Growing up, when it seemed like life plans were falling apart and nothing was working, my dad would say, “We are nailing Jell-O to the walls and hoping it sticks.”
Right now, this phrase embodies what it is like to work on plans and programming for the fall on a college campus.
When we moved everything at Lyon College online in the middle of the spring semester, we assumed that we would be at home for a moment and then life would return to normal. We thought that we would be back to regularly scheduled programming and life in the fall. But as time has moved on, it has proven that life will not go back to what it was before and that life on a college campus will be drastically different.
Normally my summer is spent going to camps and conferences, working on fall retreat ideas, designing T-shirts and swag for new students and preparing for a larger-than-life move-in weekend for first year students. This year, that is a mere memory. Instead, I am spending time developing plans on how to feed students safely, trying to figure out what our Bible study will look like and reconfiguring the chapel for safe worship and gatherings.
Every morning I enter my office and begin my day by looking at the latest number of cases across Arkansas and our county. I hold the event plans I made the day before in one hand, while holding the CDC guidelines in the other, hoping that they align. Most of the time they do, but at least once a week I go back to the drawing board to begin again with a new plan.
Traditionally, at this point in the summer my office would be gearing up and gathering supplies for move-in week. We would be working with congregations to set up the church fair for first-year students. We would be working hard with our ministry team on our events for move-in. We would be gathering the supplies and writing the liturgy for our first chapel service of the semester. This year, I am working on an information flyer to go into the move-in bags, since contact will be limited. I am emailing and meeting virtually with the ministry team, brainstorming what they would like to do for move-in week. And chapel is being planned, virtually.
This is the new normal in higher education. At a small college, that prides itself on the connectional relationships that exist between faculty, staff and students, this has been a hard reality to face. When most of our programming and identity are tied up in how relational we are, it is hard to envision what that will be like this fall. And while it is a challenge, it also frees us up to try new things and new ways of being community. It is allowing us to let go of programming that we always did because “that’s what we do.” And it’s allowing us to dream big.
The biggest part of the dreaming and planning is making sure to keep of students, faculty and staff safe. Arkansas is recording some of its highest number of cases it has seen since the pandemic hit. We are also a state that never fully shut down. And while we currently have seven towns with mask ordinances, the majority of our state does not. This plays a big role in how we conduct our business.
As a college we have a mask ordinance. We have new regulations for our housing, and even guidelines for community gatherings. And while it has taken some time to get used to, it has become how we operate. With the college’s mask ordinance, I began to search for ways that we can provide masks for our students. Thankfully, the presbytery had an opportunity for masks for churches and ministries. I called and asked what it would take for us to receive such a gift and by the following week I had a box of 500 masks.
These masks will help keep our students safe, which is the key to life on campus right now. As our ministry team began to think about ways to hand the masks out, they noticed something unique. The masks are white cloth. Why is that so important? Hello, tie-dye event! We will be able to host a tie-dye “event” for students, that will allow them to make their masks personal and unique. It isn’t much, but just planning something like this has brought life to our students and made them excited for the fall — in the midst of the anxiety and stress they’re experiencing this summer.
As I continue to plan for the fall, I will continue to nail Jell-O to the wall hoping that something sticks, and that meaningful college experiences emerge. And one thing I know for certain in all of this uncertainty: This will be an academic year that will not be forgotten!
MAGGIE ALSUP lives on iced coffee, believes that Disney movies are for all ages, is obsessed with hippos and loves living in the foothills of the Ozarks. She currently serves as the chaplain at Lyon College, in Batesville, Arkansas, where she helps empower and equip students for the life and ministry of the church universal.