University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 97: Anne O’Leary-Kelly and Molly Rapert Discuss What Students Are Experiencing Due to COVID-19

November 11, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Molly and Anne have recognized the hardships students face as it relates to the pandemic. Through this, they have learned more about the identity loss students have experienced, in addition to the resilience they have learned. Read More

Molly Rapert is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Sam M. Walton College of Business and Director of the Center for Teaching Effectiveness. Molly teaches the Marketing Management capstone course in the Walton College. Anne O'Leary-Kelly is the Senior Associate Dean for the Walton College.

 Episode Transcript


00:07 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today.

00:28 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Anne O'Leary-Kelly, who is Senior Associate Dean in the Walton College and Professor of Management. And I have Molly Rapert, who's the Director of our Center for Teaching Effectiveness and a Professor in the Department of Marketing. Thank you both for taking time to visit with me today. I appreciate it.

00:51 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: Glad to be here.

00:52 Molly Rapert: My pleasure.

00:53 Matt Waller: You both have lots of experience in higher education and particularly in business education, and now we're at this terrible point in history because of the pandemic, and students all over the world are suffering right now at all levels, but of course we're most familiar with what's going on in higher ed. And I know you two have some ideas about what's going on with our students and... Course, since the Walton College, part of our vision, is to be thought leaders and catalysts for transforming lives. And sometimes it feels like we can't be very effective at that in this situation. We can be thought leaders, but I don't know if people are listening, in some cases. [chuckle] So I'd like to dig into that a little bit during this podcast, and I know, in working with Anne over the past five years in the Dean's office, there's been a number of times issues have come up where she has brought identity theory to my attention, and I had never heard of it. And Molly, I know that you're looking at this from a place perspective, as well. So again, thanks for being on here. Anne, I'll start with you. What is meant by identity? I mean, everyone uses the word, but what is it?

02:24 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: Yeah, so identity is the sense we have of ourselves, the story we tell ourselves about who we are. And it's really as simple as that. And I think we think of who we are as this set of characteristics or relationships that we belong to, but I think in terms of the conversation we're having today, it's also important to recognize that we can have identities about who we want to be. And so it's not always something we currently are, but it can be very important to me to think, "I want to be a scholar, I want to be a mother," even if I'm not yet living into that identity. And I think that becomes really important in our conversation today, this notion of what identities I had hoped for or expected. And this whole conversation about identity started because I was on a call with Molly, we were doing some check-ins with faculty, and she was sharing her perspective on her students and, as usual, was very insightful and said something that just really blew me away and helped me reframe how I think about our students in this space, and she said they are experiencing a loss of place.

03:58 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: The loss of being on our campus in the way that they had hoped to be. And that shifted me over to thinking about it in terms of lost identities. And I think it'd be fun to hear from Molly about how she started thinking about sense of place, 'cause it wasn't from reading an academic article, it was a very different reason for thinking about it that way.

04:24 Matt Waller: Well. What is place?

04:26 Molly Rapert: I think place can be very different, depending on who you ask. It can be a physical place, but it can also be a mental place that you're in, it could be a stage of life. I don't think that there's one answer to that, it's kind of a sense of being. Really, what made me think about it, Matt, is if we roll the clock back to March 12th, that was the last time that we really had this normal place here at the U of A, and then we all received the email with the news that we'd be moving online. And that combined with what was taking place in the pandemic really created a unique situation that I think we're still navigating our way through without a clear time horizon of when it's going to end. And so I think the interesting part of what's bringing us together is that the three of us all share some common ideas, but we come at them from very different perspectives. So my perspective on this goes back to actually being a mom of Marie. Our youngest daughter was born in Ethiopia but has very few memories of that, if any, but she's not quite an American because she has this heritage that she really connects with, that makes her feel different than our boys who were born here.

05:50 Molly Rapert: There's actually a phenomenon called a third culture kid, and theories in sociology and psychology that talk about this; it's been very enlightening to me. But Marie came home in high school, she's now in college, but she came home in high school and she had me read something that they were reading in her AP Lit class, it's called Home at last. And the author's Dinaw Mengestu, and he's an Ethiopian whose path mirrors Marie's. He was born in Ethiopia but his memories are from America. And this beautiful piece, it's eight pages long, a non-fiction short story, really has some sentences in it that I think describe what our students are experiencing today. He talks about place, being home, and he says things in it like, "What remains for me has less to do with the idea that I was from Ethiopia, and more to do with the fact that I was not from America." I processed this two years ago when Marie first brought it to me, and I went back to it when I was trying to figure out what my students here are experiencing, and really, to me, this captures it. It's this idea that they're running to a future, but where they're from, here, their college experience is no longer the same, it's not what they envisioned, it's not what they experienced, it's just been ripped out from under them.

