Students enrolled in doctoral studies are often working adults. As one example, the average age of doctoral students in the Kansas State University Community College Leadership Program (CCLP) is 51 years old. This suggests they are likely taking care of children, grandchildren, elder parents, professional demands – often, simultaneously – while pursuing ongoing studies such as writing papers, individual and group projects, going on field trips, researching, presenting, conquering unfamiliar terrain. What I share in this column, is what may be gleaned from the sheer grit, will, and determination of the doctoral students who persist in their studies against, at times, extremely stressful adversities, and an example of how one program, the CCLP, responds.
During the early years of COVID (I am recently reminded COVID is not behind us), students reported the critical illness or sudden passing of loved ones. Other crises have been shared in the past several years that have caught my breath and caused me to wonder whether and how a particular student might persist.
I am witness to the strength of character of these students and their core values of persistence and care. Within the leadership doctoral program, students discuss involving others, the strength of the cohort model (e.g., showing up; engaging), supporting others to success – particularly during challenging times. Nonetheless, what makes these doctoral students persist, particularly in times of adversity? Intentional and ongoing engagement and care are part of the program culture and reinforced among these current and aspiring leaders. To foster connection, the program has incorporated regular Zoom sessions outside of class. While designed to impart knowledge about the field, they have become a place to connect on an ongoing basis.
This practice started at the onset of COVID when getting together in person was not an option. While the program had been offering blended courses, the weekly Zoom sessions became the norm. During COVID, the start of class often became a time to ensure everyone was doing ok; to check on folks; to see what else could be done to support them and their respective families. Over time, a culture of connection and care was fostered. Relationships deepened as students and professors had a safe space to turn to – a place to elude COVID and sadness (at least temporarily) and to be engaged in meaningful work and connections.
Fast forward, this practice continues. As the reader is aware, employees aren’t necessarily excited about returning to an office on a regular basis. Emotional and social isolation are part of the COVID aftermath institutions and communities are learning to combat. In listening and learning from the doctoral students mentioned above, their mindset is one of persisting. They often grieve and retreat – at least temporarily; they draw from the emotional support of peers and professors; they move forward and continue to consider how they can make a difference. These professionals practice generosity and compassion within their respective cohorts and beyond. Drawing upon Duckworth (2016), they connect their work to a purpose beyond themselves… and “can learn to hope when all seems lost” (p. 269). These leader-practitioners are honing “…strengths of will, heart, and mind” to make a difference – a purpose “…the intention to contribute to the well-being of others” (p. 146).
Connecting with our students and employees certainly moves beyond Zoom – to engaging them, learning from them, revering them, and supporting them – in times of celebration, challenge, and grief.
It is my hope that this article provides a reminder to be aware of what may be taking place in the personal lives of our students and employees and to develop safety nets for them. It is not enough to hope doctoral students or employees will inform you of extreme circumstances.
It takes program leaders hiring professors who are supportive of students who are experiencing extreme stress and encouraging professors to stay in touch with their students and aware of personal challenges. It takes fostering an open door for communication and keeping students and professors informed about mental health resources available to them. It takes program leaders and professors working together to offer help in navigating extreme situations and to create a network for the impacted students and their peers who are likely aware but may not be equipped about how to respond.
In the CCLP, we practice intentional connection – not only about the many requirements of doctoral studies – but to model a culture of caring and compassionate leaders who stay engaged with and attend to the needs of their many constituents. Each day is precious but not always easy. It takes authentic connection and supports for those we serve.
Dr. Margaretta B. Mathis serves as Senior Professor of Practice and Senior Director, John E. Roueche Center for Leadership Development, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University. She directs the K-State Community College Leadership Program.
The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.