As the academic year drew to a close in May, I waited for my fears to be actualized. After a spring of over 3000 arrests of college students—something unprecedented in my professional experience of nearly 30 years—I found myself questioning my confidence in the core commitment I made to my students. I have always expected students to change the world, to utilize the educational experience to be, what I call “comfortably uncomfortable.” Yet, I was getting increasingly uncomfortable as encampments, protests, and arrests proliferated around campuses in the United States. I worried, for the first time, that perhaps we were afraid of our students and their calls for intervention in a time of global crisis. I saw campuses closing their gates and worried we might temper our commitment to the rigorous exchange of ideas that so fundamentally defines higher education and the joys found in this setting. 

And then I listened. Over the course of a week, I attended nearly a dozen graduation ceremonies involving countless student voices. I have gone to senior balls and hugged tearful students who, only a few weeks earlier, presented me with lists of demands. Time and again, I am reminded that our adolescents are experts in their lived experience. We fail that expertise when we presume the wisdom we gained as adolescents decades ago somehow supplants the wisdom of today’s lived experience. We need to listen and then apply our wisdom as leaders and educators. As I reflect on that remarkable spring, I am reminded of a few key factors influencing our future work together: 

Teenagers don’t “get over” a pandemic. The impact of the isolation resulting from the pandemic interrupted an important stage of adolescent development among teenagers. It has left an undeniable impact upon today's youth and it will influence our understanding of early, mid, and late adolescence for years to come. This should not be a surprise to educators. Assessments of adolescent health and well-being clearly established a prevalence of stress, anxiety and depression that preceded the pandemic. Isolation caused by the pandemic increased loneliness and adversely impacted interpersonal skill development. For a community whose high school and early college experience was defined as “Wake up, open Zoom, close Zoom, sleep. Repeat,” learning how to meaningfully connect with others is anything but inherent. The Healthy Minds report of 2022-23 noted 42% of respondents missed companionship and nearly 70% of respondents reported feeling isolated often or some of the time. It is now normative, not exceptional, for our emerging adults to be lonely, want true friendships (not the social media kind), and are urgently seeking a sense of community. The resilience I may have learned in my college experiences in the 80s, is not the same resilience our students learned during periods of mass shootings, isolation, and the desire to be compassionate actors in a complex world. Our students are trying very hard to change the world on a stopwatch, understandable given the disruption of time, space and developmental growth caused by the pandemic.

I have gone to senior balls and hugged tearful students who, only a few weeks earlier, presented me with lists of demands.

Listen to what our students are telling us. They care. And they are learning how to show it to an older (yes, that’s us) generation that doesn’t seem to be listening. Countless encampments, arrests, and fear of a global crisis enfolded this past academic year on the heels of years of mass shootings and uncertainty. There is no better time than now for higher education to invest in our youth and engage in developing skills associated with care for others, curiosity, and, yes, conflict. Let’s remember everything we learned in high school through interpersonal interactions. Our hearts were broken and restored, we had best friends and best best friends (they might have changed often based on how the day went), and there was a “cool kids” table in the cafeteria. We learned, through interpersonal engagement, empathy by being in the 3D presence of emotion expressed without a mask on. 

In their graduation remarks at my institution, students repeatedly appealed to each other for community, dialogue, and compassion; not revolution. One of my favorite graduation speakers remarked on this theme by sharing, “We are united by...this innate desire to be interconnected and care for one another everywhere we go.” They are just learning how to do that in a world where Chicken Little, to them, is starting to look like a soothsayer. These students share our compassion but they haven’t learned as well how to express and moderate that compassion and care for others. They may protest sometimes, they may express frustration when they see horror: they are retroactively learning how to express those feelings in real time, in 3D. Our colleges and universities are well prepared to provide some calm and purpose. 

There is no better time than now for higher education to invest in our youth and engage in developing skills associated with care for others, curiosity, and, yes, conflict.

I am confident our institutions can continue to do what they know is best: educate and inspire global scholars who will transform our world. The expression and curiosity of those scholars serve as a litmus test for the success of today’s adolescence following the interruption of the pandemic. Higher education must pursue our mission in a manner that is responsive to the curiosity, compassion and isolation our students carry within them. The actions of our younger scholars are impacted by these realities and require responsive and continued commitment to their post-graduate success in a world that is complex—and eager—for their impact. Let’s listen, please, and then do what we do best.

Eleanor J.B. Daugherty, PhD, MEd, is the Vice President of Student Affairs at Georgetown University. Daugherty previously served as Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at the University of Connecticut (UConn).