Compassion, Cura Personalis, and COVID-19

By: Tori Mack
Incubator Participant
Academic Skills Administrator
Higher Education Opportunity Program

It’s common to see an outpouring of compassion for one another following a tragedy. Support for those who need it most and acts of kindness made in good faith to strangers, simply because we are united by a common bond. However, what is uncommon is sustained compassion following the passing of tragedy. Where does this widespread unity go when we move on, when loss and struggle are no longer at the forefront of our minds? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on all aspects of life as we know it, especially higher education. Students and professors have struggled with adapting to this new normal, and asynchronous classes,  Zoom meetings, and last minute syllabus changes, in the wake of processing fear and turmoil, have taken a toll on our community. While the adjustment has been strenuous and the process not ideal, the outcome has been remarkable in many ways. For example, colleges and universities of all sizes have discovered that they can do what once may have seemed impossible. We discovered that in many cases, we can run classes online, and we can increase student access to free educational materials. Perhaps most importantly, we can put students’ needs first. 

In response to the national pandemic, there has been an overwhelming increase in holistic support for students. At Fordham, we know support of the whole being is necessary for students to thrive, which is the true definition of Cura Personalis. Sustainable aid, access, and outreach is, admittedly, easier said than done, but it must not be written off as impossible or unattainable. We have already proven that we can do better. 

This past spring I was fortunate enough to participate in the ReIMAGINE Higher Education Incubator. In my opinion, the most meaningful part of contributing to such a diverse team was navigating our personal interests, along with our ties to Fordham and relationships within the university, in order to forge ahead toward a common goal. Our unique skills, perspectives, and connections inspired and challenged us to think in new ways each time we met, and because of this, we were able to produce five tangible and pilotable projects. However, the major takeaway for me is that accessible spaces where all voices are celebrated and heard, create unity and foster the growth needed for change. 

The future of what higher education will look like after this pandemic is uncertain, but much can be learned from the time and space we presently share. Instead of settling for a temporary new normal that may be forgotten later on, let us work toward creating novel standards for higher education; standards that promote access and support for all who need it and standards that hold onto the compassion we have led with these past few months.

Finding Community Where You Least Expect It

By: Kaylee Wong
Incubator Participant
Undergraduate Student, FCRH, Class of 2020
United Student Government, Executive President

Community. Nearly every Fordham student I have ever spoken with mentions this word when they are describing why they love Fordham; the community. When I was looking at colleges as a junior in high school, I toured over 35 schools before making my decision. The one thing I remember when I think back to this process was the way in which Fordham students interacted and cared about one another.

The moment I saw hundreds of students sitting on Edward’s Parade during my tour one spring day, was when I experienced that indescribable feeling high school seniors talk about when they believe they have found “their place.” Once I became a student at Fordham, it was this community that got me through the tough times and was also there for me through all the fun times. I found community in my friends, who became like family; I found community in the clubs and organizations I joined, especially in Student Government; I found community in the classroom with my peers and professors. This community remains a vital part of my Fordham experience, as I am now a senior. 

When I joined the ReIMAGINE Incubator earlier this year, I was expecting a group of hardworking individuals who would work together once a week for a semester and then move on. Instead, I found, once again, a community. A community of passionate individuals, with amazing ideas and perspectives to share and a phenomenal ability to make everyone in the group feel heard.

As we moved into our new world filled with online learning, Zoom calls, and lots of uncertainty, many of our communities were tested. Would we be able to maintain the same level of connection even though we were all so far apart? For me, even though we must all remain at home, I have witnessed people coming together in amazing ways during these trying times. Through Zoom calls, shared recipes, blackboard discussions, and more, we are remaining connected, and I think that the Fordham community continues to thrive. 

The ReIMAGINE Higher Education Incubator has been an indescribable experience filled with growth, learning, and experimentation. Zoom calls with the Incubator were actually one of the few things that I would look forward to each week. The Incubator gave me the opportunity to meet a group of phenomenal individuals, who when placed in teams, created inspiring and goal-driven projects. In addition, it allowed me to be a part of a community that has a deep love and passion for Fordham and would do everything it could to enhance and improve it for others. Despite the health crisis, the Incubator pushed forward, and for that, I am incredibly proud and grateful. 

In conclusion, this Incubator is exactly what Fordham needs to be looking at during these uncertain times because it’s initiatives such as this that will push boundaries and make waves. Now more than ever we must keep striving to be the best university we can be, and we must also continue to provide opportunities, like the Incubator, so the Fordham community can come together, because without these connections we will never survive. 

