Reflections on Experiencing (Unanticipated) Transition
Friday, March 20, 2020
Transition is our business.
Many think about our work in transition in stereotypical terms of the ice breakers, campus tours, large (reportedly boring) lectures, academic advising, and course scheduling often associated with orientation programs. Yes, it is that. It is also so much more. Unfortunately, I spend so much time in this space that I don’t always immediately recognize that I’m doing much of that work guided by a broader framework that has the potential to apply to other experiences. In fact – I hadn’t even considered how it might apply to the situation we all currently find ourselves in until I spent some time with our Orientation Leaders Tuesday night.
For our first online HIED 303 (Leadership Development through Orientation) course with the OLs, we knew we wanted to facilitate a conversation about how the last week has been for them. I anticipated that their other instructors likely spent some time providing an overview of their new remote environment, but I wasn’t sure how many of them would create opportunities for conversation about HOW we found our way to this new space. For example – the last time we were together one student received notification that she wouldn’t be able to travel to Ireland as part of an embedded travel experience and by the very next class we experienced ourselves as 33 video boxes populating our new virtual classroom. It happened so fast.
Earlier in the day I had a meeting with an incredible orientation and advising partner of ours at Penn State Harrisburg – Dr. Katina Moten. We work together on one of the University’s action teams discussing options for NSO. Katina reminded us that beyond our own capacity to host an orientation program, we also need to consider the fact that the concept of transition for our new Penn Staters has completely changed. Many, if not most, will not get to experience – at least in the ways they expected – some of the rites of passage often associated with the more traditional move from high school to college. No prom, no senior banquet, for some – maybe no graduation ceremony. We don’t know exactly what that looks like, but we do know that many of our typical “signals” that college comes next will be lost.
It was the perfect set up. In a previous class we taught the OLs about some student development theory. We included William Bridges and Nancy Schlossberg, naturally, because of their work studying adults in transition. (Since the purpose of this note is sharing personal reflections that I think might be of some value to others, I appreciate grace with my lack of proper citations as I continue.) The plan with the team was that I would remind them how Bridges’ mapped out the key steps of the transition experience, and tie in the work that Schlossberg did on the importance of role models for people navigating change. If nothing else, this might help reinforce the message that this team of OLs will be in truly unique position as they help welcome the new class.
We created space for sharing. They did. I was impressed by what they’ve navigated in their own lives and in the lives of their families in only a few short days. I eventually got to the part where I was reminding them that each transition has an “End” (significant life event/non-event), a “Neutral Zone” (between old life/roles/relationships and new ones, lots of unknowns and ambiguity), and “The Beginning” (the start of new life). I was mid-sentence when I realized that this wasn’t only a lesson about how our new students would experience the next few months… we were living through it ourselves.
Now, important side note about the 3 types of transition (Bridges):
- those transitions we expect will happen, and then they do happen
- those transitions we don’t expect or anticipate will happen, but they do
- those transitions we expect will happen, but then they don’t
The date is different for everyone based on their involvement in this crisis, but for me… Wednesday, March 11 was my “End”. Whether it was the announcement of moving classes online, the rush to move staff remotely, the cancellation of large events, or some combination of the three – an unanticipated life transition definitely happened. In many ways… it’s still happening.
I’ve used the phrase “new normal” quite a bit in the last few days, but the truth is it’s not. It’s the normal for today. That normal will probably be required to adjust and shift tomorrow. And at a time in society where trust in institutions is pretty low – we’re being asked to place a lot of trust in said institutions. The workplace and life routines we’re used to aren’t there. Many of us have been forced to learn new skills, and quick. This includes learning new coping mechanism – as gyms, time with friends, and other healthy outlets are being discouraged. We don’t know what tomorrow will hold, but we’re still being asked to make three possible plans for the day after tomorrow (one of my favorite movies by the way). We also don’t know what “the other side” of this will look like. This is the definition of the Neutral Zone.
To quote myself from a training session from a couple of years ago – “And y’all… the Neutral Zone is a bitch.”
This is where Schlossberg comes back in. She was able to articulate that people in transition are able to navigate that change better when they have access to positive role models. (This is the foundation of our Orientation Leaders experience.) That’s going to be pretty tough for us on this one though. Not that we have any shortage of hardworking, competent, and thoughtful leadership on these challenges… it’s just that by the nature of being unprecedented we have no one on the other side to look to.
The good news – we have each other.
Thankfully, Bridges offers this relief – “people can work out much of the necessary business of the neutral zone if you will protect them, encourage them, and give them the structures and opportunities they need to do it.” So, that is the business ahead of us – for each other, our teams, our students, our families, and our communities. I can’t begin to predict when “The Beginning” will emerge. It is quite likely that we won’t even realize it until we are well past it, pause, look back, and see our “new normal” for what it is.
Until then we work to protect as best we’re able, to encourage and support, and eventually… to create opportunities for people to begin to make meaning of what just happened in the world around them.
Daniel W. Murphy, M.Ed.
Director | Student Orientation and Transition Programs
The Pennsylvania State University