Learning Matters: United by Loss

Chancellor Carrell

When we’re on the other side of this pandemic, looking back on what we’ve learned, I wonder what we’ll be saying to each other. Some speculate we’ll be more grateful, more present and aware – while others see this disruption through a societal lens, predicting massive shifts in many sectors – including higher education and healthcare.

This month, Harvard Business Review’s special series, Emerging from the Crisis, features a thought piece by David Kessler in which he describes groups of people based on three distinct types of experience in this pandemic – the Worried Well, the Affected and the Bereaved. Kessler advises that all of these folks need care, but the nature of the needed care differs. He also suggests that these varied groups have something in common: when the pandemic is over we will all need to heal in some way because no matter the degree, we will all have experienced loss. Kessler concludes, “The pandemic is one season in our lives; it will end. It will be remembered as an extraordinarily difficult time. But the slow process of returning to a new normal—of naming our grief, helping one another reach acceptance and finding meaning—will continue.”

On college campuses we are surely having highly varied pandemic experiences, with some oblivious, minimizing or defiant; others fearful to be together -- even if masked and distanced; and many more conflicted about educators serving as “front line” workers even while they grieve the loss of in-person campus life. To be real about the current challenges to collective wellbeing, we must name the additional crises intersecting with COVID-19: extreme political division and brutal racial injustice. Like Kessler’s description of varied pandemic experiences, the degree of loss in these other arenas varies as well.

When we reflect on historic crises like the Great Depression, WWII and the civil rights movement, we tend to recall heroic acts and even imagine larger-than-life people – Rosie the Riveter and Rosa Parks, for example. And yet, the actual experience of living through calamity seems more slow-motion and surreal than valiant, with emotional ebbs and flows from acceptance to anguish, irritation to anger and boredom to fear. Every day we must manage the mundane while awash in a sea of uncertainty and loss.   

Perhaps much of what we still need to learn can be discovered through the perpetual challenge of honoring the differences while looking hard for similarities. That kind of learning from loss could lead to heroic acts of endurance and empathy, and to a magnificent reimagining of life at home, on campus and beyond. When we are finally able to look back on this season we will affirm again that learning matters.

Read more of Chancellor's Blog -Learning Matters, linked here