President’s Message: We are All Teachers of Life and Class is in Session

The incoming president’s speech at the ACUI 2021 Annual Conference’s was delivered Friday, March 5, by Jeremy Schenk, executive director of Northwestern University’s Norris University Center, during the conference’s closing session.

Opening Land Acknowledgment

Good afternoon, my name is Jeremy Schenk, from Northwestern University, I use he/him pronouns, and I am honored and excited to serve as your president. Please join me in acknowledging the land that the Norris University Center and Northwestern University sits on today. Northwestern is a community of learners situated within a network of historical and contemporary relationships with Native American tribes, communities, parents, students, and alumni. It is also in close proximity to an urban Native American community in Chicago and near several tribes in the Midwest. The Northwestern campus sits on the traditional homelands of the people of the Council of Three Fires, the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa, as well as the Menominee, Miami and Ho-Chunk nations. It was also a site of trade, travel, gathering, and healing for more than a dozen other Native tribes and is still home to over 100,000 tribal members in the state of Illinois. This land acknowledgment is a reflection on the history of this land, how its story was impacted by colonization, and it reminds us to be respectful of our place in that story today.

Welcome & Thanks

Let me continue by recognizing our ACUI Conference Program Team and ACUI Central Office staff, our speakers and presenters, and of course all of you for making these last few days so incredibly special. This has been the largest ACUI event in history, with over 2,932 attendees. We welcomed over 2,047 first time conference attendees to this year’s conference and 1,208 first time attendees to an ACUI meeting or event. For those of you having your first ACUI experience, although it was a virtual conference, the experience you had, the education you learned, and the love for this association you felt, were so real. Thank you again to the Conference Program Team Members and Central Office staff for everything you put into this event ….  we all needed it more than we even knew….      

It is hard to imagine that a year ago we were preparing to gather together for the ACUI Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Conference Program Team, and the ACUI Central Office staff, had worked for 18 months on this incredible experience for us. But within days of the conference beginning, the COVID virus outbreak started to cause parts of the country to shut down resulting in us having to cancel our conference. We quickly began to see the impact this pandemic would have on our students, on our profession, on our colleges and universities; on our Association; and on our lives.

The last year has been hard, really hard. We have all had to navigate so much in our personal and professional lives. We have seen over a half-million deaths in the United States and over 2.5 million deaths around the world due to COVID. We have not been able to visit our loved ones; we have had to maintain social distance; we have had to come up with new and innovative ways to do our jobs. We have had to navigate working from home. We have had to hide our smiles behind masks and send air hugs to those we wished we could embrace. We have seen the racial disparity in the impact this pandemic has had on our most vulnerable and marginalized communities. With the murder of George Floyd, many finally saw what our black and brown friends live daily, the pandemic of systemic racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy culture that grips our communities. In the United States, we have seen our democracy threatened, our republic challenged, and our country divided. It has been a long, hard year.       

After a year of so much pain and loss, it was extremely difficult to think about my comments for today. So like a good student affairs professional, I reached out to several friends and colleagues asking them two simple questions: what should be included in a speech to the association and what do our members need to hear. The feedback I received had several themes: be genuine, be reflective, introduce the association to you and your family, talk about the issues we are facing, provide hope and a vision for where we are going, and the most consistent piece of feedback I received was to do all of this while being brief, as my comments are what potentially stand between you and your weekend. Piece of cake. 

I would like to recognize my family, who without their unending support, their constant encouragement, and their amazing grace, I would not be speaking to all of you today. My wife, Kate, who is the foundation our family is built on, the person who makes it all happen, my best friend, and the love of my life. My children, Timothy, Michela, Josie, and Marcus, who bring me such joy and through whom I see hope for the world we live in. Finally my parents, Bob and Cindy Schenk, who taught me to work hard, to love harder, and to have a servant’s heart.

Early on in my career I fell in love with the college union. In 2004, I was working in the Office of Student Life at Illinois State University (GO REDBIRDS!) when my supervisor, Dr. Jan Patterson, encouraged me to attend the ACUI conference in Washington, DC. I remember walking into the newcomer’s session and being welcomed into this gathering of community builders. I was told that as a volunteer-led association they needed me (all of us) to fully engage with, and lead, the association. I immediately realized that ACUI would be my professional home and I knew I wanted to be a union director. Over the next 17 years my professional journey took me to Missouri State University (GO BEARS!) Virginia Commonwealth University (GO RAMS!), and Northwestern University (GO CATS). I was provided with opportunities to volunteer at regional levels, international levels, serve on our board of trustees, and now to lead our association as president. I credit where I am at today to ACUI because they took my job, and made it into a profession, took my profession and made it into a passion, took my passion and gave me opportunities for it to grow through service back to the association, and they gave me a community … a family of community builders around the world through this amazing association.  Thank you to my team at Northwestern, VCU, MSU, and ISU who supported and encouraged me along the way.

