News for Aztec Parents

Dr Luke Wood sitting on steps of Aztec Student Union


Tackling Twin Pandemics

Students’ Health and Safety the Priority in Facing Coronavirus, Racial Reckoning, says New Vice President

San Diego State University — along with the rest of American society — finds itself at a crucial juncture during a tumultuous 2020 highlighted by a worldwide pandemic and a national reckoning with racism.

One of the campus leaders tasked with guiding the university community through the complex thicket of social, cultural, wellness and educational issues is Vice President Jonathan Luke Wood, a longtime fixture at SDSU. The university’s chief diversity officer and a Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Education, Wood was recently selected to lead the newly formed Division of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity.

Wood spoke to Aaron Burgin of News for Aztec Parents about the fall semester and how the university is meeting these issues head-on and ensuring the health and safety of its students.

News for Aztec Parents: What are your goals, and how will this new division improve the student experience at SDSU?

J. Luke Wood: The first goal, of course, always is health and safety. Obviously, we are in the midst of two pandemics. We have our health pandemic, and then we have a racial pandemic. In terms of the health pandemic, it’s about making sure that everything is being done in a way that prioritizes our students’ personal health and safety. So when on campus, it’s about testing, contract tracing, making sure people are aware of social distancing requirements and are wearing PPE. So, that is one part of it.

But then in terms of the second pandemic, it’s about more emotional safety, making sure that students know that they are valued, that they’re cared about, and about providing programming that addresses the issues and concerns that they’re interested in learning more about and talking about. That’s ultimately what we’re here to do: to help people learn, grow and develop, and that oftentimes happens through intentional conversations and programming. We’ve been engaged in lots of conversations and efforts around making sure we are addressing the two pandemics.

NAP: Let’s go back to the “first pandemic” you discussed, COVID-19. What can students do to be successful and what can parents do to best support them?

JLW: For most of our students, they are going to be virtual, and there are expectations that go along with that.

Given that it’s an online setting, we need for individuals to really think about how they learn best, how they best manage their own time and how they’re collaborating with their peers, because it’s going to look a little bit different. But that’s also OK. I think we’ve all learned as part of this pandemic that we can be effective and get high-quality work done and have high-quality experiences, even through virtual modalities. So, embracing this experience as a unique experience that it is and recognizing that it’s not permanent, that it won’t last. Using it as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to develop and to become a better person, and I think that it’s going to require a few things.

One is good management of time. And the second is that there’s going to be pressures that students are going to face. One of the pressures that we have seen is just being able to find a quiet place to be able to do the Zoom for their classes. If there are challenges around resources in terms of computers or Wi-Fi, students need to navigate around those barriers or know that they can come to us, and we can help them to identify the resources and support that they need, such as through our ECRT (Economic Crisis Response Team).

Self-care is also important. One of the things that I’ve heard from a lot of individuals is around feeling stressed, feeling pressure, feeling isolated from others in the community. Think about it: Relationships for incoming university students are built in person with other students and their professors, but now those relationships are being built online. So there’s a need to ensure that you’re being as connected as possible.

The good news is there can be lots of opportunities for it. We’ve set up incredible programming this year. We are making sure that the guest speakers, the events, and the programming provide a high-quality SDSU experience, but it’s only high quality if they engage in that programming.

And for parents, I think realizing that there’s going to be added pressures for your students. It’s important to have conversations with your students about what they’re going through. If there are barriers – helping them to proactively navigate them and also to ensure that they know they can reach out to us.

So part of what I would say for every parent is there’s a lot of information that we put on our websites and that we continue to send out via email. Make sure that you’re looking at that and reviewing it and having an understanding of what you know the expectations are, and know that there are resources to support your student.

And the last thing I would say is just be encouraging. No matter where you go to college, whether it’s in person or online, college is tough. It’s designed to be.

NAP: So now we’re going to talk a little bit about the second pandemic that you mentioned, the pandemic of racism. what do you think that our university has learned about itself and its community in the wake of the George Floyd protests and other social and racial justice protests?

JLW: Well, I think we’ve learned that we are responsive and that we are already doing the work. So let me explain what that means. Before George Floyd there were many others: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner – we could go on down the line. So we recognized long ago that there is a need for us to be committed to diversity and inclusion and having these important conversations around race, around sexual orientation, around gender, around income, and all these different factors. We have a strategic plan for our university that prioritizes this, and that didn’t happen after the George Floyd incident. That happened long before.

The second part is being responsive. After the George Floyd incident, we brought together individuals from our community, and our University Senate passed a resolution that established a new graduation requirement. Every student now who’s going into criminal justice, who will be our future law enforcement officers, they now have required coursework in what is essentially Black lives and policing. This will help them understand some of the dynamics that have led to concerns that have been raised, and what they can do when they are in positions of authority and law enforcement to better engage communities that may be different than what they know.

Following that, on Juneteenth we released a plan to the university that came from the administration saying here are the 10 things, our 10-point plan, about what we’re going to do to better support and advance the holistic well-being of our Black students, faculty, staff and community members. That involved what we’re doing around hiring, looking at our curriculum, and setting up new conferences and programming. And it also involves, for those who will be on campus physically in the future, some physical changes on our campus to demonstrate the diversity of individuals who make up the SDSU community. So, I would say that those would be the two things that we’ve learned; that we’ve been doing the work, and that we are responsive.

The other part of it is that there’s also a need to do a lot more. If we think about where our nation has been, it took us 400 years to get where we are, so it’s going to take us probably a lot more time than one summer to get where we need to be. Ultimately, we recognize that diversity and inclusion is a journey, not a destination. It’s about us all committing to our own growth in these areas to learning about people who are different from ourselves, about putting ourselves in positions to learn where we may feel a bit vulnerable, but it’s in that vulnerability where that real learning happens. It’s in that honesty about how I think about people who are different from me that we really become the individuals that we were meant to be.

 Watch the full interview with Vice President Wood, on YouTube

Published in News for Aztec Parents Fall 2020