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Opinion: Why professors, employers everywhere should be more gracious during pandemic

Professors and employers should be more clement toward their students and employees during COVID-19, and that amount of compassion should extend long after this pandemic is over. People always have more going on in their lives than school and work, but this is especially true now.

In addition to the obvious public health crisis on everyone’s minds, hundreds of thousands of students are having to move back in with their parents due to university closures. This leads to not only more at-home responsibilities for students, but for many it also involves a lot of emotional stress.

With classes being almost-fully online for most now, professors have no way of knowing if their students are well and getting what they need. Employers have little way of knowing that at all to begin with and are less likely to care, as employer-employee relationships are often less personal than professor-student relationships.

One example, though a more extreme one, that shows why a student or employee might require more grace while the country is in such a state of disrepair: homelessness.

According to Pam Fessler in her NPR article entitled “HUD: Growth of Homelessness During 2020,” over 100,000 children and young adults were homeless in America by the end of 2020, and over 11,000 of these people were counted while sleeping outside.

A loved one and I were two out of those 100,000+ homeless youth. With the chaos of not knowing where we would rest our heads some nights and how we would eat or sleep, I definitely relied on my professors’ kindness. And my loved one, who was working at the time, most certainly needed his employers’ empathy on a few different occasions.

I would say that three of my professors have been kind and understanding about my circumstances, but there have been a couple who, because they could not (and did not ask to) see proof of what I was going through, did not believe that I really needed the extended deadline.

Two of my three kinder professors, both WGS professors among their many other impressive positions on campus, have not only extended several different deadlines due to my circumstances, but both of them went above and beyond to make me feel supported. They both informed me of various resources this university has to offer students who are in crisis—resources that I will briefly address later in this article.

At the very least, being kind and extending a deadline can touch a student’s heart and save them from unnecessary stress. At the most, it can be life saving.

My professors’ kindness did keep me alive because it made me realize that I was not alone. It made me understand that someone saw my potential and cared enough to help me get what I needed.

The worst that happens if you believe a student or employee who comes to you with a messed up situation, if their words are untrue, is that you have been bamboozled. The worst that happens if you do not believe a student or employee who comes to you, and their words are 100% the truth, is that they could end up losing their hope and doing something drastic.

When people are in vulnerable situations and reach out for help, it is very critical to meet them with compassion, even if you cannot help them the way that they need. In addition to receiving no type of mercy from the two professors I mentioned before (but whom I will not name in this article), I also received short, cold-toned, and at times rude and condescending emails from them about why they did not feel they should give me an extended deadline. These emails were usually complete with a list of reasons why I should have just started the assignment earlier or found a way “even if my ‘story’ was true.”

I posted on my Facebook about how it should not be an admirable proclamation when a professor says, “students rarely pass my class,” and there are so many Upstate students who have messaged me about absurd things their professors have said to them when they asked for the smallest bit of leeway.

I believe that Upstate has some of the best professors in this country, but I also believe that if we do not hold all of our professors and staff members to a standard of basic human compassion and respect like we do all students, we will start to consider our professors as authority figures alone whose power over us has nothing to do with knowledge but rather what they can get away with.

The same on-campus resources that one professor pointed me to so that I could become healthier and safer, another professor shared with me in the context that I should have gone there as soon as I became homeless; they said that I was just making excuses.

For a commuter like myself who at the time had no working vehicle, those resources are hard to reach. Resources like the campus snack pantry, crisis counselling, health services, etc.

I will say that I received mental health counselling virtually, but the snack pantry and health services were two necessities that were available to me as a student but unavailable to me in that I could not always find transportation to access them.

My point in telling this story is that professors and employers, not just at Upstate but everywhere in the world, will either be naturally gracious or naturally more inclined to distrust their students/employees. No amount of explanation of your circumstances would help someone who distrusts all college-aged individuals to believe a college-aged individual, and no in-depth explanation is required for someone who is naturally more gracious and intuitive.

We, as students and employees, do not have much power over the way we are treated by our “higher-ups.” But we do have our voices, and we can have civilized discussions (like I am hoping to start with this article) that might make our campus a better place to learn. Together, we can figure out more caring ways to approach learning during this strange time.

Further, if students at other schools see that we are talking about this at Upstate, they may want to bring similar conversations to their campuses; and the kindness that I am seeking, for students and employees all over the world, would not just be for those with the “worst” circumstances: I am seeking this kindness on behalf of any person who has ever been negatively impacted by this virus (so that’s every single person on this planet!)

How amazing would it be to think that such a huge step toward a more compassionate world began here at USC Upstate among our own student body?

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