When you start a new job in the middle of a pandemic, you don’t get a honeymoon period.
“I think everyone hoped that we would have a much calmer start to the year,” said Amy Johnson, who became Carolina’s vice chancellor for student affairs on Aug. 3. “We had a hurricane on my very first day of work, which appeared to be a metaphor, and made the pivot to remote instruction on my seventh day. Even more than under normal circumstances, I have needed to hit the ground running and be able to make some quick decisions and offer guidance when I’m still learning the environment.”
A veteran administrator and a seasoned faculty member in higher education administration, Johnson has served as associate vice president of student life and dean of students at the University of Southern California and, most recently, as senior associate dean of students at Eastern Washington University.
At Carolina, she leads an office of 330 staff members supporting Carolina’s 30,000 students, which has been operating mostly virtually since the University adapted to the pandemic in the spring.
A few weeks into the fall semester, Johnson spoke with The Well about her transition to Carolina and the work ahead in a semester like no other.
What has it been like to work with a student body that is largely remote?
Working with a student body that is remote definitely creates its own opportunities and challenges. For students who are not as comfortable interacting in large groups or are more inclined to sort of hang back and be your analysts and your observers, it can sometimes feel more intimate and accessible. For students who are not as comfortable online, or who miss in-person contact, it can be hard. You also don’t have those passing-in-the-hall interactions with students. And that’s a real loss. So you have to create proxies for those kinds of interactions by being more formal and intentional in structuring the connection. But as someone who has taught now for many years in a virtual space, I have come to see that the relationships you can develop in an online environment can be just as powerful as the relationships you create in person.
What are the biggest challenges and concerns that you are hearing from students about being remote?
The challenges are wide-ranging. They have felt distanced and isolated from folks for months, which contributes to an existing prevalence of anxiety and depression for college-aged students. They have concerns about their health during the pandemic, particularly those with underlying medical conditions. And then there are concerns for students who are housing insecure, food insecure and internet insecure. They are concerned about the financial implications and what impact this has on their ability to do well academically, particularly in courses that they may already have been nervous about. Our students, our communities of color and underrepresented groups are concerned about what this means in terms of their ability to come together and support one another, and receive support from us, especially during a time in which we’re engaged in acknowledging and addressing issues of systemic racism more broadly.
What are some adjustments you’ve made to increase student involvement during this time of remote instruction?
We’re finding that you can do this in different ways. When we get creative, and when we pursue different approaches to the work, we can meet the need. As an example, we had a virtual involvement fair on Aug. 28 for our students. About 200 student organizations created virtual tables, and more than 550 students participated. All of the staff who were popping in and out of these virtual rooms said that the dialogue was terrific and that the engagement was palpable. We have 281 virtual events scheduled so far for the term, which are receiving high interest so far. We’re creating alternate strategies for programming like this, which up until this point, everyone thought had to be done in person and in real time.
One of your focus areas is student health and well-being. How are you addressing that?
I think the pandemic is absolutely having an impact on student health and wellness, specifically their ability to develop connections, to become engaged with campus and to connect with their faculty and staff. Our charge is to figure out a way to accomplish all of that in a more virtual space.
We try to take a holistic mind, body and spirit approach to it. One of the things that I think is particularly important, especially in an environment like this, is to not become overwhelmed by the enormity of things, and to focus on self-agency: to help students think through, ‘What do I need to do first? What are the most immediate challenges, and how can I tackle those?’
I particularly enjoy working with new students and new family members, introducing them to the higher education environment and focusing on how we address resilience and healthy responses to manage change. I spend a lot of time talking to our family members about agency for our students and helping them develop and hone the skills they need to be successful in life. One of the key ways to do that is actually practice what to say when your student calls you in the middle of the night. How do you listen and learn and yet keep the ball squarely in their court? How do we reinforce the message that they have the basic building blocks needed to succeed and thrive or that we can help grow those skills? That’s something we do as parents and as faculty members and staff members and as higher education leaders.
You said you also want to focus on diversity and inclusion. What is your approach?
My approach to diversity, equity and inclusion is multifaceted. I think about it as a three-pronged approach, at its core. First, we have a responsibility to undertake an ongoing and deliberate effort to recognize and appreciate differences in all forms: backgrounds and faiths, in races and identities and in abilities. That responsibility extends to actively engaging our students and our colleagues in dialogue on a daily basis. Secondly, we need to identify and assess the ways in which those differences create inequities on our campuses and beyond. And the third step is developing and implementing solutions that help remove the barriers to access and inclusion that those differences and inequities promote and also to create a welcoming and inclusive campus community that is based on a culture of respect. We have to look at how we are addressing this institutionally as well as within our teams, departments, schools and divisions and interpersonally. I think that success involves coming at it from those perspectives, from the very individual to the large in scale and scope.