Celebrating the Achievements, Embracing the Passion

By: Usha Sankar, Ph.D.
Incubator Participant
Advanced Lecturer, Department of Biological Sciences
Academic Advisor, Senior Class

Each year, my students and I look forward to the Fordham University Undergraduate Research Symposium (FUURS), where my students present their research and project proposals. However, this year, it was going to be even more special as my students had produced original, hypotheses driven research and collected data on the correlations between air quality and health outcomes.

We started with reading articles on air quality and asthma in January. I had my students come up with different ideas to access air quality and respiratory health using data from the city and the state databases, and brainstorm novel hypotheses. I even bought hand held air quality monitors so that some of my students could make their own measurements of air quality in their dorm rooms and common areas, in addition to off campus locations.

We discussed this during my regular lab session last week and the students (and I) expressed our disappointment about having to abruptly terminate the research. The saving grace has been that I had given them deadlines to compile and submit preliminary data before spring break and present their research to the entire class. Usually, I have the students present their research at the end of the semester, but something made me schedule an earlier presentation this time. In retrospect, I am so glad I did that, as the students had preliminary data, and conclusions, as well as a presentation. They could now use this as the basis for submitting abstracts to the FUURS. Needless to say, now more than ever, I am looking forward to seeing the abstracts in the symposium proceedings.

This semester has been extraordinary in every sense, and very stressful. We have all been focused on going above and beyond for our students and providing them with the best possible learning opportunities under these unprecedented circumstances. Although my class did take a moment last week to mourn what would have been this year’s FUURS, I do want to celebrate and cheer for all the original ideas and efforts from my students. It is moments like these, along with the time I have spent with the ReIMAGINE Higher Ed Incubator, that have provided me with the optimism and the feeling that there is a bright future ahead for higher education. When all of us – faculty, staff, administrators, and students – work together, we can expect our students to become scientists, innovators, and leaders who will create positive change!

Taking A Seat at the Grown-Ups’ Table

By: Andrew Souther
Incubator Participant
Undergraduate Student, FCRH, Class of 2021

Growing up in New Orleans, I am very familiar with “hurricane parties.” When the power first goes out, neighbors gather to share generators and gas stoves. As a little kid, you’re just excited to be out of school. There is an eerie sense that things will be “different” for a while, but the reality may not set in until later.

When Fordham University decided to cancel in-person classes on March 9, I felt a bit of déjà vu. The temperature was in the 70s for the first time in a while, and social-distancing standards were still an abstract idea, so students spread out across the lawns celebrating a few unexpected days off. This “hurricane party” felt a bit different though. It’s odd to look at this kind of situation from the perspective of a “grown-up” for the first time—or at least an “almost-grown-up.” I grew anxious as I felt my plans and responsibilities being thrown off course.

After flying home a week later, I realized I had to cut back and focus on the important things. I emailed a few friends and professors sadly, discussing plans for ongoing projects: “Thanks for all of the help with research on this, but I’ve decided not to submit for that essay contest this year…” Then on March 19, Professor Anne Fernald emailed members of the Incubator, offering us the option to leave if we felt the need to prioritize other matters. I thought about the offer, but it became clear that this group was something I should hold on to.

The ReIMAGINE Higher Ed Leadership Team was clearly putting in so much effort to transition our work online, and I felt compelled to match that effort with whatever I could manage. In fact, only one day after in-person classes were cancelled, the Incubator met online, and I saw all the faces I was familiar with on Tuesday evenings. As other classes and clubs struggled to transition, these meetings became a consistent and comforting presence in my week. Despite life obstacles that may not be visible to me, fellow participants have brought understanding, optimism, and funny costumes to our Zoom calls.

However, that does not mean continuing with the Incubator has been easy. This work was difficult even before moving online. I imagine it’s always challenging—and occasionally frustrating—trying to solve serious problems or building something valuable. My group has designed a first-year course focused on advocacy skills for students from under-represented or disadvantaged populations on campus. In the past few weeks, we have faced deadlines for project proposals and videos, and it has been hectic. In a certain sense, it’s a powerful coincidence that my time in the Incubator has aligned with these stressful few months. Just as I’ve unfortunately realized what it feels like to be a “grown-up” at a “hurricane party” facing an uncertain future, Fordham has given me this opportunity to work as a grown-up with other real grown-ups. I do not feel nearly as experienced as fellow participants from the faculty, staff, graduate schools, or local community, but I am glad I stayed at the table and have a place in the Incubator.

