Editor’s note: This commentary is being produced as a part of Elevate 2021, an effort by The Journal to bring new voices into the pages of the magazine to discuss important civic issues and expand the range of viewpoints available to readers.
Trisha Gott is an assistant professor and associate director at the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University. She lives in Manhattan, Kansas, with her partner Ben, a middle school teacher, and three sons.

Boy, do I love a scapegoat. My life becomes easier when I can place the blame for a problem on someone else.

In university towns across the country over the last year, college students have become scapegoats for the spread of COVID-19. You’ve read and heard stories about college students being  superspreaders: They threw parties, they flooded football fields to celebrate victory, they lined up at bars, and in college towns, COVID cases proliferated. Such scenes left me dubious about college students being able to do their part to stem the spread of the pandemic in Kansas.

But the kind of student behavior captured in headlines and broadcast reports is only part of the story. This fall in classrooms at Kansas State University, I was pleased to see responsibility come to the fore  – students practicing leadership.

The pandemic pushed Kansas’ higher education institutions into crisis mode. Institutions wrestled with how to stay open, how to make payroll, as well as how to keep teaching, learning and advancing research while making their normal contributions to the state. Like many leaders, higher education administrators confronted the difficult task of making decisions about the well being of their employees and their students – physically, socially, mentally, emotionally and economically. Criticism came quickly on a variety of decisions – opening campus, delivering classes and keeping local communities safe.

President Richard Myers and the administration at Kansas State demonstrated they understood the value of engaging unusual voices and seeking different interpretations around reopening. They made it clear that students were not the problem. They were part of the solution. No matter what happened, administrators emphasized, we were not going to blame our students.

Students showed their leadership by demonstrating what it really meant to navigate uncertainty as renters, workers and students. They staffed day cares and grocery stores. They kept living communities and dining halls open, taught classes and distributed tens of thousands of pounds of food. Off campus, they led their families in discussions about the safest way to navigate the holidays, in some instances skipping visits home so as not to expose others unnecessarily.

Michael Duncan, a graduating senior and theater major, gave up Thanksgiving with his family to try to stem the spread of COVID. He worked in the theater department to produce a podcast series of “Macbeth,” providing an innovative theater experience for audiences in the midst of a pandemic.

Lindsey Hamner worked from home on her master’s degree in public administration while mobilizing hundreds of student volunteers to staff 10 mobile food distributions, double what had been typical previously. She helped devise ways to keep volunteers and community members safe along the way, allowing her team to serve 7,211 people in 2,267 households with over 100,000 pounds of food.

Kachi Ekwerike, a doctoral candidate in leadership communication, couldn’t travel home to Lagos, Nigeria, once the pandemic began. The graduate teaching assistant chose to teach in-person classes. His motivation? Making sure his students had support throughout the semester.

Such crucial acts of leadership not only kept the university open, but they also bettered the lives of fellow students and community members. Their examples of acting experimentally while exercising leadership provided something all of us can learn from.

It’s important to look beyond the two-dimensional picture of students that can be too easily drawn by the media and one’s own preconceptions. We should see them first and foremost as a resource to nurture the civic health of our campuses, our communities and our state. It is a charge that, from my vantage point, they are more than capable of accepting.

winter 2021 journal cover

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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