Reflections on the COVID-19 pandemic
April 22, 2020
Dear Hokie Students:
We humans are peculiar in the way we envision dreams—we chase them, anticipate them, and form pictures of them in our heads. When these moments unfold differently or not at all, we often experience grief. No doubt you have dreamed of important moments that you expected to experience this spring, like graduating or finishing your first year. I suspect most of you have endured much grief in recent weeks, whether you have recognized it or not. With grief, our emotions span wild, unpredictable ranges that surprise us. Perhaps you have felt sad, angry, subdued, or even numb. However you are feeling, know that your feelings are valid. Know that those around you, including me, are experiencing the very same confusing emotions.
There is some good news. Humans are incredibly resilient—and from my experience, Hokies are among the most gritty, tenacious, and resilient bunch of all. My arrival to Virginia Tech in 2009 was just two years removed from the tragedy of April 16, 2007. I was then, and I am now, humbled by the Hokies who, despite the tragedy, displayed incredible resiliency with courage and compassion. Their resolve continues to strengthen and teach us all. We will always remember the lives lived, as well as those Hokies who helped us find the inner strength so that we could continue our calling in the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
Now, this pandemic seems to be our next mountain to climb. While it is not what any of us envisioned, it is the new frontier for heroes in the making. Right now, you have an opportunity to teach those around you—and those who will come afterward—how to find hope in the midst of adversity.
A few years ago, I unexpectedly lost my friend Shane Lopez, one of the foremost researchers in the construct of “hope.” Shane taught me that hope has several components. Hope requires that we have clear goals, that we see pathways toward reaching them, and that we have a sense of agency to influence their achievement. We can actually learn to have hope by understanding how hope works. Shane’s life’s work boiled down to a simple message: Hope is a choice, hope can be learned, and hope can be shared with others.
The COVID-19 crisis may have shifted the road toward your goals: perhaps a summer internship has been cancelled, causing you to worry about getting the job you desire after graduation. In this case, the job is your goal, and the internship was your pathway. It may seem as though your goal is now harder to reach because the route you’d mapped is closed. Yet I would suggest that you not dwell there too long and look, instead, at embracing the detour.
In his book, and in a TED Talk, “Making Hope Happen,” Shane tells us the secret to maintaining hope: He reminds us that “there are many paths to [our] goals” and that “none of them is free of obstacles.” As you focus on achieving your goal, ask yourself questions to discover what Shane calls “agency”—our perceived ability to shape our lives one step at a time. For example, what are other ways you can gain experience this summer to prepare yourself? Who can help you think about these possibilities? What “out of the box” experiences can you design?
This exercise may not feel easy at first, but hope is a muscle that can be stretched and strengthened. And as you become more hopeful, you can help transform others’ lives in addition to your own. Hope gets unleashed in small moves—what Shane calls “tiny ripples.” He put it this way: “The tiny ripples of hope you set into motion can change the path of someone’s life. It can make their future better. You don’t have to take big bold action or raise a ton of money to spark change. You merely need to create momentum where there was none.”
I was fortunate to host Shane at Virginia Tech. One afternoon he remarked, “Virginia Tech is among the most hopeful places I’ve visited.” I agree. I have seen it with my own eyes and experienced it firsthand. After all, offering hope to people and communities—in all ways big and small—is the very spirit of Ut Prosim.
With a “Let’s go, Hokies!” and with hope,
Frank Shushok Jr.
Vice President for Student Affairs