The Sounds of Silence…Reflections of One Student’s Journey Through the COVID Pandemic Via the DBA HR Program at Northcentral University Online

I’m told that pursuing a doctoral degree involves an individual journey, fraught with promises and pitfalls that are unique to the individual experience of the student. To a large degree, this advice is very true. What they don’t tell you, however, is that this is more like a Jack Kerouac “On the Road” experience without sex and drugs (unless the intellectual high you get from academic collaboration and critical thinking through writing parallels the same feelings you’d get from the Kerouac experience).

I find that meandering through the subject matter and academic bureaucracy are necessary means (and sometimes evils) to achieving the ends of high grades and higher degrees. But assigning your professional imprimatur to the work, and knowing that you make a positive difference to knowledge, is what it’s all about, in my humble opinion. It is Maslow’s self-actualization in practice. Epistemology is everything. If you don’t aspire to that, there are a lot of things in this world you can do that will give you a sense of accomplishment, but not this route.

For those left that have the passion and persistence, you are in the right place. But it is not an easy place to be in. You remain a student beyond your formative years for one thing, and for better or worse, there appears to be a societal stigma to this. A certain degree of psychological dependence develops towards your professors, your advisors, and your family which parallels that which you had when you were a child going through school. It can be annoying to those who don’t understand, and who moved away from academe to the working world where grades don’t count, and interrelationships do. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” My answer to that is that it is BOTH. Otherwise, what are we all doing here?

To that end, it is advisable in my opinion to do this later rather than earlier, when you can back your return to academe with real-life work, and (if you are lucky enough) family experiences that you can draw upon to balance the teacher’s pet expectations that positive pedagogic and andragogic experiences bring naturally to the fore.

Whether this track is commenced earlier or later, however, the isolation that is encouraged by faculty who have gone through their own personal austerity measures in completing their studies to their students results in what I call the “Sounds of Silence” syndrome, with apologies to Simon & Garfunkel. The student is truly alone with his or her thoughts during this process. Some will call the feelings that result loneliness, but one should never forget that self-isolation brings these effects on. Professors are very well-meaning when advising their students to self-isolate and let their families know that blocks of time should be established for self-study in order to succeed with a doctoral program. This has become a rite of passage as a rationale for faculty espousing this, who also wish to discourage the practice of the application to one’s doctoral studies as a hobby rather than the rigorous devotion to the craft that they feel is necessary to succeed.

But I posit that in doing so, this advice, while again well-meaning and with the best of intentions, puts the student on the road to hell. Outreach for emotional, and when necessary, financial support (something graduate programs could devote more attention to in general) is vital to persistence.

That being said, self-isolation, and the “Sounds of Silence” syndrome in general has been particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting “stay-at-home” orders since March of 2020. It is fortunate that online technology has progressed to the point where the planet can function alternatively via telecommuting, telehealth, and online education in the face of this onslaught. One can only imagine the paralysis that would have resulted without it.

Online education, once thought of as the stepchild of traditional academe by higher education faculty not familiar with the technology, is no longer seen this way in view of what the pandemic has done. They must either adapt, retire, or move to another career, which would be daunting even under normal circumstances. Ivy League institutions well known for traditional instruction have to move online, and curriculum development of schools should to be altered to accommodate asynchronous instruction. While they still have their reputation, sustaining competitive advantage to maintain matriculation and stay financially afloat now will become more important in the future for them. Other schools may fold under both the financial pressures and, more basically, the lack of preparation to transition effectively under these conditions.

Moreover, and most importantly, however, the student now has the difficult choice of selecting the right school to accommodate his/her needs during this transition, or transfer to one that has already adapted successfully. With the probability of a second wave of SARS-COVID 2-a mutation of the annual flu with another strain of COVID hitting the U.S. in the fall-going back to classrooms without significant restrictions, (if this happens at all), seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.

I was fortunate enough to select Northcentral University (NCU) Online for this reason. As discussed earlier, faculty and advisor support are necessary enough under normal circumstances for persistence in attainment of higher educational degrees. I found that NCU was in the main able to provide this and more. In dealing with the pandemic, they were not just transactional—they were and remain transformational. They have accomplished this simply because online education is all they do, 100% of the time. Thus, they were positioned to do business as usual in the face of this global catastrophe.

Since their opening in 1996, NCU now boasts a student complement of 10,000, and offers over 40 undergraduate and graduate programs at all levels. In the 24 years of its existence, it appears that NCU has become the first online university to offer over 40 undergraduate and graduate programs at all levels. On March 12, 2020, contact was first made with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (C.D.C.) to keep abreast of the developing situation. In-person events such as their Dissertation Boot Camp and Intensive Pathway program were cancelled; other events were moved to virtual presentations.

The school then recommended that students with face-to-face Institutional Review Board (IRB) interviews concerning their dissertations transition them to online data collection without having to request this formally. Online presentations by CNN and NPR were included on the NCU website, and caution regarding stigma allegations against inappropriate associations between Asians and COVID-19 were recommended. Internships in the Marriage & Family Therapy (MFT) moved to telehealth interventions, and NCU offered assistance in this regard thru appropriate faculty and advisement. Information was then put online regarding appropriate medical precautions to take against the virus, including hand-washing and other measures. Offices of the President and Provost assured the NCU Community of frequent online updates.

On March 26, the first of two live online one-hour presentations was presented to anybody in the entire NCU community who wished to attend. The President, Provost, Director of Financial Aid, and the Deans of all the schools were present to make their own presentations and then answer chat questions. Among many issues discussed, assignment due dates normally expected on Sunday midnight MST would be extended if necessary to account for the pandemic, as well as relaxation of course extension requirements and Leaves of Absence if necessary. Pass-Fail options would be granted for the duration of the pandemic to assist students with academic hardship in completing courses. The gathering was assured that due to continuance of U.S. Department of Education functioning as well as reserves that the school had for one academic semester if necessary, no reduction in force in any area was therefore expected. There were allowances made for students to carry small financial balances forward in the event of hardship in this area. Students were encouraged to continue in school, however, notwithstanding these accommodations, as persistence issues could hurt them in the long run. Dr. David Harpool, Ph.D., J.D., and President of the University, also emphasized that the school could not subsidize employment, pay for rent, or handle personal student loans, as this would not epitomize best practice standards aside from having legal repercussions. 

The second video presentation held in April continued to expand upon accommodations made. It was also revealed that a fund of approximately $250,000 had been established by donations in order to help students under certain circumstances who were either afflicted with COVID-19 or had family issues in that arena. That fund was expanded to $700,000, and though exhausted in June, may be revisited. This reach out to the entire student body virtually is notable. Rarely, if at all, do top officers of any higher educational system meet with students to discuss emergent situations. These two events uniquely bonded their educational community with synergistic effects. I did not intend this recitation of NCU’s efforts to be an elevator pitch, but in forming a virtual bridge, they have indeed brought sounds to the “Sounds of Silence.”