The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Finding Strength in Giving Back: Reflections on Higher Ed, the Pandemic and Racial Equity

This blog post was contributed by Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. 

As a community college president, I found this past year especially hard. As we now know from the data recently released by the National Student Clearinghouse, the community college segment within higher education suffered the worst decline in enrollment. Not surprising! Our students are the most economically vulnerable and the most food and housing insecure. They were likely among the first to have lost their jobs, the ones to be working front-line jobs, the ones with few or no options for childcare, and the ones caring for loved ones afflicted with or impacted by COVID-19. In addition, community colleges serve the highest proportion of students of color, and we know that the pandemic has most adversely affected people of color and women. Needless to say, the cards are stacked against our students.

A Delicate Balancing Act

The implications of the pandemic for us as leaders were clear from the outset. We had to balance short-term decision-making with long-term sustainability in an unpredictable environment. Public health officials were warning of second waves and new strains of the virus without knowing when they would come and what impact they would have. Like higher ed administrators, they didn’t have a crystal ball to predict the future. These experts gave us the best information they had based on the best data available with few past experiences to guide them.

Of course, no president wanted to rob their reserves, only to watch the pandemic last longer than expected and put their institution in a precarious financial situation during a decade that we had already expected to be treacherous for student enrollment. The weight of these decisions — many of which had the face of a colleague or a student — wore many of us down. On top of these professional challenges, we also had to juggle caring for our own loved ones, assume the role of teacher to our own children learning at home in a virtual environment and cope with deaths and illnesses. Leaders at the helm were not immune to the mental toll.

Add to all of this the racial reckoning! If you are a person of color, all of the shooting deaths and the Central Park incident wore you down even more. If you are a parent, or a parent of a black boy, it ate at you with more and more intensity with each new story. If you were born in a developing country, as I was, watching the looting and hearing the political rhetoric left you scared and thinking, “Where is the greatest country on earth headed?” Needless to say, it was a scary time, and one marked by physical isolation, lack of human interaction, fear, uncertainty and unpredictability. We couldn’t even hug many of those dear to us, which had negative mental health implications for all of us.

Giving Back in a Meaningful Way

I did not realize how much these events had affected me until a great colleague asked me to lead a caucus group for people of color. As part of an ongoing effort, a multi-state, multi-institution-type consortium called Leading for Change Racial Equity and Justice Institute, we created two caucuses: one for our white colleagues and one for anyone who self-identified as non-white. I was invited to co-lead the non-white caucus with another amazing colleague. Going in, I underestimated how much good this opportunity to give back and support others would do me. It was transformative!

As leaders, one of our roles is to be cheerleaders, to support others, to have a positive disposition, to be ready to comfort others at a moment’s notice and lead with empathy, putting ourselves in others’ shoes. This is an emotionally laborious part of the work. I was doing this as I was walking through my own traumatic experiences. Yet, in co-leading this group with a group of committed colleagues, I found support, a network and people with whom I had much in common.

Because of the downsizing that many of our colleges and universities were forced to do, many of our colleagues of color are shouldering more responsibilities and are being asked to take on the roles of supporting students, faculty and staff with racial equity initiatives. In addition, many were also engaged in program development and crisis response as their campuses grappled with the fall out of the local and national race issues. Our committed white colleagues expressed that they are trying but aren’t sure if their efforts are making a positive difference. Others expressed that their efforts were clearly having the opposite effect of what they intended.

These colleagues — white and of color — became my truth tellers. These groups gave me valuable perspectives and insights. They needed support, understanding, tools, professional development and to be brought together for dialogues like the ones such that the caucuses provided. Above all, they needed the same care that they were giving to others.

An Unexpected Gift

As part of these conversations, I finally found a space where I could be human and a space that forced me to be vulnerable in service of others. My own sharing helped others feel comfortable to share and helped create authentic, bonding and lasting relationships. It also helped to create opportunities for us to learn more about and from each other. In the months when we most needed it, we had a space where we could lament and support each other, as well as build each other up.

Higher education needs more of these kinds of efforts. And they shouldn’t be fleeting endeavors. While we may be in the eye of the storm during this pandemic, this work needs to go on.

The support for people of color working in higher ed is a long-term investment, and the collaboration with our white colleagues — who also need support and a sense of community — are long-term investments for higher education. When the two groups came together to share learnings and experiences, it was profound. Many were yearning to understand how they can be most supportive of students and of their campus colleagues, and these conversations provided an opportunity for them to do just that.

While our jobs as presidents and senior executives are especially difficult now, service to our communities — however we define them — can be rewarding in ways that we never anticipated. Giving back provides opportunities for us to learn, to connect and to support our campuses and our people in service of our students and communities.

Related resources:

21-day Racial-Equity Habit-Building Challenge

Baking Self-Care Into the Culture of HR (Higher Ed HR Magazine)