Voices from a Distance

This is the biggest story, perhaps, of our lifetimes. It’s a story full of powerful forces and global actors. Market meltdowns, border closures, pitched politics, scientific urgency. It’s hard not to feel like we’re living in a movie.

But inside all of this sweeping change are small, human lives — all dramatically affected by this societal shutdown.

We’re teaming up with college journalists around the country to tell the specific stories of lives affected when a campus suddenly shuts down. We’ll be publishing vignettes that capture a slice of what it’s like, for example, for a student or a parent to confront loss, to cope with isolation, to adjust to a new home, to say an unexpected goodbye.

Here’s one of our first vignettes, a story of a parent who sees herself as picking up where a university is leaving off:

(Rory Bennett (left) at an event at the University of Southern California)

Rory Bennett: In Loco Parentis in Crisis

While many parents of college students have been worried about getting their own children home in the wake of the coronavirus, Rory Bennett has been helping anxious parents from around the world.

Bennett, a mom of a University of Southern California senior and a USC alumnus herself, runs a Facebook group of over 3,000 parents and students. She started the group in November, when the university saw an uptick in student deaths, to check in on students for parents who lived far away and help them find on-campus resources.

Now, in the midst of a pandemic, Bennett is working as many as four hours each day to connect students with local parents and provide answers for parents who are out of town. So far, the local parents have stepped in to drive students to the airport when the prices of Ubers and Lyfts to LAX shot up, provide boxes for sudden moves, and deliver groceries when they saw students posting photos of empty shelves at stores around campus.

“We’re trying to just figure out a way that we can help the students because the university is not there for this kind of stuff,” Bennett said.

As more coronavirus cases are diagnosed and more shelter in place orders are announced, Bennett expects more requests for help with groceries and other supplies. And as students go longer without receiving weekly paychecks, she worries they won’t have enough money to purchase any of it.

For now, she’s asking parents in the group to set aside extra toilet paper, frozen meals, and nonperishable food so if a rush of requests comes in they’ll be prepared. Another mother in the group is stocking up on tampons, deodorants, and other personal hygiene items.

Bennett never expected the small Facebook group she created a few months ago to become an important communication network in the thick of a global crisis.

“It’s been so rewarding and gratifying to know that people aren’t out there in need,” she said.

— Andrea Klick

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Campus Journalists As Connectors

In their living rooms miles from campus, student journalists at The Middlebury Campus have been pushing out coronavirus stories related to their college when they might have otherwise been sunbathing on spring break.

Collaborating on Zoom and Slack, they’re writing about the impact of Middlebury College’s move to remote learning: stories about increased vandalism before move outs and seniors celebrating one last time in case they won’t be able to come back.

The Campus is just one of many college newspapers across the country jumping in to cover the campus fallout of the pandemic. To help them come together, Benjy Renton, an editor at The Campus, led a Zoom meeting this week for student journalists to discuss how they’re covering their communities from miles away, all while dealing with the crisis themselves. The meeting drew over 60 college journalists.

A Time of Loneliness

So far, college papers have shed light on how coronavirus closures impact first-generation and low-income students, created interactive maps of cases in their community, and kept students informed on the latest updates from their campus on when to move out and how to find necessary resources.

For Renton, the paper serves as a necessary source of information, but it’s also a way to tell stories and bring people together at a time when many feel alone.

“It’s such a great way to bind the community at this time,“ he said, “and keep them together.”

Thinking Creatively

Three ideas — among many this week — for how higher education should respond to this crisis:

+ Tufts University’s president says his university is ready to house patients during the outbreak — and encourages other colleges to do the same.

“Campuses are well situated to relieve stress on local hospitals as they reach peak capacity due to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

+ Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, has an idea for how the federal government can get more money quickly into the hands of many Americans: suspend all student-loan payments for six months. No interest, no payments, nothing.

“Hitting the pause button on student loans could be a good way to get more money in the hands of Americans in the short term while not resulting in a massive forgiveness of student debt. ”

+ In The New York Times, Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens urged colleges to learn from this quick turn to online education:

“One positive outcome from the current crisis would be for academic elites to forgo their presumption that online learning is a second- or third-rate substitute for in-person delivery. This is snobbish, counterproductive, and insensitive to the nation’s critical need for affordable college options.”

Rethinking College Decisions

The pandemic may be about to change a significant number of college decisions. A national, flash survey conducted this week of 300 high-school seniors (or their parents) found that one-quarter are rethinking their college choice because of the coronavirus.

The survey — conducted by TuitionFit and Quatromoney — is small and unscientific but, with this fast-moving story, can give us an early glimpse of just how much this pandemic might shift.

Here are the top reasons respondents cited for rethinking their college choices:

  • They want to be closer to home
  • They don’t want to lose tuition money
  • They’re afraid of getting the coronavirus at a particular college on their original list

More than 12 percent of the survey respondents said they were considering deferring their acceptance for a year so they could attend their first-choice college later.

On the Home Front

Scott here. This week, as our society has been turned upside down, we’ve hunted for analogs to make sense of it. The 1918 Spanish flu. The 1929 stock market crash. The mobilization of citizens during World War II. It was that last one that got me thinking about my great-grandfather.

I spend a surprising amount of time doing that. For years I’ve been slowly transcribing a collection of yellowed, mimeographed letters he wrote every week to dozens of family members during the war. (300,000 words so far, but we’re nearing the end — the Nazis surrender in the next installment.)

These weekly family bulletins — think Facebook but it’s the 1940s and you have to send things to your dad who then types them up to send to your cousins — have given me a window into that wartime mobilization that I’d never had otherwise. An executive in a factory in New Jersey, he spent countless hours on war production and manpower issues — speaking on the radio, lecturing at public events — constantly encouraging us all to do our part.

In the midst of this social distancing, with the jokes about how that generation was called to war and we’ve been called to our couch, I’ve been thinking about him and a song he wrote.

It’s called “The Boy Depends on Me.” Here’s his handwritten sheet music:

And here’s a home recording of him singing it just after the war.

Despite the 1940s perspective on gender, it’s a reminder to me that we’re all in this together — even if we can’t see the front lines.

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  • latitude(s), by Karin Fischer, about global higher ed
  • Next, by Jeff Selingo, on the future of higher education
  • First Gen, by Zipporah Osei, on the experience of first-generation college students.