photograph of young people partying as the sun goes down
"People celebrate at a party on a tropical island" by Rawpixel (via depositphotos)

Higher education was one of the first institutions to start making changes in light of COVID-19. As a senior at DePauw University, being told that I had to leave campus for the rest of the semester felt abrupt and heartbreaking. There was nothing that I wanted less then to move back home, away from my friends, professors, and coworkers. Yet, it was evident that this pandemic has created obligations in the form of sacrifice from all of us, and this, I could understand. Equally as important, what I have come to realize, is the major disconnect between the goals of higher education and the reality of student conduct.

As college students, we have been bombarded with messages from our institutions, political leaders, health authorities, our parents, social media, and others about the need to engage in social distancing. All of these messages came in light of many college’s spring breaks. As a result, I watched my friends translate messages of “social distancing,” into “social distancing but on a beach” or “at a bar.” A poll done by College Reaction from about 1,000 college students around the country, reported that more than half of college age students still have gone out to bars, parties, restaurants, or social gatherings in the past week. This shows that the many messages we have been told about social distancing and flattening the curve are not resonating in a way that promotes action.

One of the most noteworthy representations of this attitude is from a CBS News video of a spring breaker on national television saying, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” CDC research says that young Americans are not the ones most at risk, but are still very much affected by COVID-19. While their cases are not normally acute, as carriers they can still transmit the virus to at-risk populations. The decision to close schools, for example, may reduce the infection rate by 25% and delay the peak of the infection by an estimated two weeks. This precious time might help ensure that our health care systems are not overburdened. Unfortunately, the true impact of those who dismiss the orders for social distancing will probably never be known. John Branch from the New York Times says, “The most dismissive are mostly young, freed from the structures of school and work, perhaps new to the concept of social responsibility.”

This is where our generation needs to improve: social responsibility. “Personal responsibility and social responsibility,” says an article by the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AACU) “involve the moral obligation to both self and the community, and both forms of responsibility rely upon such virtues as honesty, self-discipline, respect, loyalty, and compassion.” This responsibility can take many forms. It is within ourselves to start social distancing. Go home from the beach, don’t go out to bars, and stay home for the time being. It means holding your friends accountable for their actions. This means not accusing our friends of failure, but having productive conversations about the impact of our actions and giving credible resources for references. Social media, like Snapchat, has recognized their unique opportunity to influence the millennial and Gen Z generations who are not taking the situation seriously. They have added reliable resources about COVID-19 within their “Here for You” tool and have launched a filter with advice on how to stay safe. All of these actions are reactionary, but nonetheless important to making a difference. However, what we also need to start considering are the ways in which we can be proactive for times of crisis in the future, starting within our very institutions.

There is irony in the fact that a population obtaining higher education degrees are the ones at fault. Reported by the AACU, “A recent study looking at 331 mission statements from top-ranked colleges and universities suggests that one-third of the campuses currently address values, character, ethical challenges, and/or social justice in their mission statements.” Our colleges and universities have so much influence on how the youth respond, not only for COVID-19 but for future dilemmas that arise at any level – worldwide or within an individual community. But, Richard Hersh and Carol Geray Schiner write, “Educating for academic skills alone is not sufficient to prepare graduates with moral and civic commitment.” The very skills that a dilemma like this calls for are the ones gained from ethics education.

Ethics education within the college setting will help prepare current students and graduates with the skills to move forward in times like today. It’s a way to teach people how to handle questions that don’t have easy answers, and it provides the tools to communicate the motivations and reasons behind our actions. It helps students engage in difficult conversations and have productive dialogue. These skills are lifelong, not only helping people live consistently by their values, but creating better leaders. 90% of students say that they are concerned about transmitting the virus to the elderly and immunocompromised population, and yet less than half of surveyed college students report staying in. If institutions implement, increase, and improve the ethics education provided to their students, it will be a proactive way to prepare for future crises like COVID-19.

The current global health emergency is eye-opening in regards to the disconnect between how people think and react. The downtime that many of us are experiencing should not be read as an opportunity to gather with friends. Instead, the current crisis requires that we realize our social and moral responsibilities and the need to act on them. To this end, I hope our institutions will take this time to improve the way we socially educate and equip us with the tools to respond to challenges like what we are faced with today and what we may be faced with in the future.