The convergence of the COVID-19 international pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, occurring over the spring, and now summer, have demonstrated that the spectrum of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy still apply. Both phenomena highlight the universal fact that self-actualization cannot be reached until the basic needs of physical well-being and safety are achieved. The goal that every college or university has for students is self-actualization, that each student will reach their fullest potential. As we approach the fall term with all manner of plans for social distancing, perhaps even distance learning, what else do we need to keep in mind? Few of us ever imagined the need to think about student well-being in light of a pandemic, where the entire structure of outreach and support services, even students’ own social support networks have been so severely disrupted; all of this couched within an outcry of people of color for equality and inclusion. However, here we are. So, the question becomes, what do we need to keep in mind about student needs as we do so?
First, with regard to basic physiological needs, even before these past several months, the number of students with demonstrable, acute need was and remains astounding but the degree of need we can anticipate this fall is frightening. Our Institutional Advancement office at William Paterson University created an emergency relief fund, through the generous contributions of alumni, our own staff and faculty, and foundations. We had over one thousand applications (about 15% of our undergraduate population) for non-tuition-related needs (viz., to help with rent, groceries, utility and internet bills, etc.). Surely, the problem before the pandemic with meeting basic life-expenses, and the subjective stress this causes, which contributed to some students' difficulties with persistence, will mount to near catastrophic levels this fall.
Secondly, recent public deaths of African Americans have shined a blinding light on inequities in the justice system. African American students experience a compounded effect when they face discrimination on college campuses and then witness violence on social media against others who look like them. In fact, African Americans are exposed to racial trauma more than any other racial/ethnic group, which has been shown to have psychological effects such as hypervigilance to avoidance, as well as physiological effects such as headaches and heart palpitations. There is a need to help Black students have a sense of belonging and safety on college campuses nationwide.
Both these occurrences speak to the importance of student well-being, in its many dimensions, for student success. The student well-being literature has focused on psychological or subjective well-being (e.g., autonomy, competence, and relatedness). This has occurred in light of the documented increase in students’ perceived stress and mental health issues (viz., depression and anxiety). In recent years, there has been greater recognition that many students are food and housing insecure. Racial disparities also exist with COVID-19, with the New York Times highlighting that the contraction rate for African Americans is three times higher than other groups. Due to more basic physiological needs, these students are chronically at risk. The circumstances we currently face bring these psychological and physiological needs together in a way we have not encountered as plainly before. We contend that despite the enormous challenges students (and we) face, there is also unique opportunity presented by this confluence.
Concepts of student well-being that have been prevalent in higher education have tended to focus on health promotion and mindfulness. However, the idea of well-being exceeds health defined by the disease model (the absence of disease). Considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, well-being suggests a combination of physical, psychological, and spiritual flourishing. As such, in the era of COVID-19 and BLM, proper health education, while vital, will not by itself be enough to enable student well-being. A complementary view of well-being, stemming from the sociological literature, advocates for expanding the more psychological considerations to the school and community environment, as well as to social relationships, economics, and political power. For all students, especially African Americans, a sociological approach that integrates community and school resources can be most effective. The connections for students between their university life and home has become quite transparent during this crisis. Given the extreme level of need many students are experiencing, universities alone will not be able to meet that need, despite enhanced and modified on-campus support services. Partnering with community resources (e.g., community food banks) will be more important than ever and each of us will need to be engaged with this effort of connecting with students and actively empathizing with their concerns.
Well-being must be re-defined when living conditions change; something we are radically seeing with the sociopolitical unrest in the country as well as COVID-19. The present two-pronged revolution serves as a perfect catalyst for implementing the spectrum of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The major challenge we face as university educators, regardless of the role we play (faculty or staff), is how to properly acknowledge and address these multiple barriers students face. How do we help students find the resilience and grit within themselves and the resources without, to enroll (or re-enroll) in school, and then feel engaged and focused on their studies? How will we facilitate what Roy Schafer called an “atmosphere of safety”?
The only certainty is that we cannot carry on business as usual and pretend that this fall semester will be like any other we have known. It must be all hands-on deck for students to help them begin college, transition back in, persist, and succeed. It will be crucial, whatever role we play, that we engage students, demonstrate concern for their “being”, ask them how and what they are doing, and what they need from us to feel respected as a valuable member of the college or university, and society. Besides having their basic needs met, students need human encounters and demonstrated concern more than ever. Academic success, retention, and student well-being have become even more complicated and related, especially due to the new challenges we face. As Maslow (1962) said over fifty years ago, “growth can emerge only from safety” (p. 51). By meeting these more basic needs, students may be able to grow, develop, and realize their higher-level needs for self-fulfillment through higher education.
Addressing racial trauma presents another untraveled path for educational staff. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network recommends that educators create a “brave” environment in which emotionally charged discussions about the historical and present impact of racism can be facilitated which requires risk on the part of school systems. Now more than ever, just when face-to-face engagement seems fraught with new dangers, we need to engage and energize our students regarding the pursuit of their education, while being careful not to separate educational goals from personal well-being. An integrative approach that connects pedagogical efforts with student well-being is necessary if students are to succeed and thrive. Helping them find a way out of the economic constraints they may be oppressed by and to see a way to overcome the despair they may feel regarding their future prospects, will be critical. Higher education may play a valuable role in this, if we dare to engage students in the ways they need us to.
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