07:13 Molly Rapert: Now, the story would have ended there if I worked for any institution other than the Walton College. But I think an important part of this is that I work in a place with a leadership team that includes people like Matt and Anne, Allen, Brent, Vikas. People who from my earliest moments in my career wanted to know about me as a person and not just the job that I do. And that's what brought me into an internet call with Anne, where we were discussing how our students feel, how our faculty and staff feel. So, I mentioned to Anne, my very random thoughts about this non-fiction short story, and she immediately said, "Would you send it to me?" And then our discussions just unfolded and there became a bigger story coming out of it.

08:06 Matt Waller: So, Molly, you mentioned that the author felt like he was moving toward something but lost where he was from, and that's partly because it wasn't his memory, I suppose.

08:18 Molly Rapert: Right. You know, this theory of third culture kids, he had heard his parents' stories, he knew relatives who were from Ethiopia, he read about his home country, but he didn't... It's not a lived experience for him. It's the same as you, in some cases, reading about where your family might be from.

08:36 Matt Waller: So it might be like the students... Like say, the freshmen here, they have heard stories about what it's like to be a freshmen at the University of Arkansas, they get here, and it's not that.

08:52 Molly Rapert: It's not that.

08:54 Matt Waller: So it's not... They don't remember anything. What they remember is not what actually takes place here for freshmen, generally.

09:03 Molly Rapert: And I think it's so dramatically different that they can't even cross a bridge to this new experience. I think we all know students whose parents have told them, "College will be the time of your life," or they see movies or books, and they come here, and the transition is close enough that they can make that transition. Well, they've heard these stories, and then they come here, and it is so dramatically different that I don't think they can cross over to... And understand where they are now. I think we can as faculty.

09:38 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: They've lost an identity that they never had but expected to have. So that would be our freshmen, right? Their parents say, "Hey, I went to Arkansas, I loved it, you're gonna think this is amazing." They've already visited and they started to get a sense in their mind about what this is going to be like. And then they come here and it's nothing like that. So they've suffered the loss of an identity that they were counting on. And then the second kind of loss would be for our students who were here before. Maybe they've already finished freshman year, maybe they're all the way to seniors, and they have a sense of what they love about themselves in this place, what this place has meant to them, who they are and how they act and how they think about their lives in this place, and now that's gone. And in both cases, it's an identity loss, but it's just a different form. And in both cases, it creates for them profound challenges for how to live in this space where they're experiencing this discrepancy for what they hoped for, wanted, and what their reality currently is.

10:55 Matt Waller: Of course, when students are coming to campus, at least this semester being recorded in October, at the end of October of 2020, this semester the way we have it set up at the University of Arkansas, professors had the option of being remote or hybrid; hybrid means that they at least have some face-to-face component. And then students can pick a remote class that's forming up, they could pick a hybrid class, and in some classes they could go every class period, sometimes it's a rotation, but they all had the option of also being remote. And so a lot of students aren't coming to the face-to-face classes that could come to the face-to-face classes. There are some exceptions to that. So I would think that that amplifies their sense of loss. But why aren't they coming to campus? So, they could come to campus more. Is there something about identity or loss there, or place?

12:11 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: Yeah, I think the word you used, amplify, is a really good word, Matt, because this is a discrepancy between the identity they hoped for and the way they have to live in this current space. If you're on campus, the difference between what it feels like in this space and what you have expected it to be, or experienced it as in the past, is huge. So the discrepancy between those is just right there in your face. You're living into that discrepancy and pushing up against it, and that's very painful. That's called the liminal space, a space where you're betwixt and between, and you're not really sure who you are in that space. And so that is not a space we like to inhabit. This is kind of a profound example but I think it's the best example of liminal space I've ever heard. You remember when the Twin Towers went down and we lost so many people, and there was a phenomenon in New York where family members who had had someone working in the Towers were posting pictures or walking around with pictures of their loved ones that said, "Have you seen this person?"

13:31 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people walking around with these pictures, and for those of us who were at a distance from this, we're looking at that thinking, It makes no sense, because those people are gone. We knew they were gone because we could see what had happened, but they had to... They would rather live in that liminal space, that was kind of a magical thinking space, than accept the loss of what they had just lost. And that's the loss of that person and everything that person meant to them, which is about identity. Whether it's your parent or your child, or your spouse, partner. And I think that shows the power of that liminal space; how we don't wanna be there, but if it means we're gonna experience a worse loss, we might be willing to hang out in there for a while. But we can do some strange things in our mind when we're in that mental space.

