What We Owe Our College Students

College student in empty auditorium

College student in empty lecture hall

Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

Two weeks into spring semester at the University of Florida, groups of unmasked college students — 30 or more at a time, many hollering as they partied — stood in lines to enter bars and clubs in Gainesville.

Photos in The Gainesville Sun showed them standing elbow to elbow, ear to ear. I've seen more space between parentheses. This is precisely what we are not supposed to do as this pandemic continues to rage.

The beginning of this sentence in the accompanying story caught my eye: "Though most students were wary to talk to The Sun, those who did said they weren't afraid of picking up the virus because they weren't at risk of infecting elderly, vulnerable family members, would get tested before returning home or already had COVID-19."

So much hubris in that flotilla of thought bubbles, but their reticence to speak to a reporter suggests that some of them knew what they were doing was potentially dangerous. There's a lot of hope in that.

These are not bad kids. For starters, they're not kids. They're young adults whose brains are still developing, and we ask so much of them, especially now. College is supposed to be a time of growth and self-discovery, where students are encouraged to run at full speed, wings spread wide. Instead, we are grounding them and asking that they behave better than many of the supposed grown-ups in their orbits.

One of the reasons I have faith in these students to do better is my experience in teaching college ethics during COVID-19 in the journalism school at my alma mater, Kent State. While we try to stay focused on issues hitched to our profession, it has been impossible to ignore the other ethical dilemmas swirling around us right now.

Most of my students work hourly wage jobs to stay in school, and too many employers have been willing to put them at risk because they know their young employees can't afford to quit.

Families, too, can be unfairly demanding. Their grandparents miss them; their younger siblings need them as they struggle to learn from home. Parents with the best intentions succumb to exhaustion and turn to their college students to help keep home life afloat.

And so we've talked, twice a week in our Zoom classroom, about how to ethically navigate this scary and complicated time in our country.

I've heard the arguments, often voiced as complaints, that children should be taught ethics at a much earlier age. Agreed, but young adulthood is complicated, and we all benefit from their exploring what it means to be an ethical person at their age.

Ethics discussions help students discover who they are and what lines they won't cross. In every class, we explore the whys behind our values and biases. It's not as simple as dictating right from wrong, and it's so rewarding to see nearly universal values arise around the concept of the greater good.

They work at getting there. One of my favorite classroom pivots in discussions begins with, "Now, let me complicate it for you ... "

Before COVID-19, a common discussion involved how much one should endure for an employer. At first, students almost universally agreed they would leave a job if their boss asked them to violate their values.

Let me complicate it for you, I'd say: You're a parent with children to house and feed.

The discussion becomes more nuanced.

Let me further complicate it for you: You're a single parent, the sole provider.

Their groans are good-natured, and they are up for the debate. It is an honor to watch them help one another grow as they explore what they owe themselves and their world.

With COVID-19, we've pivoted again. How do they advocate for themselves and their co-workers? What is the appropriate response to bosses who don't care about their safety and angry customers who are wiling to put them at risk? How do they say no to loved ones? As one student put it: "I tell her, 'No, Grandma. I can't see you now because I love you and I want you to stay alive.'"

They sort out what it means to be a responsible person in the time of COVID-19, one discussion at a time. By the end of the semester, they're brainstorming family dialogues and workplace solutions because they care about one another.

We can judge those students lining up at bars in college towns across the country. Or we can ask how we are failing them. We can engage in conversations that help them find the best version of themselves, and hope they hold it against us for taking so long.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She is also the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, "The Daughters of Erietown." To find out more about Connie Schultz (schultz.connie@gmail.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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