All across the country, the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health and relationships in significant ways. This year, only a handful of my students have experienced a “normal” year at UW-Madison. 

The seniors enjoyed an uninterrupted year and current juniors enjoyed one full semester before covid trapped all of us in our homes for most of three semesters.

During the pandemic, my focus in ministry shifted from programs to relationships with individual students. As I sat at my desk at home day after day, I would work down a list of students I knew, emailing or texting them to check in, and sometimes setting up 1:1 conversations via Zoom or in person outside at UW.

When we came back to in-person meetings this fall, I realized that I missed the 1:1 conversations that I’d had during the pandemic. And I also realized that students were in need of more emotional support than they had been before the semester.

As the wait time for first-time appointments with mental healthcare providers at University Health Services ticked upward (right now a student has to wait two months to see a counselor unless it is an emergency situation), I implemented a system by which students could sign up for a meeting with me, to discuss whatever was on their mind.

All throughout this year, students have been clicking on a link to find a 30- or 60-minute appointment on my calendar. I’ve encouraged them to sign up by including the link in emails I send when I invite students to events. It’s also in our weekly email and on our website.

There’s a small box for students to put in a note about what they’d like to talk about. Here are some examples of what they come in to discuss:

  • I’ve been dating an atheist and as a person who cares a lot about my faith, I’m not quite sure how to deal with it.
  • I use they/them pronouns and haven’t gone to church in 10 years. I grew up in a confessional Lutheran church and it was damaging. I want help moving toward a religious situation that is more welcoming.
  • My mom was just diagnosed with cancer.
  • My spouse took a new job and I’ll be finishing up writing my dissertation away from Madison. I’m happy for them but also sad to be moving away and wanted to get a chance to talk before we leave town.
  • My roommate and I can’t get along. I need help figuring out how to talk to her.
  • Last year you asked me if I was interested in getting baptized. I think I am ready to do that now and want to talk about it.

I’m always grateful when students sign up for a meeting, and sometimes surprised by who signs up and what they want to talk about. About half of the students who I’ve met with are ones I had never met in person before they signed up, and the topics of conversation have been wide ranging and deeply meaningful.

I’ve always known that campus ministry’s deep impact stretches far beyond our weekly programming and that pastoral care and chaplaincy is vital to students’ wellbeing. But this year, as we come back together in the midst of the pandemic, I’ve been especially grateful for the vulnerability that students have shown me, and for the privilege it is to offer a listening ear, compassion and guidance.

Rev. Emily Tveite, Director & Campus Pastor