Release Date: 
Monday, June 21, 2021

HFC leaders write about pandemic stress in latest issue of “Perspectives”

Headshots of Chardin Claybourne and Lori Gonko.
Chardin Claybourne, left, and Lori Gonko, right.

Dr. Lori Gonko, HFC Vice President of Strategy and Human Resources, and Chardin Claybourne, HFC Lead Faculty, Learning Lab and Tutoring Services, recently had articles published in Perspectives, the official newsletter of the Doctorate in Community College Leadership program at Ferris State University.

Read the articles here   (PDF, pages 2 and 3)

Gonko is an instructor in the DCCL program, as well as an alumna. Claybourne will graduate from the DCCL program in 2022.

“It was great to be featured with Lori and to represent HFC in the same issue of Perspectives,” said Claybourne.

Both wrote about post-pandemic psychological stress and its impact on students, faculty, and staff as they eventually return to an in-person classroom and work settings. They address the question: “What can community college leaders do to begin to meet this growing stress-related challenge?”

“I’m honored to be represented in the same publication as Chardin,” said Gonko. “His article was extremely well written and presents many great ideas for supporting our entire HFC community post-pandemic.”

Increasing the lines of communication in the pandemic, boosting morale

DCCL faculty asked Gonko to write about supporting College staff through the pandemic, and how to continue to support them. She remembers when the early days of the coronavirus pandemic when things were changing in big ways on an hourly basis. She and fellow Cabinet members would be in meetings several times a day to address the effects of the pandemic, only to have the protocols they were about to implement become obsolete by the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.

“I have always been a person who is analytical, who plans ahead, and who is anxious to see results quickly,” said Gonko. “While none of these traits are bad, they can leave little room for the softer side of leadership, if you aren’t careful. The ever-shifting reality of the pandemic taught me to be more patient, to embrace the unknown, and to be more flexible. Most importantly, it taught me to spend more time talking to my colleagues – really talking to them – about life and how they are feeling.”

What has made Gonko’s job easier during a difficult time is the HFC team members in Strategy and Human Resources who have supported her efforts to keep morale up in the midst of the pandemic.

“As I attempt to lift them up, they do the same for me,” she said. “Communication has been our most important tool in keeping up morale, followed by humor. We communicate often and in multiple ways, including casual chats in Teams and texts. We always find good news to share, whether personal or work-related, and laugh together in just about every meeting.”

“The pandemic was a reminder that my profession and workplace have granted me privileges that others are not afforded,” said Claybourne. “While I experienced periods of heightened stress during the pandemic, it was not comparable to the challenges faced by many people, including numerous HFC students. This has informed much of my work outside of the Learning Lab to support student success beyond the classroom. As a College, we must continue to work intentionally to close existing equity gaps, which were widened because of the pandemic’s effects.”

Promoting good mental health and reducing stress

As HFC slowly returns to an in-person campus for faculty, staff and students, Gonko and Claybourne discussed some of the changes they will implement in their respective areas to promote good mental health and reduce stress when we create the “new normal.”

“I would like to increase collaboration and socialization by giving my teams more autonomy. I’d like to empower them to identify issues, work together to develop solutions, and then execute those proposed solutions as a team. I also feel that people collaborate best when they can play to their strengths. As such, we’ve been shifting around some roles and responsibilities in ways that encourage people to exercise their talents and skills. While this work is ongoing, so far it has resulted in greater engagement and collaboration among teammates,” said Gonko.

Added Claybourne: “Talking with individuals, listening intently, and learning how I can be supportive of their needs, especially as we adjust to another change (returning to campus), is critical. In the future, I’d like to have a retreat or workshop where the topics of mental health, stress, and total wellness are addressed by professionals. We don’t discuss these topics nearly enough.”

In her article, Gonko stated that leaders have the opportunity to “rewrite the narrative of our environments in ways that support employees’ emotional and mental well-being. We have the opportunity to rethink even the smallest parts of our daily experiences and create a new reality for our teams.” She spoke about her plans for doing that.

“COVID-19 really forced us out of our comfort zones and required us to adopt new methods of communication, to become better listeners, and to just be kinder to ourselves and each other. These seemingly little things go a long way toward supporting emotional and mental well-being and are lessons that I plan to carry with me into the post-pandemic workplace,” she said. “I also think we need to encourage candid conversations about emotional and mental health and remove the stigma of asking for assistance. In Strategy and Human Resources, I’d like to normalize the phrase, ‘I need help,’ and let people know that asking for assistance a sign of strength and not weakness.”

Facing the challenge(s) ahead in the “new normal”

Managing the expectations of HFC students, faculty, and staff is a top priority, according to Claybourne. It will also be a challenge.

“HFC can assist with this transition by having clear, consistent, timely messaging. It may take multiple exposures in various media to communicate to everyone about the changes of our new environment, and this applies to both students and employees. Teams of dedicated people have been working on plans for a gradual return to on-campus work for those who have been working remotely,” said Claybourne. “There’s an opportunity for HFC to come out of this pandemic a stronger community college, more in tune with its mission, vision, and values. It will be interesting to see where we go from here.”

As the campus opens up, colleagues who haven’t seen one another in more than a year will naturally want to converse.

“If employees are eager to converse and reconnect with coworkers upon returning to campus, I think that is healthy, and I don’t think it will be a problem or abused; we have to offer a degree of latitude. I believe most people are professionals and will conduct themselves accordingly,” said Claybourne.

Gonko agreed.

“We have been starved for human interaction over the last 15 or so months,” she said. “Even though we have seen each other virtually, it will be quite different to be back in the same space physically. While that may lend itself to more socializing, I think we will be fine if we all remain focused on our mission and serving students.”

Claybourne is confident that College is ready to meet whatever challenges await as team members and students return to an in-person environment in the “new normal.”

“I choose to believe we will be ready, we will not rush our decisions, and we will not allow hubris to stop us from returning to remote operations if conditions call for such an action. I have the pleasure of working with some great people at HFC. I know they are resilient,” he said. “This isn’t the first crisis the College has weathered. If our administration, faculty, and staff are in concert, it becomes a more manageable process to inform and guide our students. This is an occasion to show how we can pull together during a time of adversity.”