How Universities Can Think About Community-Building Through the Coronavirus Pandemic

“For many college and university students, their campus community is their sacred community.”

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

Over the past several weeks, colleges and universities have confronted a strange new world on campus as they move their courses online and cancel in-person classes for the rest of the semester. This sudden and significant shift to online instruction is unprecedented in American higher education history, and students and professors alike are now wrestling with challenging questions about coursework and pedagogy, grading, and testing.

But college and university students won’t just be missing in-person classes for the rest of the semester. They won’t just be missing lectures and tests, creative projects and research opportunities. They won’t just be missing all the things that happen inside classrooms and labs. They will also be missing all the things that happen outside those spaces too.

That is because residential colleges and universities offer students so much more than coursework and degrees. Indeed, students will forget some of the facts they learned inside the classroom, but they will never forget the experiences they had outside of the classroom. They will never forget their time in the residence halls or student government or the marching band. They will never forget their fraternities and sororities, their community service opportunities, and their travel abroad trips. They will never forget their ceremonial events on campus, like convocation, baccalaureate, and commencement. They will never forget because that’s how they meet each other, grow alongside each other, and develop loving relationships with each other that last a lifetime.

That is why colleges and universities are not just scholarly communities but spiritual ones too. Colleges and universities may be secular in their academic mission but they are religious in the way that they convene and make meaning. Through campus traditions and rites-of-passage that are handed down across generations, students connect to a reality that is greater than themselves. Through the arts, sciences, and humanities, students push the boundaries of human expression, potential, and discovery, and explore the ultimate questions of meaning and purpose. And through collegiate athletics and recreational sports, students experience ritual and mythology, agony and ecstasy, magic, and miracles, and a pilgrimage to their respective football cathedrals. In all these ways, university life not only looks like religion, it also does the work of religion­

Ultimately, religion tells us more about what it means to be human than what it means to be divine. And what it means to be human is to have a tribe, a sense of belonging, and a community. That is why for so many religious people, theology might be the price of admission but community is the prize of admission. Being part of a community is especially important for college and university students, who are increasingly raised without formal religion and the communities of care that religion often provides. Such communities serve as powerful protective factors against the rising anxiety, alienation, and loneliness confronting college and university students today. And for many college and university students, their campus community is their sacred community.

How do students stay spiritually connected while they are physically isolated? How do they practice social distancing without emotional distancing? How do they cultivate a campus community when they’re not actually on campus? How do their devices, which have kept them disconnected, now serve as lifelines to keep them connected?

At the University of Southern California, we’re thinking deeply about these questions and working to move both our coursework and our community online. Accordingly, we’re now providing counseling services and pastoral care remotely, and also offering mindfulness, yoga, worship services, sleep workshops, friendship courses, check-in sessions, and other short-form wellness content online. Of course, nothing online can take the place of in-person, organic gatherings, the kind that human beings are uniquely wired to appreciate and embrace. But colleges and universities must now move quickly and creatively in thinking about new possibilities for online community, virtual wellness, and distance care.

As college and university students grapple with the painful loss of their tribes on campus, and as a global pandemic takes them farther away from each other at a time when they need each other most, there are still profound opportunities for them to engage community and think deeply about their spiritual lives. For the first time in their lives, many students will have time for contemplation, introspection, and reflection. They will have the opportunity to reconnect with their families and friends, and their passions and hobbies. They will have the space to reassess their hopes and dreams, their values and aspirations, and their personal and professional goals. Most importantly, they will realize firsthand that they are part of a larger interconnected whole with a crucial role to play in saving others, and that they must be the change the world so desperately needs right now. And there’s nothing more religious than that…

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