One of the privileges of being a college professor is writing letters of recommendation for students applying for employment or graduate school. In fall of 2021, I had a student make an appointment with me, one of my first non-Zoom meetings in two years. When we met, I told him I would wear a mask because I had an unvaccinated young child at home that I was trying to keep in daycare, and I was in and out of oncology offices with at-risk patients. If he had strong opinions about masks or vaccines, he didn’t feel the need to share them. He graciously put on his mask too.
He sat across from me and explained that because of the pandemic he hardly knew any of his professors. He would be applying to graduate school and jobs soon and would need an academic reference, so he just wanted to introduce himself. I realized in that moment that I would be writing many recommendation letters for pandemic college students like him over the coming year.
The letter might read something like this:
Dear Graduate School Admissions Committee or Business Employer,
I am pleased to write a letter of recommendation on behalf of the pandemic college student (from now on, known as PCS). I highly recommend him for admission into your graduate program or entry level position in your organization.
I have known PCS virtually for three semesters and face-to-face for five semesters. I met PCS in fall of his freshman year in the classroom. Then we spent the next three semesters learning together on Zoom. He exhibited a lot of patience while I adjusted to working from home while caring for my young children. Finally, we were all able to return to campus and resume our face-to-face interactions through class, advising, and research.
When I was his age, “Pivot” was something we laughed about as we watched Ross Gellar try to move a couch up a narrow flight of stairs. PCS has had to pivot in real life and in every area of life. PCS pivoted from home to campus to home again, and finally back to campus. He pivoted from transformational learning in an engaged learning community with experiential learning, labs, and libraries available at almost every hour of the day to mostly transactional learning. He pivoted from familiar classroom interactions with professors and peers to learning to how to learn online. He pivoted from face-to-face to asynchronous online to hybrid education. He returned to a campus with familiar spaces, but new faces.
PCS viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to pause. The pause due to the pandemic allowed him to mature from “young, dumb, fun college life,” as he puts it, to family dinner nights with housemates, more sleep, and increased outdoor physical activity. The pandemic pause shifted his focus from Greek life to global studies. When political polarization, systemic racism, and a variety of disparities were highlighted during the pandemic, his real grief birthed a deep empathy for underserved and underrepresented populations.
Like many college students, he struggled with perfectionism and anxiety before the pandemic. The practice of pivoting and pausing has developed resilience and persistence, giving PCS a peace that he did not have before the pandemic. It is my honor to recommend PCS for admission or employment because in the places where there is need for development or change, he will bring pivot, pause, and peace to your organization.
Of course, not every student has had the same growth trajectory as this student. Personality traits, familial and institutional support, mental health, and prior life experiences have all contributed to a variety of outlooks and behaviors over the past two years (Rettew, 2021).
As I have reconnected with students when they return to campus, I have heard stories of lost relationships with peers and professors, lost time in internships and field-related experiences, and lost family members or friends due to Covid-19, substance abuse, or mental health conditions. Despite all this loss, however, the pandemic college student has decidedly focused on what he has gained. This perspective has encouraged me as a Christian following Jesus.
Whatever I have lost – through the death of loved ones, from the pandemic, a cancer diagnosis, living in an increasingly secular culture, and parenting children who don’t enjoy vegetables or church nearly as much as I do – I gain because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord (Phil. 3:8). My calling as a post-pandemic mother and professor are to lament what has been lost, celebrate what has been gained, and to bless the name of the Lord with my children and students (Job 1:21).
In Tony Sounder’s Pray for Me Prayer Guide, I am led to call out to God in prayer on behalf of my children and students “for his loving provision, protection, presence, and purposes on their lives.” Prayer for these young people in my life “builds an invisible bridge of relationship” between them and me, and, as we pray, “Our hearts become larger toward God and others…We begin to move toward others to bless and encourage them in ways beyond prayer.”
For me, encouragement beyond prayer has taken the form of writing letters of recommendation for my students. Yet this invisible bridge of relational blessings crosses both directions. Students like PCS encourage me as they model resilience and persistence with their ability to pivot and pause with peace throughout the pandemic.
Rettew, D. C., McGinnis, E. W., Copeland, W., Nardone, H. Y., Bai, Y., Rettew, J., … & Hudziak, J. J. (2021). Personality trait predictors of adjustment during the COVID pandemic among college students. PLoS One, 16(3), e0248895.
Souder, T. (2015). Pray for me. Chattanooga, TN: Tony Souder/Read Avenue Press.