As we have returned to a kind of new normal this fall, I’ve been reflecting on some things I learned last year that I’m bringing into my post-pandemic (or whatever this time is) ministry.

Students Bring their Home Lives with them to Campus
When students are living in Madison, away from their families, it can be easy to forget that what’s going on in their home lives has a huge impact on their academic success, mental health, and general wellbeing. Almost half of students at UW Madison come from families whose incomes are in the top fifth of Wisconsin households, and only four percent of students come from families in the bottom quintile. During covid, I saw firsthand how what students were dealing with at home: financial concerns, family members who were ill, or parents working front-line jobs while also raising younger siblings, had a direct impact on their ability to focus on their coursework. Even though what’s going on at home is harder to see now that we’re back on campus, it’s on my mind more this year as I get to know students and check in about how they’re doing.

Don’t Just Focus on Freshmen
Last year in January, a young woman who was a sophomore logged into one of our Thursday night faith conversations on Zoom. She was a student who I had reached out to several times over the course of her first year on campus, but who had never responded. During covid, she became a regular participant in our virtual events. When I asked her why she had decided to join us, she said: “During my first year of college, I wanted to have what I thought of as the typical UW experience – I went out a lot, focused on having fun, and even though faith was a big part of the family I grew up in, I didn’t connect with that part of life at all. My sophomore year, I came back to campus and was living with some of the girls I was friends with my freshman year. Even with the pandemic, they were going out a lot, and I didn’t feel very safe at all. When I came back to campus in January, I found a new place to live and I reached out to LCM. Even though we only met online, I realized that the people who were coming to the group really cared about me and shared my feelings about how to deal with the pandemic and campus life.” This year, as I reach out to students to personally invite them to be a part of our community, I’m remembering that it’s important to focus on more than just freshmen.

1 on 1 Conversations Matter
Unsurprisingly, student engagement was low during the pandemic. Students were tired of Zoom meetings and having a harder time finding the energy to socialize virtually. I learned from a colleague that she had started inviting students for outdoor, masked walks with her and her dog as a way of offering pastoral care during the pandemic. On a whim, I decided to do the same. Over the course of the year, I took many walks with students. The one on one conversations I had were deeply meaningful to me and, I think, to the students who I had the privilege of connecting with. This year, I’m incorporating a practice of taking a walk or getting a coffee with at least one student one on one each week.

Collaboration is Key (and Fun!)
Some of the most fun events we had during covid were the Big10 Trivia night on Zoom, in which we competed against one another and also connected with students from around the country to compare notes, support one another, and commiserate about life during a pandemic. Our students were also blessed to be a part of a virtual spring retreat that was hosted by LCM Twin Cities. Cole Arthur Riley of @blackliturgies gave us the opportunity to think about Walking in the Wilderness of the pandemic. We haven’t connected with other campus ministry sites virtually yet this year, but I am hoping that we will embrace this opportunity again!