Stay home, be patient, and stay home

Beth Weatherby
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
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Just one month ago, the University of Montana Western rapidly moved all courses for the rest of the semester to remote delivery, asked students to stay home if at all possible after spring break, canceled all events and gatherings, and transitioned the majority of our employees to “working from home” rather than on campus.

Adrenalin flowed. Workdays stretched to 20 hours. Events developed so quickly that I frequently found that messages I wrote were obsolete before I finished drafting them. There was little time to process what was happening, but we were all clearly hurtling through a deep learning experience. (At times like this, it is perfectly appropriate even for the leader of an institution of higher learning, to think, “Enough ‘learning experiences’ already!”)

Today, we begin Block 8, which ends on May 6th. We are preparing for a virtual commencement ceremony for May 9th, even as we hope to be able to invite graduating seniors to return sometime this fall to walk across a physical stage here on campus. We are finding ways to support all of our students as they try to make sense of their worlds turned upside down. We are determining the impact on our finances of refunded room and board, the departure of the Montana Youth Challenge Academy cadets, canceled events, and most likely, the loss of an entire summer season of the geology camps that have migrated to our residence halls from universities all over the United States for the past 40 years. Also, we cannot know how this pandemic will impact enrollment. We worry with you about the toll all of this will take on our community.

Like all of you, our thoughts and plans turn towards the future even as the sands shift beneath our feet. Every discussion is peppered with unknowns. A question is raised or a problem broached and quickly, we are met with unknown after unknown. I cannot recall a time when simple discussions, personal and professional, have escalated so speedily into whirlwinds of anxious energy.

The best COVID-19 crisis advice I have received, other than “Stay home,” was from our partner in Natural Horsemanship, William Kriegel: “Be patient and optimistic.” This phrase has become my mantra and I have shared it widely. Patience and optimism, steadily practiced, create authentic calm. Even now.

If we can settle into extended moments of patient optimism, what might we learn? We know with certainty that change has already happened and that we will need to make changes as we move into the future. Here are some of the questions I’m asking my leadership team, and our faculty, staff, and students to think about:
•  How will we use our new experiences with online/remote teaching and learning methods to benefit our students?
•  What are we learning about flexible work-place options and the needs of today’s employees?
•  What weaknesses is this pandemic experience exposing?
•  What strengths is this experience revealing?
•  How can we continue to work with our community to meet this and future challenges and strengthen our relationships?
•  How can we grow partnerships to share resources to benefit students and the community?

I hope that others will find, as I am, that it is a relief to stop and think together and make something of this harrowing situation by learning from it; turning anxious spirals into productive, creative exchanges; doing what we do well in a university town: patiently, optimistically dwelling in the often difficult but bright light of learning.