Living Out Our Primary Purpose in Extraordinary Times

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As I write this, more than two months have passed since most students abruptly gathered their gear and drove off. Campus now offers blooming flowers and a still beauty that is simultaneously striking and painfully sad. 

COVID-19 has forced much of the world into new and uncomfortable modes of existence. The most vulnerable among us are hardest hit, and millions are experiencing a precarity that is physically and emotionally exhausting. Within the Davidson community, some feel alone. 

Alumnus and NASA Astronaut Tom Marshburn ’82 recently spoke to a group of students, faculty and staff via Zoom about coping with isolation and loneliness—a project he is leading to help with long-duration spaceflight that, now, has relevance on Earth. Marshburn, who once spent more than 150 days aboard the International Space Station, talked about tiring of the same four walls—at home.

Like nearly every institution, Davidson did not anticipate the transformation we undertook: moving students out of residence halls, cancelling athletic seasons and switching courses to remote learning. Leadership often is defined by crisis, and I remain amazed at how every corner of the Davidson community responded with resolve, compassion and creativity. 

Our professors revamped their classes for remote instruction, with many of them participating in an instructional tech boot camp led by our Center for Teaching & Learning. Faculty members devoted more time for one-on-one mentoring, supplying art materials to students leaving campus, reimagining labs and final projects. Residence Life leaders are using new channels and techniques to reach students and ensure they have the support they need. Facilities teams are maintaining a pristine environment, and the staff in Vail Commons lined the floor in bright blue tape to map out lanes and mark six feet of distance for the students still on campus.

Everyone is reconfiguring what they do with no time to load test it. 

This pandemic rushed in a wave of fear and stress yet to recede, but pillars of Davidson’s mission remain visible. Our humane instincts and creative leadership rise above the anxiety. 

Some of our staff, concerned for their own families, continued to come to campus to care for our students. Others in our community are making and distributing cloth masks and creating instructional materials to help us wear them correctly. And many of you are delivering groceries, supplying food, and donating time and money to sustain those whose lives have been utterly derailed. 

Our alumni ran without hesitation to the front lines. The company alumnus Steve MacMillan leads developed a COVID-19 test on their San Diego campus. Sallie Permar and James Crowe are researching vaccines at their universities in North Carolina and Tennessee. Elyse Hamilton-Childres is helping domestic assault victims in Charlotte find safety at a time of mandated quarantine. Dana Lemon is helping Atlanta families mourn their loved ones when she can’t even hug them. Sami Jarrah is managing the logistics of Philadelphia’s public health response, including standing up a field hospital. 

In all of this, you, the Davidson community, are living out our primary purpose.  

You stand as the evidence of what Davidson people can and will do, even as this pandemic dramatizes the vast extent of the need. 

Davidson’s challenging classes, international immersion, research, athletics and internships educate engaged, knowledgeable, caring citizens prepared for meaningful lives and careers within a broader human community. Collaboration naturally emerges as students develop the ability to communicate effectively, work on teams, navigate unfamiliar circumstances and recover from setbacks. 

Our students live amid a range of perspectives, because our residential setting brings together people from different backgrounds and with different convictions and holds them accountable for building a functional community. It’s an environment that cultivates integrity, self-awareness, empathy, moral courage, intellectual humility and a sense of civic obligation.  

Davidson graduates can see a pandemic from many angles, grasp and imagine its multiple possible trajectories, and come up with ways to combat it. Democratic societies rely on citizens who can imagine multiple possible futures that we can create together. I’m grateful for the contributions of our alumni, students, faculty and staff as they seek solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges and create community from wherever they are.

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About Author

Carol Quillen

Davidson College President Carol Quillen has engaged the college community in reimagining the liberal arts experience within the changing landscape of higher education and an increasingly interconnected world. Quillen became the 18th president of Davidson College on Aug. 1, 2011.

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