On this beautiful, sunny day I write from the prison that my home office has become because of COVID-19. In another life, I would have climbed on a plane last night, flown to New York City, and walked my beautiful daughter down the aisle to the waiting arms of her beloved. Instead, I am fielding emails and conducting Zoom calls that are necessary to my roles as administrator and professor. I have the privilege of teaching 103 students online for the rest of the semester. Meanwhile, I cheer myself listening to the music of a band whose concert I will not be attending next month after all.

This is the new normal for so many of us in Aggieland and beyond. We have had our organic culture turned upside down by perhaps the greatest worldwide threat to health in a century. We are second-besting our ways through days and waking up multiple times at night. We are trying to create the kinds of structures that allow us to function, and few of us are thinking of being normal, or even more outrageously, actually prospering in the circumstances.

But we should. In all the disappointments and injustices that face me today are the seedlings of new opportunities that I never knew existed. I am communicating with students in new ways and delegating responsibility in ways I never have before. Zoom connecting is not the same as face-to-face, but particularly in smaller groups that are the equivalent to staying after class to ask questions, I am finding that students stay around for quite a while and listen to each other’s questions. That doesn’t happen in the regular classroom. The hunger that at least half of them have for connection makes them more willing to find value in the classroom, even though it is hard staring at a screen, and I can’t walk up to them if they are having trouble staying awake.

Our students are dealing with what they have lost and, for many of them, they have lost a lot. They are separated from their friends, and even those living in the protective world of their families are mostly there reluctantly. Many feel overwhelmed by the workload demanded by courses that were changed on the fly, and many have no idea when they will be able to take the CPA exam that they have been diligently studying for all semester. They will not physically attend their final Muster on campus and commencement is, at a minimum, postponed.

Some say that the coronavirus will propel us into the brave new world of teaching because of what is possible online. They say that the burden of mounting college debt and the near-universal availability of technology in the U.S. marks the end of universities as we have known them. But I disagree. I can’t imagine any students who are going through this not valuing what it is to plop down in a trusted professor’s office to bare their souls, or to gather with friends at the Chicken, or Breakaway, or Harry’s, or just to sit in the MSC flag room and listen to the piano while you pretend to study. Perhaps we can do online education at a high level; that doesn’t mean it is what we were meant to do. At the very least, it will compel us to think seriously about what we value, and what is worth paying for.

My daughter is happily married, the ceremony safely performed by her pastor in a city that has become known as the epicenter of the pandemic. The pictures are beautiful. She painted her fingernails green for the 100% Irish grandmother she is named for, and she wore the small pearl bracelet I bought for her in Beijing’s Pearl Market. And hopefully, soon, we will have a full ceremony that involves all the family, and we will dance together.

I face the fact that there are many things beyond my control, things that I can’t make right. But the important things are in place; I prayed, after all, for a man who would truly love her, and not for a ceremony. And I asked for the chance to spend my life investing in people, one of the greatest gifts I have been given in my life. Both of those prayers have been answered.

Realizing how finite I am makes me more willing to walk away from the computer and be okay with saying, “I can’t solve that problem, at least not today.” I have a different empathy for my wife, and for what she goes through as she cares for our parents that we are banned from seeing for the indefinite future because of the threat to their health.

None of us asked for this. Tears will flow as a result of our disappointments. May they water the soil of our lives and bear fruit in a new level of compassion for one another, and especially for those with whom we disagree. May Aggies everywhere reach into my students’ lives and let them know that everything is going to be okay. And may those of us entrusted with investing our lives in students, if we were not already aware, embrace what a gift we have been given.

Nothing feels normal now. But a day will come when it does. And on that day, as on this day, there is nowhere that I would rather be than right here in Aggieland.

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Philanthropy & Pandemic

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James Benjamin Department of Accounting
5-year Professional Program in Accounting