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Frances Lyons: 'We're still kind of learning as we go'

Frances Lyons working from Assistant Dean for Student Services Frances Lyons has played a critical role in helping the School of Journalism safely reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an adviser, Lyons has been helping students with the mental health issues they may be facing during this crisis, helping students enroll and prepare for their next semesters, and helping them navigate the choppy waters of post-graduation plans in an unstable economy. She has done all of this while also facing the uniquely challenging task of working from home and raising her own three young children.

Lyons’ workload has intensified because of the pandemic, but she’s also had to reflect on her own emotions surrounding COVID and her growing worries that “back to normal” may be years away. Her team at KU stayed connected and worked hard to help each other out, which gives her hope that KU can be better in a seemingly out-of-reach post-pandemic world.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Emma Bascom: This is Emma Bascom. Today is Nov. 4, 2020. I'm interviewing Francis Lyons for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. So, Francis, going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit? Where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Frances Lyons: Well, when I first learned about the pandemic, I was actually working with students who were studying abroad and we were getting information in bits and pieces, and it was very much becoming a reality that there was, you know, we've been hearing about the pandemic for a while, but now it was actually starting to affect my work and the students that I work with. And so my initial reactions were just a lot of uncertainty, you know, hearing about the students that are going to be coming back into the U.S. because of the concerns and trying to figure out how to help them, trying to figure out how to partner with the study abroad office and all of that. And I remember having a meeting with Dean Brill and some other leadership and just kind of discussing what we were hearing, and it was very interesting because everything was moving so quickly that I think I was hearing things maybe even a little bit sooner than some other people, just because of my work with students in that particular world.

And so everything was very uncertain. We were also, I think, just very, I guess, maybe scared – at least, I felt maybe that way myself because it was – because it was so uncertain and we were moving into territory that we had never been in before. When I actually heard that KU was closing, I think it was in phases. At one point, I remember being at home, you know, reading an email and then still continuing to go into the office though, because at that point we were just going to have the extended spring break and students were going to, you know, have their classes moved online, but temporarily. When I actually saw that we were going to be not coming back at all, I remember I was home for sure, for that moment and reading that email and then all the thoughts of what does this mean? I need to connect with my team. I need to connect with Dr. Reinardy, my supervisor, and start making a plan.’

Emma Bascom: So, how has this semester been different when you compare the spring semester with the pandemic to the fall semester with the pandemic?

Frances Lyons: I would definitely say that the fall semester has been more stable and predictable in that we had time to plan for it. The spring, everything was changing so quickly that we were adapting policy at the university level and trying to communicate that to students. And that policy actually changed a couple times while we were in the middle of it. And so our message changed and it was very much every day, you never really knew what was going to happen in that spring semester. So then comparing that to what we're going through right now, I would say that – at least the work that I do – while we've had to adapt our work that we do, we're still doing the same things in that we're meeting with students, trying to serve them in the ways that we always have through advising and career services and recruitment, but the way in which we're doing that is different.

But at least I know at this point what to expect. I know that, right now, students are enrolling for classes. And prior to that, we went through admissions cycles and we, you know, do all the things that we typically do. And then the fact that we were able to plan for classes in the summer in that late summertime for what's happening right now, I think that it made everybody just feel a little bit more confident going into the fall – that even though things are still very uncertain around us, at least we have an idea of what to do first. And then we have back-up plans if that first plan doesn't work or needs to change. So it's–it's felt better, but I will say that everything takes longer with how we're doing things right now, but that's, I think, to be expected when you're working in a virtual environment.

Emma Bascom: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Frances Lyons: I would say the biggest challenge is just thinking through all the different ways that this affects our students and how we can support them. But yet it also feels like, at times, that we're limited in – and by that, I mean from an advising lens in a career services lens, primarily. So I think that we, as you know, we hear about the concerns that students may have, and that goes beyond potentially even just their classes, but just how they're managing through the pandemic, how they're dealing with stress and all those sorts of things, and the resources are still available to them on campus. They themselves have gone through change, such as tutoring services and virtual – mental health services are virtual. I mean, lots of things like I mentioned are still there, but they just look different. And so still trying to figure out how can we connect students to those things, knowing that they're also feeling a little fatigued by most of their life being in a virtual environment?

And also, I would say from the career services perspective, for example, we had a career fair last week, and it was an entirely virtual event. And so that was a completely new endeavor,  trying to decide, first of all, what was the best way to connect students with employers, figuring out a platform to support that, working with a vendor, companies had to sign up differently, students had to sign up differently. And so we very much are committed to still having those opportunities for students, but we're using technologies that we've never used before. And again, we're still kind of learning as we go.

