The year before the 2020 COVID-19 global pandemic, I returned to the idea of documenting and archiving The GMC’s activities, including offering mentoring guidelines that we had developed and shared with others informally. While the cohort did not have a structured mentoring training program, all of what we did could be developed as such after years of meeting, workshops, and embodying mentoring as a lived practice and vibrant culture.
We received funds from the Office of the Provost to create two new cohorts – one for faculty, one for students – that extended beyond the original cohort, allowing us to provide more formal services for other students. Before we could fully recreate and launch those programs, however, the pandemic forced us into lockdown.
The move to online teaching in March 2020 was not as difficult as I had imagined. Through the foresight of The GMC’s graduate assistants, the center had started to offer hybrid programs (in-person and online) in academic year 2019. Student attendance increased, sometimes with as many students in person as virtual. Little did we know this would become our way for almost two years. But, as in all things, timing is everything. It was during this year that I began to consider once again how we could offer what we did to faculty.
By the end of the 2020 spring semester, it felt like the entire world was dying and every city in the US was on fire. As universities tried to address the pandemic, systemic racism, unending racial violence, and rising mental health concerns of graduate students, faculty struggled with how to mentor students during such a crisis or teaching emergency. I found myself (like many others) providing daily/weekly guidance to students and faculty on everything from how to breathe, get through the day, find food, and continue research (or not).
My research and practice in trauma and teaching emergencies had prepared me well. The Center became one of the sites to provide resources and connections to campus and others around the country. Our approach to the pandemic led to me co-leading a task force that created trauma-informed resources for the University Graduate School. Our approach to social justice led to increased discussions about racialized trauma and, eventually, a statement from the center on the national events that were unfolding.
Because our approach to mentoring had always included the whole student and the socio-historical contexts that shaped that student, we immediately addressed the growing mental health issues that were emerging as a result of the pandemic and ongoing racial violence that were directly impacting our students. But, even then, I began to think about post-2020. How would we help people re-enter a different world? Our emergent way of developing programs had served us well so far and, I would learn, would serve us well as the world around us seemed to fall apart.
At the moment we would have begun working in earnest on the handbook, we had to stop. Although a small group had started to meet and plan in person the semester prior to spring 2020, only a few of us were able to meet regularly via Zoom. Reality soon set in, and hard. Between having to care for elders, move away from Bloomington, teach at home, bury friends and family members, stay safe in the streets, figure out how to get food and toilet paper, survive panic attacks, dread the news, do our jobs, and still find time to care for ourselves –suffice it to say that nothing got done because breathing without crying every day was enough. We recognized that for some of us even that was not possible.
Like everyone else, I was impacted in visible and invisible ways, while still providing services to graduate students, faculty, and staff. Graduate students and faculty in the cohort, and students who attended our programs sought refuge with the center. In fact, for the first three months of the pandemic and the racial violence, my only focus was on supporting students through the first three tenets of the Five-Fold Path: balance, community, and culture. All of the center’s participants agreed that we would do what we could. In all cases, family and our own lives took priority over research. The cohort continued to meet, for no other reason than to support each other over tea, coffee, breathing exercises, and assurances that we would survive whatever was happening in the world. We met and assured students that their degrees had value. Doing so kept at bay our fears about everything.
The thing I knew for sure from my own research and work with individuals and communities who had survived historical and generational trauma such as illnesses and genocides: it would take us at least two years to come through what was happening to us. It would be years after that before we began to fully understand the grief, anger, and struggle for hope that we were each experiencing.
In March 2020 – July even – we did not yet understand the full devastation of the pandemic on our lives, or the radical changes that protests would cause – how both would lead to profound questioning about the value of our research in this new world and, more fundatmentally, the value of our own lives and relationships to and with each other.
MENTORING DURING TURBULENT TIMES AND PANDEMICS
The COVID-19 global pandemic and national racial violence traumatized us at individual and institutional levels. Their unexpected and sustained occurrence made us question the value and relevance of our research and teaching; since both are often tied to who we are or how we see ourselves to be, such questioning made some of us doubt everything.
In the midst of such ontological angst, some asked us: Should I complete my degree? Does my field matter? Should I be an activist? Will activism hurt my career? How do my research and teaching impact my community? And: after this is over, what do I do next?
No one wants to re-experience 2020. Yet, it taught us the importance of having strong mentoring relationships. Mentoring during turbulent times requires that mentor and mentee be patient with themselves and each other. It goes beyond the professional borders of our fields and into our personal lived realities to assure each other that our research and teaching matter and, most importantly, that with or without them we matter.
Mentoring during turbulent times invites mentor and mentee to bear witness to and for each other, and to make decisions about how best to move forward based on what is happening in the present. Whether or not the present is a pandemic, racial/gender/sexual/religious violence, or catastrophic climate events, 2020 taught us that to survive we must be willing to move out of our comfort zones, to walk to the edge of our own doubts and fears.
If you find yourself living, again, through cataclysmic changes, here are some things mentor and mentee can do to help their relationship to continue, even grow.
- If you have not communicated with your mentee in three to five days, do a well-being check. Invite them to breakfast or lunch. If not possible, schedule a virtual conversation.
- Ask about their family/community. Ask them to describe in one word how they are feeling at that moment, and invite them to share more about that word.
- After listening, ask if they would like you to offer assistance or information. Have resources available (e.g., CAPS, the Walter Center).
- Before leaving the meeting, agree with your mentee about the next steps. When you next meet, use this as a checklist to determine what needs to be done.
- If your mentor reaches out to you, and you are comfortable doing so, accept their invitation to meet, especially if you have not talked in over a week.
- Respond to your mentor’s questions honestly. Let them know about your academic progress. Inform them of your mental and physical health. If you need it, ask for help. Do not forget to ask about your mentor’s well-being.
- Before leaving the meeting, agree with your mentor what your next steps will be and agree on another time to meet. Consider a 15-minute weekly/bi-weekly check-in and then a time to meet longer. If needed, contact your mentor before the scheduled times.
While difficult times can cause us to doubt ourselves and our work, they can also be opportunities to reflect on both, using the moment to rethink our original directions. A good mentoring relationship that maintains open communication centering the well-being of the mentee in mind can be instrumental in helping the mentee remain balanced and connected in an otherwise isolated time.