The Power of Design Thinking

By: Edward Dunar
Incubator Participant
Graduate Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student

The past several weeks have been a blur. When Fordham announced its switch to online learning in response to the COVID-19 crisis, I had a plan ready, but implementing it in my (now virtual) classroom has offered an ongoing series of reminders that there is still much that I need to learn. Throughout, I’ve been impressed by the flexibility, nimbleness, and creativity of my students and colleagues. We’re all making lots of mistakes, but we’re rising to the occasion.

As we work as quickly as we can to adjust, many of us feel the weight of systems ripe for reform. The disruption in the middle of the semester and the subsequent decision of many universities to switch to alternative modes of grading raises questions about the effectiveness and equity of our methods of evaluation in “normal times.” In navigating how to send students back home as safely as possible, we encounter the challenges faced by students who don’t have a place to go. As we switch to online instruction, we notice the often-reductive assumptions and philosophies of learning baked into many of the platforms and technologies to which we now must turn.

As I try to hold together short-term urgency with long-term hope, I’ve found inspiration in the design thinking that we employ in our Reimagining Higher Education Incubator. The beauty of this approach to me is that the emphasis is on ongoing perception, experimentation, and adjustment rather than controlling all aspects of how our work will unfold. Design thinking shifts us away from asking, “How can I make sure everything goes according to plan?”, and instead leads us to focus on the needs of the people and communities to which we are responsible, look for opportunities for adjustment, and build on what works. It serves as a middle ground between acting reactively and feeling bound to overly-specific plans. It calls for an ethic of observation, adaptation, and accountability in our practice of the craft of teaching.

I find this approach clarifying and freeing as I move forward in my own work in the face of new demands. Our main responsibility now is the safety of our communities. We adjust as needed according to our values in response to new circumstances. Some of the experiments we try now might scale up after the crisis is over. Some of our experiences now might give us insight into persisting problems that need long-term solutions. Other experiments won’t work or will turn out to be temporary measures only. We will learn from triumphs and missteps alike. The key will be to center ourselves in practices of attentiveness and iteration that will keep us committed to what is most important—the well-being and growth of our students.

Emergent Strategy and the Incubator Process

By: Gregory Jost
Incubator Participant
Adjunct Professor, Sociology

In much of my work, both in the neighborhoods of the Bronx and in the classroom with my students, I strive to be a facilitator of connection, critical thinking, shared learning, and participatory design. I consider context, built through an understanding of historic arcs that have shaped the world our ancestors and we inhabit, critical to the process, on equal footing with who is in the room to engage in the conversations at hand.

I was attracted to the Reimagining Higher Education Incubator first because the invitation came from two of my two colleagues from Fordham’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, giving me assurance of the larger context in which we operate. They also asked that we come in without agendas or specific goals, and be open to an intentional process of relatedness and creation. The organizers invited faculty, administrators, students and community partners to be part of the teams, so I knew we would have a great mix of people in the room. Finally, as an adjunct professor and freelancing part-time single dad, it was also critical that they were offering us financial compensation for our time and energy.

As we moved from a phase of identifying big “wicked” problems down to the small, tangible yet meaningful ways we could take these on from our perches in and out of the University, I came across a passage from Adrienne Maree Brown that spoke to the moment we found ourselves. At the close of the previous session, one of our crew shared how she was feeling frustrated and upset about how things were leaving off, moving too fast, and perhaps feeling rushed. To begin our next session, I shared an excerpt from Brown’s Emergent Strategy that I felt would acknowledge the difficulty of our task, and ground us to move forward in our newly formed small groups.

Inspired by Octavia Butler’s writings, especially her explorations of change, adaptation, iteration and intention in the Earthseed communities in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Brown focuses on the concept of biomimicry to guide our thinking and actions in movement work. By looking to ancient inhabitants of our planet, such as mycelium, ants, ferns, wavicles, starlings and dandelions, we see how what happens at the very small scale allows for us to take on massive problems. Mycelium, for example, is the part of the fungus that grows underground that breaks down plant matter and toxins. As the largest organism on Earth and fully out of our sights, it shows the hidden power of interconnection and detoxification. Biomimicry in this case is about looking to nature and ecosystems like mycelium for inspiration to tackle huge design challenges. How might initiatives that foster underlying connectivity and detoxification grow larger than our wildest imaginations?