Emma Bascom: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Frances Lyons: My workload has intensified, that's for sure, as I think it has for most everyone – that I work with at least. And I say that because we're just being very intentional with how we deliver our services right now. And–and I think that that just takes more time to kind of think through problems. And it's not as organic as it has been in the past. So, for example, if my team were in our offices and we're noticing an issue that is coming up in a certain day or over the course of a week, we can address it together right there. And we walk out of our offices and we start having a conversation about it. And then we usually have a way to either resolve it or move forward, at least have a next step. And that takes a little different form right now.

I mean – we could, we still communicate with each other, but I think some of those things that we might have handled as a team, we're trying to handle individually, and that just feels a lot different for myself and for the people that I work with. And you know, I just think we're trying to be very purposeful with our time, like scheduling times to connect with each other, scheduling time to connect with our students. And so the workload, I guess just feels like things are probably a little bit more scheduled than usual. And I will say that, because of all the changes, there's been work that we've done that we've had to completely scrap and redo again. And so and–and that's just the nature of how it all goes. You don't know what's going to work, but we've definitely put in a lot of time, for instance, with, you know, scheduling or planning protocols or things like that, that then had to adjust. And so you're maybe not all the way back to square one, but you're definitely going a couple steps back and redoing things before you can move forward again.

Emma Bascom: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Frances Lyons: I think at first, like I might've mentioned in the beginning, I personally had a fair amount of fear just in thinking about the work that I do, but also honestly my personal life as well, and just what that meant for me. And I have three children who are young. They're all in elementary school now, but last year I had one in day care and two in elementary school, and so it was thinking about not only my work, but now that my home and work are colliding because my kids never went back to school after spring break either. Where I live, they closed the school, which, in Kansas, happened across the state. And so we were all together. So that fear of just kind of keeping them safe not really knowing where, you know, I think I'm thinking back, I haven't really thought about this, but, you know, thinking about even with kind of the shortages that we saw in supplies that people needed and just kind of that panic, I definitely felt that as well.

Over time, though, I think that hearing more about best practices and seeing some of those best practices, such as masking, the social distancing and all the things that we know can help mitigate the spread of the virus has helped me in my work life, feel better about the decisions that were made. And also obviously in my personal life, too. So, I think that I'm still, you know, I still am, I'm hopeful that we can get back to a place where, you know, we can kind of resume campus life, how students had before the pandemic. But I have realized that that is going to take a lot more time than I probably initially thought it would. When I heard people say 18 months to two years when it first started, I thought, ‘Oh, really? That's a long time.’ And now I'm starting to see that.

Yes, that's probably likely and emotionally, I think, you know, I've had my ups and downs and definitely second guessing, like I said, decisions that we've made as an office, as a school, as a university. But that's kind of who I am. I'm a thinker, I'm a worrier anyway, just by personality. So, I have tried to just take things a day at a time. I try to tell my students that I work with. I try to tell my children that, and my husband and our family just – we can't control what's happening around us right now, but we can control how we feel about it. And we can control this moment, at least, and the choices that we make.

Emma Bascom: How have your interactions with students changed since the pandemic began?

Frances Lyons: Definitely an uptick in email traffic from students, and at the same time this, well, every – all of our appointments have now moved to either phone or Zoom, and that started in March. And so I have not physically met with students since spring break, when we still had students who were kind of coming on campus to maybe, you know, maybe they were still there and they hadn't left. And so they still had appointments on their calendar and that sort of thing. So, we definitely have had virtual interactions. And, like I said, email has definitely been a way in which I think students are more comfortable reaching out right now. In some cases, they might have quick questions or what they perceive to be quick questions, which actually aren't always that and take a lot more time to talk through. But I just think, convenience-wise, we are trying our best to really meet students where they are.

And if they want to talk to us, they know we're here. We have drop-by advising. We have our regular scheduled appointments, those things that we do. But we also have students that we know aren't really necessarily ready to engage in a conversation with us, and that's okay, too. You know, eventually we will touch base with them when they're ready, and when they're ready to, for instance, like right now, when they're ready to enroll for spring classes, but also trying to give students space and just let them know that we know they have a lot that they're working through emotionally and academically and, you know, all the other phases in between, but we're here to support them. And whenever they're ready to-to work with us, they can, they can reach out.

