Student Service with No Students

I have worked in international education for the past five years. When people ask what my favorite part of the job is, I don’t hesitate to answer that it is working with the students – being able to help them through a developmental process, watching them change as they learn and travel, gaining insight and independence. Our students are young, ambitious, and offer unique perspectives that I love to see face-to-face.

Weeks ago, the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak required all CIMBA undergraduates to return to the US.

It was a decision that caused a lot of chaos and emotional charge in our program. I felt like I was being personally attacked. How could they take my students away from me, nearly 5 weeks early? How would they finish their classes, let alone their personal journeys? How was I supposed to be there for them, with this giant ocean between us? What do student services look like without the students?

I have to admit, after a few weeks, I still don’t know the right answer, or even if a right answer exists. I do know one thing: it isn’t easy. When I am in the office 8 hours a day, literally just across the hall from the classrooms, students can take about ten steps to speak to me about anything, whether it’s class issues, travel plans, or the never-ending need for laundry tokens. And if I need to speak to one of them, I can usually just stick my head into the hallway and find them. Now, in order to keep a connection, I have to constantly reach out. Although email is the standard form of communication in academics, anyone who has worked with undergraduates knows this fundamental rule: students don’t read. Where has that left us? With videos, Instagram posts, WhatsApp messages, blog posts, and yes, still emails, as they are necessary.

And so we do these things, to the best of our abilities. We have stepped outside of our comfort zones in an effort to keep our relationships with our undergrads alive. But has it worked? That’s the worst part – I have no idea. It’s easy to see the outcome of my actions when the students are in front of me. I can see a smile, hear a laugh, or feel a moment of thought. Now that we are all behind the screens of our computers or devices, it’s like I’m speaking to the void. There is no response. I can’t tell if my advice is helpful, if my jokes are landing, or even if anything I produce is actually being seen. It’s easy to feel as if all my efforts are completely futile.

As a student services professional, the motivation behind my work is helping my charges. Without being able to see the effects of my work, I feel like I’m not fulfilling my purpose, not making a difference. It has left a pretty big hole in my life.

This made me think – are other members of the service industry feeling the same effect? Flight attendants with no travelers, servers with no patrons, baristas with no coffee connoisseurs, hair stylists with empty chairs. Normally, we all go through each workday, often thinking of how our customers/clients don’t appreciate us. Maybe we didn’t realize we were taking them for granted, too. Although I had often thought of the effect I could have on my students, this situation has certainly given me a new appreciation for the effect the students have on me.

 As soon as our program was cancelled, my focus was on the 80 young adults whom I had spent the past two months with. I had so much sympathy knowing that this amazing experience – once-in-a-lifetime for many – was unfairly cut short. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it cut my own experience short, too. I missed out on 5 weeks of listening to their adventures, learning from their trials, and seeing the final episode of their growth. Although I know I am lucky to be able to work from home, that work has fundamentally changed – and so has the sense of fulfillment that comes with it.

So for any student hesitant to post more photos, ask more questions, or share more stories – Post. Ask. Share. We want to see it!

Kim Eitner


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