“In one word, write down how you are feeling right now.”  

This was how I started each class over the last month at the two different universities where I teach.   

Students were encouraged not to use terms already added to the zoom chat by another student. Some results were predictable.  Anxious, tired, afraid, nervous, unsure – always made the list. More practical needs were also expressed – allergic, hungry – as were, albeit more rarely,  the aspirational – hopeful, grateful.

This simple exercise created an opening to a dialogue that put that day’s lesson in its proper context.   

Some students were waking up at 3:00AM to join class from South Korea or China – often having internet issues, especially when they were in state ordered quarantine, separated from their family.  Others were experiencing loss on all scales – from their jobs to their homes to the lives of loved ones.

Last week every one of them finished their final projects – which was the focus of their semester’s work and the culmination of their education. As all would now enter or return to a very uncertain job market.

In watching them approach the finish line, we emphasized not grades but finding satisfaction and taking pride in what they were able to accomplish under spectacularly difficult circumstances.  Intrinsic, not extrinsic, value was the currency of our courses.

If they asked me to write down how I was feeling after having reviewed their final papers and presentations, I would have had to choose from proud, impressed, respect. 

But ultimately I think I would have written “optimistic.”

You see each of them had been working on projects that in one shape or another would improve the lives of others – addressing issues ranging from mental health, grief alleviation, prison jobs programs, sustainability, child hunger, education, mentoring, financial literacy, green jobs programs and so on and so on. It would have been understandable if the present conditions would have led to cynicism and doubt. Instead, and despite their daily feelings and realities, their projects were driven by hope and a confidence that they could make a difference in their world.

It is so important that we take the time to speak and share our feelings – and to create the space for doing so. It is a necessary prerequisite for moving forward.  Once freed from holding them in – what can come out next is often powerful.

So how are you feeling right now?  And what will you be doing next?

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