No one knows what the 2020–2021 school year will hold for colleges and seminaries. If you’re a student, how do you make the most of this school year when it may be in-person, hybrid, online, or all three at different times?
Two of the biggest benefits of higher education are content—gaining information that can help cultivate wisdom—and learning in a context of relationships with teachers and students. But what do you do when the normal experience of these is different? What do you do when the content is delivered over Zoom? How do you develop relationships when you spend less or no time on campus in proximity to friends and professors?
Here are a few suggestions for how we can approach these two aspects of the college experience in this COVID-19 season.
Lean in to the Content
Christianity is, among other things, a faith of receiving and stewarding content. Jude 3 calls us to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1–2). Your future effectiveness in ministry or as a Christian in the workplace will depend in part on your grasp of the confessional truths and implications of your faith. No matter the disruption this season holds, dive into the content and learn all you can. You don’t know the lessons you’ll need down the road, so take it all seriously. (There is one lesson I rely on every week when I prepare to preach. I read it in a chapter for a preaching class 13 years ago.)
Use the unstructured nature of content-delivery in the COVID era to help you, not hurt you. If your classes move online, take breaks when you need to and go at your own pace. Don’t see it as an excuse to skim or skip over content. Find the times that work best for you, and go hard at learning the content. I set a timer for myself and work furiously until it goes off. Then I give myself a reward to walk around my garden, before starting again.
Learn the material by giving yourself a reason to learn it. Remember the reason you are in college or seminary: to learn and prepare. Don’t just let the lecture pass through your ears or the words pass in front of your eyes. Figure out the point. It might take a different type of reading to do that. Listen or watch on 2x speed if you want, but do it in a way that you find what the professor thinks is so important about the subject. Ask yourself a question at the beginning of each video or reading so that you have a reason to listen, watch, or read. Better still, set a goal for each class. Relate each class to how God might use you in the future.
When you’re preaching, teaching, counseling, or leading some day in the future, the people you’re helping will not care that you went to school during a pandemic. But they’ll care what you learned in school that you draw from as you help them.
Get Creative in Building Relationships
My first ministry after seminary didn’t come from a resume or job board, but from a good word from a friend. One of the most meaningful moments in my education was when I walked across the stage to graduate and looked over to see a professor tip his head in recognition and congratulations. Relationships are part of why higher education is so valuable, but you’ll have to work harder this year to benefit from this value.
COVID-19 has made all our lives more stressful, so one way we can build relationships in this season is simply by finding ways to practically help each other. Your professors and fellow students doubtless feel the pandemic pressures both professionally and also in their ministries and families. They didn’t plan for COVID-19 either. Listen to what they have going on and find a way to join in and help.
Work hard on your relationships with classmates. Don’t “phone it in” on Zoom calls and discussion boards. It’s really easy to do the bare minimum when school goes online, fulfilling a participation requirement by telling someone they made a good point. Or you can think harder, ask a question, and move the discussion forward. Work hard to ask and answer good questions of classmates and professors. Connect with classmates on social media. If possible, find ways to meet outside of class. Don’t just be a content consumer in your online education; be a relational contributor.
Don’t just be a content consumer in your online education; be a relational contributor.
“Distance learning” can also inadvertently turn education into a solitary experience hidden from view and divorced from a context in relationships where what you are learning helps and is helped by others. Fight against this by thinking creatively about how you can “go public” with what you’re learning and make it an opportunity to bless others and learn in community. Maybe create a blog and post about something you learned in class. Perhaps start a podcast with friends where you process what you’re learning in school and still have questions about. Find practical ways to turn what you’re learning into ways to serve your church or your community.
Don’t Waste Your Pandemic Education
Every student has a chance to either write this year off as a total loss, grieving how different it is from the “norm,” or see it as an opportunity to grow within the constraints of COVID-19.
We don’t know when “normal” will return. That’s frustrating, yes, but don’t spend too much energy complaining about the open-endedness of it. Don’t view this fall semester as a “waiting room” for the back-to-normal future. Instead, ask God to help you thrive in your education even if it looks different from what you expected. Maybe there are things we can learn this year that we wouldn’t have learned in a normal year. Ask God to show you those things. Rather than only lamenting the year that isn’t, be grateful and excited for the year that is.