Out of Left Field: Hofstra tackles pandemic’s impact on students

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This month I am looking forward to the new semester at Hofstra, which will complete my 61st year at the university. For me and for students everywhere (at all levels) these times have been far from normal.

Now, as an emeritus professor, I only teach one or two courses a term (I am also pleased to be scheduled for fall 2021 when I will present one of my favorite offerings, “History and Media.”) For that continuing interest, I will certainly be tuning in to the Blank Slate Town Hall on disinformation, “fake news,” on Jan. 14.

My past research and publications have focused mostly on newspapers, including the role as co-editor of a book on a prominent Long Islander (William Cullen Bryant). I compared Bryant’s 50 years as an editor to the extraordinary newspaper career of Benjamin Franklin.

I always loved a tribute paid to Bryant when he died: “He had the wisdom of age in his youth and the fire of youth in his age.” Now, with the horrors of the pandemic and “The Lost Year of 2020,” teachers and parents worry not only about how today’s youth will advance to older ages, but whether their futures are already diminished — whether, indeed, stresses for the Gen Z generation will leave them permanently disadvantaged emotionally as well as in their careers.

Like my colleagues and students and teachers elsewhere, we return mostly to “virtual,” distance learning. On college campuses everywhere, the distresses for young men and women are more extensive than you might imagine (Oh, to have Bryant’s “wisdom of age” in (these) youth!).

At Hofstra, under the auspices of the university’s Center for Civic Engagement,   investigations are underway to assist students in their travails and to help them be self-reliantly resourceful as well as developing strengths, collaborating more closely with their peers and with faculty and staff.

Using the Kettering Foundation National Issues Forums as a guide, we are looking into preparing a brief publication, tentatively entitled: “How Can Gen Z College Students Most Effectively Deal NOW with Challenges of the Pandemic?”

The project is being coordinated by an outstanding member of the CCE Advisory Board, Dr. Alicia A. Bosley. Professor Bosley brings special attributes to this endeavor as a licensed New York state therapist, and as a professor whose field of teaching and research focuses on relationships, families and communities. On Bosley’s project team are CCE Advisory Board faculty and administrators as well as outstanding students who have been selected as CCE Fellows.

So far, the Bosley team has taken the key early step for “Issue Framing” by gathering pandemic stress concerns from student surveys and focus groups. The array of concerns that exist right now on all campuses (and many pre-collegiate schools) range from daunting  to alarming.

Here is a list of several that have been repeatedly indicated:
1.) Health Safety – Self, Family and Friends
2.) Isolation
3.) Loneliness
4.) Anxieties
5.) Future prospects for careers and standard of living
6.) Future prospects for marriage, home ownership, able to afford to have children
7.) Racial and ethnic tensions
8.) Soaring unemployment
9.) Food shortages (even among college students!)
10.) Strains from ravages of nature – wild fires in West; record-setting storms in the South
11.) Bizarre and bitter 2020 presidential campaign
12.) Holiday deprivations – unable to spend time with families
13.) Numbing rate of coronavirus infections
14.) Darkening hours of winter (especially toward Dec. 21, shortest day (SAD; seasonal affective disorder)
15.) Fatigue, denial, exhaustion of patience
16.) Disruption (elimination) of campus norms for learning and activities (rare in-person classes; far fewer social gatherings with other students)
17.) CDC and other surveys show mental health strains increased throughout 2020
18.) 1 in 4 young adults (18-24) said they had thought about suicide during recent months
19.) More people tire of complying with rules – consider them an assault on personal freedoms

Jonathan Singer, president of “American Association of Suicidology,” says mental health worsens the longer a crisis persists.
Nicholas Christakis (director of Human Nature Lab at Yale), author of “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live,” agrees with Singer. “Epidemics produce fear and grief that can themselves be contagious, forming a kind of parallel epidemic,” he says.
Christakis cites Thucydides, who wrote that during the plague of 5th century BC “the most terrible feature in the malady was ‘public despair’.” He adds that the 2020 “simultaneous health, social, natural, and political crises” coming together produced unprecedented psychological strains.

Hofstra’s CCE “Socratic Circles” have begun to propose some approaches (options) for dealing with Gen Z Mental Health. These are obviously preliminary and will need to be checked after more extensive “concern gathering” and then “clustering” the concerns to discern what they point to as best approaches for “actions.” These need to be examined in terms of how, why, with what costs and likely results.

Here is a partial sampling of the tentative framing by the Bosley team (the guide for deliberation and actions will be available to other colleges and students when it is completed).

APPROACH 1: PUBLIC POLICIES AND INVESTMENTS:
We are all Americans. In times of crisis the role of our national government has been critical. Still, with our system of federalism, the extreme challenges of the pandemic call for more effective collaboration and cooperation among the states, and with the national government. Government policies and financial assistance during times of crisis build public morale and assist folks (in this case, especially Gen Z) to invest time and efforts for a future that is likely to be improved. This sense of furthering the public good will redound to the benefits of society by appreciative citizens who will be grateful for the boosts they received during difficult times.

Some government aid to individuals has been negatively characterized as entitlements. That does not need to be regarded disparagingly, particularly if policies now have sunset clauses that stipulate review before post-crisis continuations. Also, as young people starting their careers and family lives advance with positivity, the entire society is likely to feel affirmative effects. [Specific proposed actions are too extensive for this column. More detailed data on all three approaches can be requested from michael.dinnocenzo@hofstra.edu.]

APPROACH 2: LIFE SKILLS SEMINARS: Progress and quality of life can be enhanced through individual initiatives and cooperative and collaborative efforts with others. [Here, too, actions for consideration exceed column space, but the working proposals can be obtained by an email request.] In this approach, there are fewer financial needs and more initiatives from individuals working with peers and support groups.  In effect, this option calls on Gen Z students to exercise more control over their lives (within the parameters of situations) and to develop self and peer group confidence that improvements can be made without huge outside guidance and financial support.

APPROACH 3: COORDINATED GOOD HEALTH CULTURAL AND SOCIAL INITIATIVES
Option 3 calls on individuals (with guidance from faculty, staff, alumni, community) to seek ways to enhance their personal and cultural lives. Most of these endeavors do not involve high costs or government supervision. From these kinds of initiatives can be derived a sense of self-confidence and expanding the horizons of one’s cultural endeavors and appreciations. [information with D’Innocenzo email, above]

The CCE team, led by Bosley, strives to empower Gen Z students in the spirit of their cultural Long Island ancestor, William Cullen Bryant.

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