An Alternative to Returning to “Normal” – Centering Wellness
By: Stephanie Neary, MPA, MMS, PA-C & Renée Kamauf, EdD
The COVID-19 crisis impacted the educational world, causing programs to transition swiftly into online formats for lectures, workshops, and conferences. The COVID-19 crisis included over 600,000 Americans dying from COVID-19 and countless others permanently affected by the pandemic, all of which has taken a mental toll over the past 16 months. The transition to online events meant missing out on networking sessions and social outings as part of conference events that we all enjoy. However, for the first time, we didn’t have to choose between our professional and personal lives. It took a pandemic, the world shutting down, to level the playing field for us trying to climb the academic ladder.
We understand that we are writing this from a position of incredible privilege and understand that others have faced insurmountable challenges over the course of this pandemic. Our perspective is coming from a place of recognizing that “normal” was contributing to burnout among educators and students, and we’ve now seen a different path forward.
We want to share how we found value in virtual environments and press for national organizations like AAPA and PAEA to consider continuing making virtual features an option to promote equity (i.e., cost reduction to increase participation and less extended time traveling) and individual well-being. We want to make a pitch to consider an alternative future – a future where educators do not have to sacrifice their professional development for their personal lives. For the first time in our careers, as parents, we were able to present our research online and attend professional development opportunities virtually without making family sacrifices to participate.
Over these past 16 months, we were both able to expand our families and participate in numerous conferences and professional development opportunities. While there are inherent benefits to the social and networking aspects of in-person events, travel to multiple conferences and professional development meetings each year requires an intricate balance of family, personal, work, and financial balance for faculty and staff. Some may call this the normal stress of balancing any job while raising children, but in a job where promotion is dependent on scholarship, we think it’s different and it caters to those who are privileged. It caters to those who are able to travel, who have family who can step in and help, who have additional funds to cover child care while they are away. Extensive travel requirements further the divide between faculty as budgets vary dramatically between institutions. Faculty in smaller programs are often left choosing only one event to attend or left using their own funds to pursue additional opportunities; eliminating the cost of travel directly increases access to scholarship for all faculty.
Balancing travel requirements with having a young family has continuously been a limiting factor on what opportunities we could pursue but with the shift to virtual this past year, suddenly all opportunities were available to us, not just those that required the least travel. We were able to present research at numerous conferences both nationally and internationally, participate in fellowship meetings, and one of us even began a PhD all from our home offices. We were able to do this while still picking our kids up per usual. For the first time, none of it required saying ‘no’ because we were pregnant in our third trimester, caring for a newborn, flying family members to watch children in hotels, paying babysitters, or the added marital stress of shifting schedules and responsibilities.
While we made the adjustment to alter our learning environments over this past year, we believe we should pause and reflect on re-opening in ways that center the wellness and mental well-being of PA educators and students and make professional development opportunities equally accessible for all individuals. As we begin to work on reopening plans, we found ourselves as two scholars that study wellness and inclusion reflecting on areas we might want to maintain virtually versus in person.
While most of this is written from the perspective of parenthood, this isn’t the only contributing factor. For most PAs and PA educators, our work is not the only responsibility we have in our lives. Whether it be working a second job, holding a caregiver role, community involvement or anything in between, the requirement to travel for professional development directly limits participation in scholarship. Discussions of burnout and diversity have dominated the PA education space over the past few years; we are at the point where we get to rewrite what the future of scholarship in our profession looks like. Let’s write it in a way that reduces the emotional, financial, and time burden on individuals and opens doors for individuals who are continuing to overcome tremendous obstacles in academia. Additionally, online events provide cost savings to PA programs in a time when higher education institutions are struggling financially.
We are not minimizing the benefits of in-person events for networking and socialization. However, we are writing this to call attention to the fact that holding in-person only events limits participation for educators due to a plethora of issues. While many people are eager to return to in-person gatherings, more people should recognize that there are professional and personal benefits to continuing to host events virtually. If returning to “normal” means continuing to sacrifice our family time, financial status, and mental and emotional health, let’s create a new normal. We can do better for our wellbeing and professional growth. It is clear the old “normal” did not serve our profession, so let’s change it.