Emma Bascom: So, as an advisor, you’ve worked with students who are facing mental health challenges a lot since the pandemic. Have you seen an upswing in students who are facing those anxieties, that depression? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Frances Lyons: Absolutely. So, you know, my advising team we’re – we’re wonderful -- I don't know if I should say that -- but we're not mental health counselors. And so what we typically will see is students presenting what I would say are behaviors or just in the conversations that we have with them that I think we recognize as being mental health concerns, but maybe that student doesn't recognize. And so we walk a pretty fine line between, you know, we're not trying to diagnose students. We're not trying to necessarily pinpoint what exact emotion that they're feeling and how that affects them academically. But we are seeing a lot more students identify to us that they have increased stress. They have trouble coping, anxiety, sadness, feeling of loss, all of those things. And that could be related to, you know, medical issues in their life, that could be related to students who maybe are here for the first time.

And this college experience is not quite what they expected. And so we help them try to label that. Like I said, we're not diagnosing, but helping them label that. Yeah, those things that you have mentioned to me are not frivolous. Those are important, and those are real feelings that you have and just help them kind of think about how are they working through some of those in their life? And if they aren't necessarily identifying that they have come up with, kind of, tools to help them, that's where we can say, have you thought about seeking out a mental health counselor to maybe share some of the feelings that you're having, or have you thought about connecting with HOPE@CAPS, which is more of a kind of peer listening group and just let them know that those things are out there if they're in Lawrence and - or even if they're, well, if they're primarily, if they're kind of in Lawrence or in the area, and if they're not in the area, then help connect them with resources where they are at the moment.

We've tried to ask our incoming students, or we have asked them just some general questions like how do they reduce stress and tell us about how they make big decisions and those sorts of things. So, as advisers, that we can kind of see what they do and how they react to various scenarios and get a sense of what they view as stressful situations. And then we can maybe walk them through those next steps. But definitely we're seeing students, I think, as I mentioned, say things and act in ways that are showing us that they have some struggles. And even if they're not able to put words to what they're feeling, I think that the pandemic has taken a toll on mental health for our students.

Emma Bascom: For sure. How do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Frances Lyons: Proud of how we came together. I'll start with my team that I work with and go from there. So, I remember when we were in the office and it was - it was KU’s spring break, and so things were pretty quiet, but we were still there. And we were, at that point, where we were planning for a remote week. At that point, we thought we're just going to be remote for a week because things were starting to get a little more -- it became clear that, you know, the provost was sending out more messages. We were getting more kind of recommendations to de-densify campus, at least those early, you know, those early emails. And so we had made that decision. And so everyone was coming together and figuring out, OK, who needs a laptop, who needs to go to the resource center, get a laptop to take home?

How do you connect into our files that we use once you're home? How do you use Zoom? We had never used Zoom. So we practiced using Zoom with each other in our office and just little things like that. And I remember going home that Friday and kind of having this emotional release of, OK, you know, we don't know what Monday is going to bring that next week, that next month, but I felt like our team had enough to get by for that time. And I just remember feeling a lot of gratitude for everyone's willingness to be flexible and to be adaptable and kind of be brave in that moment for each other and for the students. And then, over time, as, again, we learned that we would be spending more time working remotely. I just felt really proud of how the J-school responded to that and supported each other and our students.

For instance, we started surveying our students maybe a week or so after we learned that we would not be coming back - or maybe it was actually even in the same week and just getting - taking the temperature of how are they doing, how are they coping with this? What do they need? You know, we were - it's still unbelievable to me. You know, Cade would go into the school and he would deliver technology to students if they couldn't make it to campus, or at least make it available if they could come to campus. I mean, that going above and beyond to help our students get what they needed in that very unique time. You know, and that's just one example of, I think, our staff just doing everything they could to make the best of the situation.

But, you know, like I said, we just, I think we all came together, and I think we recognized early on that we needed to keep talking to each other because I think once you leave a building, you're kind of naturally inclined to maybe isolate a little bit and just focus on what you're trying to do, but I applaud Dean Brill and I applaud Dr. Reinardy, my supervisor, because they really kept us connected. And we established work groups to look at problems, policies, and we, you know, kind of really - we had Heather out there who was offering to help faculty with moving their courses online and just the different technology and ways that she could help.

And, you know, other faculty that had had experienced teaching online classes were helping each other and I'm not faculty, so I wasn't necessarily directly involved in those things, but it just, to me, felt really great to hear about that. And to sometimes even see that in action, of everyone just pulling together the best they could, when we all know that everyone was also stressed and trying to work their way through their own responsibilities, much less help other people at the same time.

Emma Bascom: How has the pandemic changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU as a whole?

