To say that this 2020 was wild is…. barely scratching the surface. 

We had to navigate a global health crisis while simultaneously reckoning with racism and discrimination in our past and present and coping with an endless and chaotic election cycle. 

I am missing family that I haven’t been able to see in a year or more, including those that I will never see again as they died during the pandemic and, in some cases, from COVID-19. 

Many of us worry—for the first time or more than ever—about how we will pay for the things we need. And many of us are navigating countless other concerns, questions, and demands.   

Against this backdrop, many of us also started something new. Like so many of you beginning your first year of college, the Academic Guides also started a new journey at Duke in August. We are a team of seven who are each assigned to a residence hall(s), where we facilitate collaborative and innovative student-centered activities, provide individualized and personal support, and connect students with a continuum of resources to enrich their experience. We are so excited to be here! 

And also, adjusting to a new environment is difficult. Doing so during a pandemic means that it is all totally different from anything any of us have experienced before and anything we might have anticipated. We have all been forced to embrace the reality created for us. Meeting and working with new people is…not new to me. Nearly every job I’ve had—from restaurant hostess to teacher to therapist– has been social and dynamic. So the idea of meeting my colleagues, campus partners and students was exciting and familiar…. except that it wasn’t. Because we spent our entire first month working together staring at and interrupting one another on Zoom. And then when I did finally meet my Academic Guides colleagues in person, I didn’t recognize anyone because we were all masked. The process of getting to know one another, establishing trust and figuring out how to work together has taken a long time. Longer than with any other team of which I have been a part. But, of course that’s the case. None of us have ever started a new job as a brand-new team during a pandemic. 

In 2020, we have all been forced to, in some way, slow down, and let go of our expectations. For the Academic Guides, our new reality meant that we had to say goodbye to our plans to facilitate a robust and dynamic schedule of activities in the fall semester.

Instead, we took what we called a “listening semester.” We had a million introductory calls with campus partners (okay maybe more like 30 but zoom fatigue is real) to learn about their work. We held focus groups with students and sent out student surveys to hear for ourselves how students experience Duke. We tabled and crashed RA staff meetings and programs. And we listened. 

We heard that the thing that students most enjoy about Duke is the people. And that the workload and the competitive environment are really quite stressful for most students. That although students know that there are a lot of resources available to them, they don’t always know where to go or what is available related to a specific need or want. We heard that one of the main sources of stress for students is this belief that students must “have it all,” and “do it all,” effortlessly

Folks at Duke—ourselves included—do not seem to have a lot of practice when it comes to slowing down and letting go of expectations. As someone whose primary “hobby” for the last 10 years has involved taking on another job or pursuing formal education—or both, simultaneously—I get it. But in 2020, the decision to slow down was made for us. When we as Academic Guides slowed down, let go, and listened, we were able to think about who we are, and not just what we do. And yes, ultimately, we were able to do. We organized and implemented activities that did the things that students told us they wanted, including: 

  • getting peer support and guidance on class selection, 
  • knowing where to go for questions about internships or clubs to join, 
  • learning strategies for improving study routines and time management,
  • thoughtfully and intentionally planning their time at Duke, 
  • spending mindful time in nature, and
  • relieving stress.

In other words, we were able to really do student-centered, community-based work, which is our entire goal and mission as Academic Guides. I don’t know that we would have been as successful if things had gone as we had expected, and had we not taken the time to listen and reflect.

Obviously, slowing down and letting go of our expectations is still hard. It’s still a huge challenge for me—I literally must schedule leisure time. Sometimes it doesn’t seem possible. But then again, neither did starting something brand new in a pandemic, nor did living under pandemic conditions for nine months, and we did it. I did it. You did it. And we’d love to talk with you about it.