This past year our university was blessed with a record enrollment of incoming freshmen. Consequently, I taught the largest class of nursing students ever. According to the CDC, they have the tragic distinction of being the class with the highest rates of sadness, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
As a father of four, with two adopted, college-age daughters currently attending the institution where I teach, I have had more experience being a dad than a college professor. And while I understand that college is supposed to be a place where students are treated like adults—You’re not in high school anymore!—I’ll let the other professors deal with adulting when these kids are in their sophomore, junior and senior years. Freshman year is a transition year and I spoil them as if they were my own children.
In a previous CSR blog, I wrote about the cohort of nursing students that has to pass through my chemistry class every year. They are almost all freshmen and almost all females. I assign an essay for extra credit that involves reading an article entitled “A Sisterhood of Nurses,” that appeared in 2018 in The Wall Street Journal. The article tells the stories of six Philippine women who came to the U.S. over 40 years ago to pursue careers in nursing and how they bonded together as a sisterhood.
The students are asked to write a one-page summary of the article and then to identify at least one biblical principle that the six women evidenced in their relationship with each other. They must then support this with a reference from Scripture. Finally, they are to write about themselves and their own faith journey.
I save the essays from this assignment and have occasionally used some of them (with the student’s permission) for other educational endeavors I am pursuing. In the past, their comments have neatly fit into categories that could be simply defined, such as: “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “happiness comes from serving others,” or “the important things in life are caught, not taught.”
But this semester I was moved to tears on several occasions, not just from reading the essays from the students who completed the assignment but the ensuing follow-up conversations and email exchanges including one exchange with a student who was taking my class for a second time. These episodes emphasized the importance of being not just a professor but a father figure in loco parentis, and more of a “guide by their side” instead of a “sage on a stage.”
So, let me share selected excerpts along with emails and conversations from two students that have dealt with very painful challenges. (Their names have been changed for confidentiality.) My intention is that you would give them careful consideration and think about your own role as professor-mentor at the higher education institution where you teach. If the statistics from the CDC are accurate, there are more students like them in your classes than you may realize. We have the responsibility to find out what they need. And to do that, we need to listen to their stories.
Janis was perky and friendly with a great sense of humor. She was more mature than most of the students probably because she wasn’t a freshman. Her essay was bright and hopeful. She wrote of wanting to be involved in facial restoration surgery (aesthetic or cosmetic nursing). But she had failed the class the first time she attempted it due to several personal problems, including a car accident that ironically injured her face and caused her to miss a week of classes. But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the sudden and unexpected death of her father. He was in his 40s. She really tried to hold it all together but fell behind in the work and scored poorly on the three exams and the final. She managed to pass the lab, but failed the lecture, even after I had re-opened several homework assignments that had closed earlier during the course.
She was back in my class this past semester, determined to pass chemistry. Although not scoring high on the exams and the final, she did every homework assignment, attended every recitation class, and did a large portion of the extra credit. She passed, beating her previous grade by ten points.
I sent her an email after posting the final grades congratulating her for having finally passed. It was a long and painful journey for her. But she is a determined student. She wrote back in an e-mail:
Never did I think I would be upset about ending chemistry class with you, but I wanted to thank you for never giving up on me. I appreciate you more than you know. Thank you for checking in [on] me and always being someone, I can joke around with. There are few professors you can do that with. Some of your mannerisms are like my father’s, a tough mentality but a loving heart. Again, I want to thank you for being a light in my life. Have a great summer, enjoy the time with your wife and family. They are lucky to have you. I’m blessed you are a part of my journey. Thank you again.
I felt a reply was necessary and I wrote:
I never forgot what you told me about your dad, and I still get misty eyed when I think of how unfair life sometimes appears to us….I think of and care for you as I would one of my own daughters and imagine if they had lost their father at such a young age. If you ever need help with another “life question” or anything else, you know where my office is.
Elizabeth was quiet and reserved. She also comported herself beyond her years and I assumed there was something that happened in her life that forced her to grow up faster than most girls. Here is an excerpt from her essay:
My passion for nursing started in 2013 when my mom had a stroke. I was nine years old and had never been in a hospital let alone the ICU. I remember being very confused and when I saw my mom very lethargic and weak, I got scared. She comforted my little sister and me and explained to us that she was going to be fine. The next few months consisted of us going to the hospital after school until just before bedtime. The nurses were so kind to us and reassured us that our mom was going to be okay.
As if this wasn’t enough, seven years later she found herself back in the hospital ICU again, this time dealing with a near tragedy that almost took her younger sister’s life.
In January, 2020 my sister had an accident and ended up in the pediatric ICU where I spent every night with her. At this point in our lives, my parents’ marriage was crumbling and caused a lot of stress in the hospital. I just wanted to be there for her as the big sister and to make it as stress free as I could. Since I was older, I understood more of what the nurses were doing . . . unfortunately we had a nurse that was not meant to be my sister’s nurse, given what had happened. She handled the situation horribly and put my mother into a rage. I’m glad I witnessed her mistake so that I will never make one like hers in my career.
We met after class and I thanked her for writing so openly about her personal life. She filled in the details about her sister, who had tried to take her own life. When I asked if her parents were still together, she sadly shook her head, no. I could feel myself getting choked up and could see the tears welling up in her eyes so we ended the conversation or I think we both would have started crying.
After the semester was over, she wrote in an email: “I can’t express enough how much your interest in my story about my sister meant to me. I don’t get to be vulnerable with my professors very often and it means a lot that you wanted to know more.”
A Rand survey, in early January 2021, found that “nearly one-quarter of teachers indicated a desire to leave their jobs at the end of the school year,” compared with an average national turnover rate of 16% pre-pandemic.”
I feel their pain. I was exhausted by the end of this past semester as were all of my colleagues. But now is not the time to hang up your regalia for the last time.
The Bible reminds us “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jas. 3:1). Scripture teaches that we have a greater accountability. That accountability may not be encouraging, and maybe even a little frightening if you are contemplating a career in academia. But to those of us who are here already, particularly those teaching in Christian higher education, we are needed now more than ever to help those students dealing with pain and tragedy. Sometimes, as with Elizabeth, they simply want us to care about and listen to their stories. It’s the same thing we often want as children of our heavenly Father.