Living Wisely with Uncertainty: Changing Norms in a COVID-19 World | St. Lawrence University

Living Wisely with Uncertainty: Changing Norms in a COVID-19 World

When Grace Harkins ‘21 applied for a St. Lawrence University Fellowship in February, she expected to spend her summer on campus, investigating the social injustices prevalent in our education system, and more specifically, the pervasiveness of norms that cause both students and educators to feel powerless when it comes to creating change.

“These norms are so ingrained into our systems,” she says. “We need to recognize them. We need to give them language and the place to be acknowledged and changed, because we do have the power to make change and the power to make a better education system.” 

Today, Grace—a government major and Spanish and religious studies double minor—is working from her home in Kansas City, Missouri. COVID-19 forced a change in plans, but it hasn’t diminished the quality of her research or her passion for her topic. Grace’s essay “Will COVID-19 Finally Change Our Sexist Undervaluing of Educators?” was published by the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit founded by Jane Fonda, Robin Morgan, and Gloria Steinem that aims to amplify the voices of women and girls in media. As the title of her essay suggests, the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic has made her research more important than ever as it provides a context in which to explore norms as they’re undermined and altered in real time.

“It has really brought to light the inequalities in our education system, especially because so many parents have to step into the role of educators” Grace says. “Particularly during a time of crisis, you see inequalities on a broader scale—they’re so in-your-face. The same inequalities are usually the first to be pushed aside when you have to focus on something that seems bigger at the moment.”

Throughout the summer, Grace has worked closely with Professor of Education and Department Chair Jeff Frank. She says she’s grateful to have him on her side, helping her navigate some of the challenges of remote learning, but also helping her think critically about how to learn from this moment.

“We are living in a very stressful time. There's so much uncertainty, there are so many questions, but he always finds something positive to look forward to,” says Grace. “Professor Frank really views every single challenge as an opportunity.”

“We say all the time that liberal education prepares you for uncertainty—nothing is more uncertain than COVID,” says Frank. “How thoughtfully we engage with this moment will determine what type of world we’ll be living in. I see this as a chance to live my values. I see liberal education as preparing us to live wisely with uncertainty.”

Like Grace, current events have shaped much of Frank’s own work as he prepares for next semester. He plans to frame his curriculum for the upcoming school year against the questions, conflicts, revelations, and unrest that both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter have brought to the forefront of public discourse.

“We’re going to talk about COVID, we’re going to talk about racism, we’re going to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement,” he says. “Our students are developing into citizens and adults. How do they make the future we want? I think it’s a challenge but, as Grace’s project suggests, we’re at a shift in norms. We could really create something different.”

Grace and Frank have acclimated to the remote research and collaboration process. They’re in a steady groove of regular communication and feedback. They make time to meet regularly one-on-one via Zoom and are frequently in touch over email. Though they’re separated by many miles and one time zone, distance hasn’t hampered the core value of research fellowship opportunities like hers. 

“Fellowships really give you the opportunity to get to know a professor who will be there and who will be fighting for you, probably forever,” she says. “I think that Professor Frank and I really trust and care about each other, and we want to see one another succeed.”