Frances Lyons: Gosh, you know, I would say that I've worked at four other places on campus. Well, sorry, three other prior to the J-school. And I don't know if it -- I don't know exactly what to attribute this to. I mean, I obviously can attribute a lot of this to leadership within the school, but we really have been, in my opinion, a very student-centered professional school from the minute I started working there five years ago. And I think what the pandemic has done is, I guess, has probably just reinforced that. And so, you know, some of the examples that I gave previously about just surveying students to find out what they need and then reaching out to students individually, if they identified that they're either in crisis or need help in, you know, taking the time to say, we saw that, how can we help you?

And then whatever they said, we tried to do the best we could to help them. I think that it was interesting to see how faculty were able to adapt classes, especially, of course, the obvious ones are, like, those in-person classes. How did they make it so that students could still get an experience that was valuable and met the learning outcomes for that class, but maybe in a way that we never thought we could do that in the past? And so, what that could mean for the school in the future? I don't know, but what it could mean is that we -- it just kind of opens the doors to maybe a little bit more maybe creativity or just having different opportunities available for students, incorporating those into classes that maybe we didn't even think about before. And, from an advising lens, I will definitely say that the virtual advising appointments that we've had, you know, we've always had phone appointments, but those are - those are tricky.

At least having Zoom and being able to see someone and see how they're reacting to what you're saying and kind of developing some rapport with them virtually, I anticipate that some form of that will stick around. I think students also probably like that convenience of being able to hop on for something like that, especially if they're, you know, in a tight spot and they need to be somewhere very quickly. And so they don't have to necessarily have the travel time and all those sorts of things. But I guess to summarize, I really see it just - I think we would be remiss if we didn't take time to really reflect back on everything that we've learned during this and try to take those best practices from the pandemic and see what we can apply to the J-school.

Emma Bascom: Long-term, how do you think KU will be better from everything that's happened?

Frances Lyons: You know, similarly, KU has shown me that they - it can be, I'm not sure if I should say it or they, but that it can be. And the people within KU can be adaptable and decisions can be made pretty quickly compared to maybe what I've seen in the past. I've witnessed, like I mentioned before, policy changes happen within a matter of weeks when, in other times, might have taken six months to get through a process. I've seen, you know, so there's those sorts of things. I've seen processes move online, which I think is fabulous. There's some processes that definitely needed to move online and this kind of forced them to in some ways. And so I just imagine that we'll keep getting better and we can keep thinking about leveraging technology to our advantage for some of those things that don't need to be on paper or can be recorded in a different way.

So I'm excited about some of those pieces that can maybe make the work that we do just a little bit more - maybe efficient isn't the right word, but just maybe act, maybe make access better, I guess is what I'll say, make it more accessible for students and staff and faculty. And, you know, I think, hey, you will probably come out of this also feeling a sense of community because I would say - I'm not a psychologist, but I would say that, probably, when there's times of crisis or just a major upheaval, and you're able to continue connections with each other and kind of work through something together, I imagine that that forges a sense of community and a feeling of connectedness. And so, as an institution, I am hopeful that we'll kind of keep building on that. That's already happened because of the pandemic and really recognize the unique roles that we all play to make KU great. Students, staff, faculty, all of us have a voice and all of us are needed and necessary. And just, I hope we don't forget that because we couldn't have made it this far through something so challenging if we didn't all come together and really work hard to do our best.

Emma Bascom: What advice would you give someone a hundred years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Frances Lyons: Well, I would say to be prepared to be patient and flexible, and be prepared for a lot of uncertainty. I have this moment when I was in my office, going back to kind of that last week we were there. And I remember meeting with one of my staff members, one of my team. And I think I used the word - I think you said something like, well, this'll be an interesting blip in time. And I think back to how naive I was about that. That was definitely, that's... This is not a blip. This is, I mean, in the grand scheme of time, yes. But again, just that thought of 18 months really is that -- is that what people are predicting and now seeing the reality of that. So I guess I would just tell people that pandemic is not a word that I don't think is tossed around lightly. And so it's definitely kind of be ready to just take things day by day.

Like I was saying before, I think that and another, I guess, advice like something actually practical would be in these times that collaboration with other people in your work is going to be so important because no one knows what to expect and no one has this crystal ball. And I think just realizing that you have to surround yourself with other people who are willing to put in the work and willing to try to figure out how to move through the situation. I think that together you're definitely stronger than you are by yourself trying to work through this. So my advice would be to surround yourself with people and don't try to make it through that time alone. And whether that's in your work life or professional life, or – sorry - work life or personal life, I think that that's really been important to me, personally. And I've seen that a lot with also my colleagues and my friends and family, too.

Emma Bascom: This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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