Big year, big change

Amarillo College President Russell Lowery-Hart works at the college's front desk. (Amarillo College)

During his nearly seven years as president of Amarillo College, Russell Lowery-Hart has seen his share of challenges. None could prepare him for the emotional toll of leading during a pandemic.

Amarillo is in the Texas Panhandle, halfway between Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. It’s also a Covid-19 hotspot. The area’s hospitalization rate exceeds 30%. From November 20 to December 9, the number of active cases rose 13%, from 6,555 to 7,423. The number of deaths jumped 58% in that three-week period alone, from 255 to 402 since the pandemic began.

“We’re in a crisis,” Lowery-Hart says. “And I’m struggling.”

This article is an excerpt from the new issue of Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community College since 1930.

Community college presidents make weighty decisions all the time. But they’re not often in a position where their decisions affect the health or even the mortality of their students, faculty and staff.

“Every day I wake up and wonder: Is this the day I learn that I have an employee in the hospital with Covid? Is this the day I lose a student to Covid?” he reveals. “I’ve never worried about losing a member of our college’s family before, and I worry about that all the time now. It’s exhausting.”

Learning to cope

As the pandemic reaches the one-year mark in the United States, college presidents reflected on the impact the prolonged crisis has had on their institutions, their communities — and themselves.

The past year has seen not only the rampant spread of the novel coronavirus, but also social and political unrest. All of these issues have affected poor and marginalized communities more than others — groups directly served by community colleges.

Although it’s been a very difficult year for everyone, and college presidents have been tested like never before, they’ve also found inspiration in how their campus communities have come together in the face of these challenges.

Lowery-Hart freely admits that he has grappled with his emotions during the pandemic.

“Early on, I was terrible at taking care of myself,” he says. “I was stress eating, and I gained a lot of weight. If I did something fun or engaged in reading for pleasure, I felt like I was ignoring or dishonoring the crisis we were in. It wasn’t a healthy or effective outlook.”

Eventually, he realized that he needed to let himself breathe and relax — to take a step back so that he could keep moving forward.

Now, he takes walks every evening with his family, and he also plays tennis with his son. He has brought this lesson to the entire college, giving employees Friday afternoons off and looking for other ways to relieve pressure. And he hasn’t been shy about discussing his emotions.

“It has freed people to acknowledge that it’s been hard for them as well,” he observes.

Grace and gratitude

Keeping everyone motivated through such a long slough has been difficult, agrees Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). Kress joined NOVA in January 2020, only eight weeks before the pandemic forced the college to shut its doors. Before that, she was the president at Monroe Community College in New York for close to 11 years. She also ran crisis management teams at Monroe and other colleges.

Read the new issue of Community College Journal.

“We always think of a crisis as a discrete time period, but that’s not what this is about,” she says. “It has turned into a much longer marathon. We have extraordinary people at NOVA, but they’ve been working so hard. They miss seeing students on campus. I worry about them burning out.”

For Kress, grace and gratitude have been the keys to keeping peoples’ spirits high.

“You have to give yourself a little bit of space,” she says, “and you have to give others space as well.”

Maintaining a sense of community has also been important. To reduce people’s sense of isolation, Kress launched a series of games and contests. For instance, she challenged students and employees to write a haiku about the pandemic and awarded prizes for the best efforts. She asked people to share their most cherished recipes for a crowdsourced NOVA cookbook. She had people reveal the three songs they’d listened to most recently and created a campus playlist on Spotify.

“When I did those things in the spring, I thought they were just silly one-time games,” she says. “But our students and staff asked if we could continue with them in the fall. What seemed to me as goofy exercises was something that really resonated with people, because it took their mind off the pandemic.”

High points

What has sustained many leaders throughout the pandemic is the appreciation they have for how students, faculty and staff have risen to the challenge.

For L. Joy Gates Black, president of Delaware County Community College in Pennsylvania, how her college has responded in a time of crisis has been an epiphany.

“Higher education is not known for moving quickly,” she notes. “But in this pandemic, we were able to quickly identify solutions to problems and troubleshoot to remove barriers.”

The college had created an emergency food program many years ago, which grew into a student resource center that contains non-perishable food, toiletries, household cleaning supplies and gently used clothing for students in need. When the college closed its campuses last spring, staff put together bags of food and other resources that students could pick up as needed, so they wouldn’t go hungry. In addition, faculty who were familiar with teaching online partnered with their less experienced colleagues to make sure everyone was comfortable with remote instruction.

“One of the things I really love about the college is the sense of community,” Gates Black says. “Everyone pulls together to support our students.”

Read the full article and more in the new issue of Community College Journal.

Missing an issue of CCJournal? Visit our online archive for issues going back to August/September 2017.

About the Author

Dennis Pierce
is an education writer based in Boston.