My group is looking at the value of a liberal arts education given the changing 21st century workplace, while others are looking at issues such as educational equity and climate change. The process of emergent strategy frees us up to tackle the huge issues of our time in ways that start small and connect to one another. We recognize who we are, our inheritance on this planet we share, and build together, embodying the change we wish to see.

Here is a short excerpt from Emergent Strategy (pages 41-42):  
Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small).
Change is constant. (Be like water).
There is always enough time for the right work.
There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Never a failure, always a lesson.
Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.)
Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build the resilience by building the relationships.
Less prep, more presence.
What you pay attention to grows.

Tradition, Progress, and Passion

By: David Swinarski, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

I joined the Fordham faculty nine years ago, and I am continually reminded of how fortunate I am to be a part of this team of passionate educators.

There is a cliché that professors only care about their research and do not care about their teaching. That cliché is definitely not true at Fordham. Here, I work alongside colleagues who genuinely care about their students. I am proud of the amazing work they do, and it energizes me to give my all, too.

Tradition plays a large role in both the guiding philosophy of universities and our day-to-day operations. It would be easy to view an initiative like Reimagining Higher Education as a threat to tradition. But I think it’s helpful if we can avoid dwelling on the conflict between tradition and progress. When you care about students as much as we do, it is natural to want them to get the best education possible, and therefore to continually ask what is working, and what is not. On the one hand, who is flourishing at our university as we currently operate, and what traditions support their success and should be cherished? While on the other hand, who is struggling, whom have we excluded altogether, and in what ways do our traditions create unintentional barriers to our students’ success? 

I believe that we have something amazingly valuable to offer students. I would not be a faculty member if I did not feel this way. Yet, I also want that gift to be available to all, and the crisis of affordability and the persistent issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education challenge me to question many assumptions that I previously took for granted. I find comfort in an odd way in Cathy Davidson’s book, The New Education, which convincingly argues that many of the problems U.S. contemporary universities face, arise because our universities were designed with other issues in mind. This gives me hope that when we bring all of these issues into view, we can redesign our practices in a way that both continues the very best of what we have to offer, while addressing these very real needs.

Dissecting the Daunting Issues

By: Melanie Knuts
Incubator Participant
Adjunct Professor, Graduate School of Social Service

During our first Incubator meeting, I remember we were asked to “forget what we think we know.” Learning that the Incubator’s most daunting issues are Climate Control and Health, well, for me, this was a moment of “forgetting what I think I know.” I loved it!

Charles Montgomery’s book Happy City (first published in 2013) is a tour de force in neuroscience, psychology, economics, sociology, urban planning and architecture. In certain ways, this book defies description. And after my first reading of it, I felt (and continue to feel) it deserves to be a “bible” of sorts.

Searching for a passage that might be read at the beginning of our meeting, I rediscovered that while an easy read in many ways, Happy City is richly dense in a far-reaching range of knowledge, wisdom, analysis and specific current global solutions to our Incubator’s two “daunting issues.” Over the course of ten years and traversing back and forth between a dozen or so cities, Charles Montgomery methodically uncovers layers of what gives people their finest satisfactions in health and well-being—and the cities, with their specific designs, that foster these human experiences.

As an introduction to this work, I refer you to his examples in Bogota (pp. 230-239) where Montgomery makes this point: “These bollards show that the pedestrians are as important as people with cars. We are creating equality; we are creating respect for human dignity. We’re telling people, ‘You are important–not because you’re rich, but because you are human.’ If people are treated as special, as sacred, they behave that way. This creates a different kind of society. So every detail in a city must reflect that human beings are sacred. Every detail!” (pp. 236)

Tying it back to the Incubator, I understand that our “directive” is to uncover and understand the “daunting issues” that we face collectively—both in Higher Education and the wider global community. Once uncovered, our “mission” is to percolate and propose innovations that creatively address these issues within the Fordham community. Books like Happy City, and an assortment of resources and experiences that we can share together, offer ingenious existing solutions that can provide us with guideposts along the way of our adventure.

“Daunting issues” are just that, daunting because they may initially feel overwhelming, inspire fear and anticipatory discouragement. There is comfort, though, in knowing that we are together in a common endeavor. There is comfort in knowing that “two heads are better than one.” And, for me, there is great comfort in knowing that other wonderful people, compassionate thinkers who include their hearts in the choices they discern and the solutions they create-are traveling this path ahead of and alongside of us. I offer Happy City as one introduction to such people.