Novak: Danger and opportunity during crisis

Amy Novak column sig

Early in my career, one of my mentors shared the Chinese hanzi, or characters, for the word “crisis.” In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One means danger, and the other that means opportunity. This dual meaning of the word in Chinese has offered a lens through which I have begun to view the global COVID-19 pandemic, both personally, and with respect to my leadership role at Dakota Wesleyan University.

News coverage of the COVID-19 virus, from traditional broadcasts to social media, offers an incessant drumbeat of risk and danger. Schools have transitioned to e-learning. Many businesses are shuttering. Citizens across the country are in their third or fourth week of state-mandated restrictions on personal movement. Leaders from medicine, research, business, industry, and government offer guidance in hope of slowing the rate of infection, of flattening the curve. All share the same goal of curtailing the suffering and damage inflicted by this devastating virus.

In times of threat and danger, leaders are called to act with courage and conviction, to review and analyze the evidence in front of us, and to respond in ways that safeguard the common good — the well-being and welfare of our communities. As individuals, we are also called to play our individual roles, to act in ways that prioritize the health and wellbeing of our neighbors and fellow citizens.

This means that most of us have had to forgo activities in which we normally engage in an effort to do our own small part to mitigate the magnitude of impact. These efforts, though seemingly small, nevertheless demonstrate courageous responses to dealing with “danger.”

The other character in the Chinese word for “crisis” is, notably, opportunity. One might ask, what opportunities can emerge from a crisis such as this one? Can crises, particularly those that bring significant suffering with them, ever bring about good? At Dakota Wesleyan University, as well as in my own personal life, I have witnessed a variety of efforts to respond to this crisis in ways that have created opportunities, a variety of actions that have enabled us to more boldly and courageously support our coworkers, our neighbors, and our fellow citizens.


Over the course of the past few weeks, Dakota Wesleyan University faculty — rather than bemoaning what represented, essentially, an overnight transition to a new virtual teaching modality — quickly adapted and leveraged the university’s DigitalDWU initiative to move all face-to-face courses into an online format.

Perhaps even more impressive, however, were the efforts of faculty and staff members to reach out to students. This outreach was motivated by a genuine concern for the health and wellbeing of our students and their families, many of whom now found themselves dispersed across the country and globe. Our mental health counselor made individual calls to check on the well-being of students and staff.

Coaches engaged in virtual strength and conditioning sessions or simply reached out to their student athletes to share time with one another. The Student Life staff boxed up the belongings of students from distant locations and sent special care packages to families in need. All of these actions represented ways of expressing the university’s strong sense of community and family that had been so suddenly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A lot has transpired in the past month. Students have gone home. Sports seasons and theatrical productions have been cancelled. Commencement activities have been postponed. And, while I feel a deep sadness that for our graduating seniors who will not experience the rituals and rhythm of their senior spring semester on campus, I also find myself heartened by the seniors who have quickly shifted their focus and reframed their collegiate experience from one of culmination, to one of journey.

These seniors continue to mentor and support younger students using virtual tools, they offer support to peer’s through participation in virtual juried recitals, some are distributing food, some have formed prayer circles, others are offering services in support of medical personnel, and some have sent handwritten notes of gratitude to faculty, staff, and administrators. For these students, graduation has already ceased to be an end or a finish line, and has been embraced, instead, as a beginning.

These seniors, perhaps the majority, are already looking through and beyond the COVID-19 crisis and embracing new opportunities to use their education as a vehicle of compassion and caring in a world in desperate need of hope.

Friends, amid danger, I am comforted by the multitude of ways in which our students, faculty, staff, and members of Mitchell and our country have embraced this crisis as an opportunity. As we move forward, may we continue to offer our hands and our hearts, our kind words and our compassionate engagement, to one another. As Coretta Scott King aptly asserted, “Let us remember that the greatness of our community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.”

This, friends, is our opportunity.

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