When Rebecca Stoltzfus became president of Goshen College in 2018, she spoke in her inaugural address about the unique opportunities that college provides for personal transformation, based on her own experience as a student in the 1980s.“Transformation is not tidy,” she said. “The process of old ideas falling apart is disruptive and chaotic. It usually includes a disconcerting reorientation.”
Three years and one global pandemic later, Stoltzfus — known across campus as “Becky” — has experienced her fair share of disruption, chaos and disconcerting reorientation.
At the beginning of the pandemic, in early 2020, Stoltzfus had been in office for a little over two years. She was up to her neck in multiple integrative planning processes for the college’s future, including an ambitious campus master plan, a strategic plan and a financial plan.
Then, COVID-19 quickly spread across the United States, and the world of higher education began shutting down. At first, Stoltzfus and others were hopeful that as a small campus, GC could get to the end of the semester without closing.
“We saw this thing coming, of course, through the news,” she said, “but we, like many people, had an unfounded faith in the global public health structures and the information structures that kept it at an arm’s length.”
There was a particular day, however, that stood out as a turning point. She realized during a conversation with Ann Vendrely, academic dean, that Goshen College would have to shut down.
“That was a gut-wrenching moment — when you felt like the world was swirling around you.”
After the initial decision was made, there was a whirlwind of other issues to address: financial compensation, academic changes, active SST units and more. Everything else fell to the wayside.
A group of administrators, most of whom would later become a part of the Pandemic Task Force, helped Stoltzfus respond to the crisis. Stoltzfus’ husband, Kevin Miller, who has bachelor’s degrees in biology and nursing and a master’s degree in public health, became the Pandemic Task Force coordinator and the lead contact tracer for the campus.
Although there was no clear path forward, they decided early on to not worry too much about the financial repercussions.
“We just really needed to do what was right for our people,” Stoltzfus said. “We would deal with the financial consequences later. We always put people over dollars.”
As for Stoltzfus, her work became “all encompassing.” She recognized that she wasn’t able to fully take care of herself. She kept herself as well as possible, while realizing that the stress she was experiencing wasn’t sustainable.
“I never let go of work,” she said. “I didn’t sleep well, and it was a distinct feeling of recognizing that I’m out of balance. I’m not in my normal state of health and well-being.”
By the end of the 2020-21 academic year, Stoltzfus was exhausted. Despite her well-honed self-care practices, including tai chi and journaling, she described feeling like a “clenched fist.”
“I was just so clenched through all that last year,” she said, “in terms of hanging onto so many things.”
She knew she needed to “unclench” but she didn’t know quite how to do it. At the end of last July, she finally found her answer.
“I think the real reset for me happened when we finally took a family vacation that had been postponed for a year in Lake Placid in upstate New York,” she said. “There was some release that happened that week, in a place we love and that is very beautiful.”
After a year of collective uncertainty and unrest, mental health worldwide is at a low. Stoltzfus described the pandemic as a “collective trauma,” and said that there is a collective shift happening in the way that we think about work, school, relationships and life. She said that these shifts are especially evident in teens and young adults, and they are happening at GC too.
Stoltzfus also spoke on the increase in multitasking brought on by our increased time spent online.
“It’s not good for anybody,” she said, “and I feel that too in my own behavior and my own quickness to glance at my inbox while I’m in a Zoom meeting. It’s like we are training our minds to be fractured, and that is not good.”
This year, she is trying to focus on one thing at a time.
“I think the gift of our presence and attention is one of the biggest gifts we can give to one another – but even more to ourselves. How do we heal our minds by being present with one another?”
“The emphasis on well-being is really coming to the fore,” she said. It seems to her that the pandemic has awakened the “strong human desire of wanting life to be more than money.”
For her, a liberal arts education is all about integrating professional programs with the humanities. She hopes that despite the societal narrative that would render certain disciplines pointless, like art or philosophy, Goshen College will continue to offer its students a well-rounded education that cares for the whole individual.
She also believes that the pandemic changed the way church works, but she doesn’t believe that is necessarily a bad thing.
“Since the pandemic went and broke every rule about how humans behave,” she said, “I think a return to rules about what church must look like – that’s not what people want at this point. They don’t want a return to things that feel demanding, inflexible, judgmental, abstract and esoteric.”
She believes that communities of faith are called to be present with people in the ways that they need: “human connection and love and dignity and creativity and beauty.” Stoltzfus believes that at its best, church can be a source of deep meaning and belonging.
“I would say for me personally, this year has deepened my faith and my Christian convictions, out of an existential need to use all the resources that I could find,” Stoltzfus said. “I find the person and the theology and the teachings of Jesus to be extremely practical and relevant right now.”
She said she enjoyed the break from church just as much as the next person, but she has thought about how at its core, she likes the idea of church. She embraces church. She believes that if done well, it is something we could all benefit from right now.
“What if a bunch of people would decide to get together, on a regular basis to create beautiful spaces, make beautiful music together, to read sacred texts and poetry and share ideas, and really challenge and encourage each other to be as magnificent and wonderful as they can be? That’s a good idea!” she said, “Let’s do that!”
Despite the many challenges, Stoltzfus has found a way to weather any storm. She often thinks back to a saying she first heard from a close friend.
“When you’re going through hard times, you have to keep a firm hand on the rudder,” she said. “You’re the rudder – You’re the one that sets the direction for the ship. So really, keep a firm hand on yourself.”