The Jonsson School fountain taken at noon

COVID-19:
A Wake-Up Call

Headshot of Dr. Stephanie G. Adams

By Stephanie G. Adams

As I sat and thought about a column I needed to write for over a week, so many ideas swirled around in my head. Do I write about COVID-19 and the impact it is having on higher education? Or more specifically engineering education? Or on our ongoing research projects? Or leadership in times of crisis? Or why the virtual conference is the way to go? Or some George Orwell “1984-like” future look at any of these topics?

So many are writing about all of these topics and many more that I decided not to join them. Instead, I want to focus on the all-important topic of work/life balance and, that for the first time in a really long time, I am actually starting to find balance.

Some time ago, maybe within the last five years, I found myself engaged in an exercise where I tried to list the many roles and titles I held: university administrator, tenured faculty member, active researcher, frequent invitee to national discussions on the future of engineering education or broadening participation in STEM, board member, mentor, graduate advisor, daughter, partner and friend. When I finished I was tired, but it made me ask myself: how on earth are you juggling all of this and are you excelling in each role?

I convinced myself I was excelling, well, at least with regards to all of my obligations. Though, I would tell myself I need to lose a little weight and build my stamina for the road ahead. As a form of exercise, I bought a bike and made strides to ride at least 3–4 times a week, as long as I was home.

Ah hah - as long as I was home!

I have always subscribed to the adage, 'Work Hard, Play Harder.' Now, I am repeating the mantra, 'Work Hard, Practice Self Care.'

Well, how often did that occur? According to my Delta Air Lines and Marriott International account summaries, not very often. Over the last five years, I have maintained Platinum Medallion status on Delta (75,000 miles or 100 segments flown) and Platinum/Titanium Elite status (50 or 75 nights) on Marriott. I ended 2019 at Diamond on Delta and Ambassador (the level above Titanium) with Marriott; levels I thought to be badges of honor.

Today, I have a different thought about these travel-based achievements. I began 2020 very optimistic about the start of a new decade; feeling peaceful about where I was in life; excited to enter my second semester in a new role and home; and energized by a new sense of unity in A.S.E.E. (American Society for Engineering Education). However, these positive feelings were short lived. Late on New Year’s Day, I experienced an acute headache like no other. Over the next two weeks, I had a number of health challenges that quite frankly scared the bejeebers out of me. Though I had to cancel a month of travel, I don’t think these challenges fully got my attention. However, COVID-19 most certainly has.

Adam's Collage where on the left shows Adam in her bike helmet. In the middle shows homemade chicken tacos with onions and lettuces. The last image shows a plate with cooked scallop and broccolini

The COVID-19 pandemic allowed me to prioritize bike riding and healthy eating

At that moment, I made the decision that I would come out of this better than I began. I decided to strengthen my mind and set a goal to read at least one book every two weeks. I decided to strengthen my spirit by joining online services from my church in Virginia. I decided to strengthen my body by exercising more and eating less. Several weeks into this, I am making great strides and, for the first time, I feel more balanced and in control. Gone are the aches and pains I previously felt and the hurried pace that I had been experiencing for years. For the first time that I can recall, a peace and calmness have come over me.

None of us have any idea how long this will last. My prediction is that it will be mid-June, at the earliest, before we are back on campus. I have heard it takes 21 days to form a new habit. So, during this time I am continuing to write a new narrative for myself and my life. I have always subscribed to the adage, “Work Hard, Play Harder.” Now, I am repeating the mantra, “Work Hard, Practice Self Care.”

How will you emerge from this period of COVID-19 induced stay-at-home orders? How are you using this time? At the end of the day, we are not our jobs or our titles; we are daughters, mothers, sons, husbands, dads, spouses, friends, etc. Those that love us hope to have us around for many years to come. I hope this reflection inspires you to make strides to be better, to get stronger, and to enjoy the little things.

As I close my column on April 16th, I am thinking of my former institution, Virginia Tech, and my friends and colleagues who suffered an unspeakable loss 13 years ago today. I find strength in these modified words of poet Nikki Giovanni: “We are the Jonsson School. We will prevail.

Stephanie G. Adam's signature in blue
Stephanie G. Adams, PhD, Fellow ASEE
Dean and Lars Magnus Ericsson Chair
Erik Jonsson School of Engineering And Computer Science
Immediate Past President, American Society for Engineering Education

A version of this column appeared in a recent Prism Magazine, ASEE’s award-winning flagship publication and the most popular magazine that covers engineering higher education in the United States.

Adams served as A.S.E.E. President from June 1, 2019 – May 31, 2020, and has been dean of the Jonsson School since August 2019. The Jonsson School thanks Dean Adams for her service.