Navigating the Impacts …. Locally and Globally

Over the last year, the ACUI Board of Trustees, under the leadership of one of my best friends, Brenda Evans, along with the Central Office Staff and the entire ACUI Leadership Team, has faced unprecedented challenges many of which were discussed at the business meeting earlier today. But this team faced each challenge head on. We increased our virtual education programs, events, and resources to help our members meet the ever-evolving needs on their campuses. We were determined that not only was our association going to survive this pandemic, we were going to come out of it as a stronger, more engaged, and a more inclusive professional association. We moved forward on creating a new strategic plan with three new strategic guideposts:

  1. Advance campus community through social justice and education to overcome racism and anti-blackness.
  2. Actively engage members and promote the association to ensure the continued success of ACUI. And 3. Identify viable strategic solutions to ensure the financial stability of the association. I would like to thank my friends Hayden Greene and Liz Beltramini for their work leading us through such an important process and for the volunteers and staff on the leadership team who will spend the next year working on goals and annual priorities that will help us move forward as an association.     

Although we may be approaching the end to this pandemic, we are only now just beginning to see the impact this time in our lives will have on the next 10 years of students. Looking at my own kids, over two-thirds of my son Marcus’s time at his elementary school was impacted by virtual learning, two-thirds of my daughter Josie’s middle school years were impacted by virtual learning, and half of my daughter Michela’s high school years were impacted by virtual learning. And like so many others, my son Timothy missed out on his senior year of high school and has experienced a very different freshman year of college. There is no way to know the full impact virtual learning and social isolation will have on this generation of students. I am incredibly thankful for schools and for the teachers who are doing their absolute best for their students, while navigating the impacts this is having on their own lives, they are heroes, and if we as a people don’t re-evaluate their contribution after this, then shame on all of us. But the long-term impact of this isolation will be difficult.

Even more concerning than the impact of virtual learning on this next generation is the lost children of this pandemic. A recent study announced this week by Bellwether Education Partners, a non-profit organization that focuses on underserved communities, estimates that approximately 3 million of the “Most educationally marginalized students in the country” may have been missing from school since March of 2020. Three million at-risk students lost … highlighting the economic disparities and the racial and social injustices of our nation.

This is a global issue. Had we been in New York City today, a little over one mile away from what would have been our conference hotel sits the United Nations building. They installed a new art exhibit this week in their Rose Garden titled the “Pandemic Classroom” highlighting what the U.N. children’s education agency UNICEF calls the “COVID-19 education crisis.” The installation features 168 empty desks, each desk representing one million children living in countries where schools have been almost entirely closed since the onset of lockdowns. With every day that goes by, our children around the world continue to fall further behind and are left feeling isolated and alone.  

My friends. The impacts of all of this does not end with a vaccine. No, quite the opposite. With a vaccine the real work now begins.

ACUI’s Teachers of Life

Now, more than ever, our students need college unions and campus activities offices to become actively involved in creating a community space where no student has to feel alone. This is what our profession was made for. As we begin to return to a new normal this fall, we must ensure that our facilities, our programs, and our services are ready to help build community for a generation of students desperately in need of connection.

Years ago I was sitting at the dining room table with my daughter Michela when she asked, “Daddy, are you a teacher?”, and I replied “No honey, I work in a student union, I manage facilities, I do programs and events, and coordinate volunteer opportunities, do leadership programming, but I am not a teacher.” Michela went on to say “So you are a teacher,” and I replied “No honey, I work in student affairs.” But Michela quickly interrupted me and said “No Daddy, you are a teacher, you are a teacher of life.”  Even today, that moment, that reminder, still causes me to pause and reflect. If ever there was a need for more teachers of life, it is today. So I leave you with that challenge. Our time is now. The importance of community, of connectedness, of equity, of anti-racism, of service, of human worth, of innovation, of joy, of integrity – they are needed on our campuses, and may those experiences we provide on campus ignite a fire within our students, because they are all also needed around the world. We are all teachers of life and class is in session. I am so thankful to be in this moment of time with each of you.

It’s been a fulfilling few days this week and I hope many of you who are new to ACUI feel welcome and stay connected to the Association for the resources and ideas you can gain and share. A year from now, I can’t wait to see you all back, and this time in person in Chicago!