Dear Liberal Arts Undergraduates:
Last week, I had a Zoom meeting with the executive board of the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Council (LAUC). I was deeply grateful for their time and the conversation. More than anything else, I was impressed by their resilience; like you, they have been incredibly brave while weathering the difficulties brought about by the COVID-19 outbreak. As you know all too well, these challenges have included feeling dislocated by the abrupt shift to remote teaching; a sense of loss triggered by physical separation from classmates, friends, and family; frustrations with unreliable wi-fi connections; and nagging unease about professional prospects after graduation.
These LAUC leaders were also candid in sharing their concerns about an absence of future internship opportunities; the unique forms of isolation faced by international students; the strain on mental wellness; a lack of guidance in some courses; and some instructors’ lack of understanding about time zone differences and other unusual new demands on students that have made remote learning at times a traumatic experience. Others have expressed their discomfort with virtual classmates who come to class under inappropriate names, or who have become more emboldened to engage in academic misconduct. At the same time, I heard from them—and others—inspiring stories about many instructors who have risen to the challenge of remote teaching with new energy and innovation, students who had been quiet in the physical classroom but who have discovered a more vigorous presence in the virtual environment, and classmates who have reconnected by means of synchronous learning.
I want to assure you that the University is keenly aware of your concerns, and several teams commissioned by the provost’s office are working actively to address them in a comprehensive and timely manner. As evidence of this, Penn State will offer “Satisfactory,” “Passing,” or “No Grade” options to students for their spring grades. I strongly encourage you to have a conversation with your adviser about the new grading options and your particular academic situation so that you make an informed choice that is in your best interest.
Penn State will also maintain pay and benefits for all employees, including work study students and paid student interns, through April 30 in order to guarantee that the members of our community are able to meet their financial obligations while the University explores longer-term solutions should this emergency persist beyond the spring. Further, the University has raised more than $100,000 in student emergency funds, and development officers continue their fundraising efforts on your behalf. If you find yourself in need of financial assistance, please contact the Student Care and Advocacy Office (https://studentaffairs.psu.edu/studentcare) .
Also, please remember that Counseling and Psychological Services (https://studentaffairs.psu.edu/counseling) is also available to help if you find yourselves under extreme pressure. At the college level, Dr. Earl Merritt, director of our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, will be hosting weekly Zoom gatherings from 1:30–3:30 p.m. EDT the next six Wednesdays (April 1, April 8, April 15, April 22, April 29, and May 6) for students seeking the support of that office while adapting to the new learning environment. Visit the Undergraduate Student Resources (https://la.psu.edu/remote-resources/undergraduate-student-resources) section of the college’s Remote Resources website for information on how to join any or all of those meetings.
You should know that the overwhelming majority of faculty, advisers, and other staff in our college are committed to your academic success and to the caliber of teaching that you deserve. Keep in mind, however, that they are doing this while facing challenging situations of their own—being deprived of social interactions with colleagues and co-workers, parenting young children whose daycare centers have closed, caring for aging family members who demand their time and labor, competing for internet bandwidth in their homes, and worrying about how a prolonged COVID-19 pandemic will affect their careers.
This is not to say that we can’t do better—we can, and we will. In return, however, I ask that you do all that you can to perform at the top of your abilities in class. Stay in close contact with your instructors and advisers about course-related questions and obstacles. Do your part to promote a fair, equitable, and inclusive classroom environment where your peers and your instructors are respected and can be their best, most successful selves.
I will close this message by sharing some good news involving two longtime supporters of the college: Gene and Roz Chaiken, whose Chaiken Trustee Family Scholarship has been making a Penn State education more affordable for scores of students since 2008. Their company, Almo Corporation (the nation’s largest independent distributor of major appliances, consumer electronics, professional A/V equipment, and furniture and housewares), has formed a partnership with Bloom Energy Corporation to refurbish unused, out-of-warranty ventilators and ship them to state agencies and hospitals throughout the nation to help address a growing shortage of these critical devices. The work that the Chaikens are doing is not only a needed public service, but it also powerfully illustrates the creativity, problem-solving, empathetic citizenship, and care that the liberal arts prepare students to apply to tackling real-world problems.
I encourage you to take this good work as a model for your own activities, large or small, that allow you to pull together with others for the common good. Best wishes for a productive week.