, I had the pleasure of teaching 62 UNC undergraduates in a course on adolescent development. Yes, we spent our time on zoom. Yes, there were pre-recorded lectures. Yes, there were dark screens and times when real life intruded on our enthusiasm for the topic. And, yes, this is a group of students that I will never forget. Not because of the challenges of this spring. But because of their triumphs.

    To call them resilient is an understatement. They experienced family death, emergency surgeries, friends whose psychiatric crises ended in hospitalization and even suicide. They juggled jobs at risk to their own health and caring for young children in the face of spousal deployment. And they experienced the birth of a new child, the success of accceptance to graduate programs in their chosen fields and securing that first post-graduation job, and the rush of victory on the playing field.

    Yet, in the midst of all this life, they accomplished something truly impressive within the virtual classroom. Connection. They offered themselves and their stories to connect the dots left blank between the research studies outlined in our textbook regarding their diversity journeys – in learning about and understanding their own and others race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. And they listened to the stories of youth making their own way through the pandemic.

    In a semester-long project, these students conducted interviews with middle and high schoolers in schools in North Carolina and around the country to understand their take on life during COVID. Working together, our students applied lessons taken from the authentic voices of youth to identify and offer solutions for key challenges that schools are and will continue to face as youth return to the classroom.

    What they heard were lessons from the headlines and quieter stories yet to be told. For example….

    Although many youth are eager to return to school, some experience remote learning as a welcome break from the social and academic pressures of the traditional classroom.

    By removing some of the downtime in schools, some youth had more time to engage in religious practices and develop hobbies and skills while, at the same time, other youth struggled with boredom and isolation.

    While for some youth, the stress of online school (taxing motivation and attention) was greater than the stress of social isolation (thanks to social media), for others the opposite was true.

    In response to these stories and challenges, our students offered a broad range of prototyped solutions that include pairing social interaction and physical movement, creative approaches to mentoring and counseling services, injecting fun through zoom spirit days, and much more.

    I’m proud of the work they have done and look forward to sharing it with teachers from schools who supported us. I said as much to them in our in-class mini-graduation moment in which we sent many seniors off into the world. And I also shared my own sense of connection with them.

    There is something about enduring together – about witnessing one another’s humanity during times of struggle and challenge – that bonds us to one another. I remember vividly the moment I encountered one of my students in the stairwell as I rushed down to check in with my class after seeing the planes of 9/11 hit the twin towers. He was, I learned, in the ROTC program and wore his uniform. It hit me like a ton of bricks.

    The full lives of our students that lie beyond the classroom are poignant reminders that what connects us – teachers and students – is not what we share in that classroom but what we share outside of it. Our basic humanity. And so, the pandemic, repeats this lesson.

    To the students of UNC’s Psychology 471 this spring, I will never forget you. It’s been an honor…….

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