14:36 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: And I think in this case, the students are in that space experiencing this discrepancy so profoundly, and it's just they don't wanna believe it's real, they don't wanna believe it's true, and so being there just makes it very, very real to them. That would be one supposition about what drives them away.

15:00 Molly Rapert: Anne, that's such a compelling and visual example, and I think about it from my point of view here, that I chose the hybrid method, I wanted that connection with my students. And so I come to the building because I long to be in the building. This has been 30 years for me, and I long to be in here. And yet when I walk in, it is so unsettling. There are markers on the ground that say, Stay six feet apart. The hallways are empty. My hallway, there's one other person in it. On a personal level, for the last six years, I've had a son in Walton getting a degree. And I'm used to, every day in my academic life, sitting in my chair and hearing their footsteps, every day for six years, come down this hallway, and I never want to be able to look up and have a conversation with one of my sons, just the two of us; I cherish that.

16:03 Molly Rapert: And so, thinking about your example, I also think there's another layer, that I feel almost a sense of guilt that that is what I'm angry about; that that intimate interaction with my kids, I'm angry about, when there are people that have faced such hardship, loss of life, loss of economy, loss of mental safety, and here, I just feel a loss of not being able to visit my kids on a regular basis. And so there's some guilt in there too, that I think no students know how to handle the feelings they have, and I certainly at 57 don't know how to handle my feelings on it.

16:48 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: You know, feelings is such a part of identity too, of identity loss. So you just named one of the big feelings that tend to accompany identity loss. So what research tells us is that if what we're grieving is what we think we should have, or we ought to have, we tend to react with anger or guilt. So, in your case, Molly, you have had that before with your sons, you feel like you should have that, and if the world was right you ought to have that, and so the emotions that typically accompany that kind of loss are either anger or guilt. And you feel guilty because you're a compassionate person who's thinking about losses other people have, but you could just as well be angry about that. And I think we've seen some of our students are angry, because they feel a sense that, "I thought this was mine, either because I've had it before, I'm a senior and I thought this was mine. This place, this identity. And now it's not." And you can see how that makes them angry. Or if you're a freshman coming and think, "I thought I got to have this, and I don't get to have this," and so, both anger and guilt come from that. You know, the other thing that people often feel around identity loss, another common emotion, of course is sadness.

18:27 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: And sadness tends to come when we frame it, not as I should have had this, but I wish I had this. Right? And so those are very different states that those emotions put you into, which I think is one of the really interesting parts of identity theory, because if you're in that place of anger or even that place of guilt, what you tend to do is to go into a motivational state where you stay in the loss, you avoid risk, you avoid change, you're just sort of hunkered down, trying not to get hurt anymore by this whole thing, and that's not a very proactive place to be in. It's odd to say, but if people are in the state of sadness, where they say, I wish I had this and I'm very sad about it, it actually can be easier to get out of that state because the motivational state associated with that tends to be more about finding meaning. When you're angry, you're not trying to find meaning in things, when you feel guilty, you're not trying to find meaning. When you're sad, if you can really accept the sadness of it and you're willing to find meaning, that's a place where you can then live into a new reality and a new sense of who you are.

19:56 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: And I bring that up because I think it's interesting to think about in terms of how we talk with students about what they're experiencing. If we say, "You should have had this, this is so unfair, you should have had been able to have this... " What we're doing is cueing up that path where they're going to be probably angry, probably not as open to finding meaning and living into a new identity, probably better for us to sit with them in their sadness and help them narrate their sadness, and then help them begin to find meaning. So I think that's like to me the powerful thing about looking at this from an identity perspective, because we might be able to shape how students think about it, especially if we're close to them, like you are Molly, you're so powerful at getting messages across to your students, and helping them figure out how to be college students.

20:55 Molly Rapert: Well, I hope so. One thing, Matt, that I did is at the time, Anne and I were having these initial conversations, I was giving an exam in my class, and Anne and I talked about the possibility of throwing in this prompt about how they feel and how they're navigating this time as a possible essay they could answer, so it's one of... I don't remember six or seven they had to choose from, and I think it's interesting that out of 50 students I have, 49 chose to answer this question. People want to try and put a narrative around it and figure out their feelings. I brought a couple of examples of some answers, I'm not gonna read all 49 of course, but some really, I think summarized this well. Student that said, "I've always looked forward to the traditions that signal the end of your college career, but this sense of loss came so slowly that I didn't even realize what's been lost in the process until that stage was already passed." Some of these are positive, and here's a student that says, "It's an interesting feeling to be standing at the starting line of the rest of your life, but have no idea where that's going to take you, a thought like that would have terrified me a year ago, but after all I've been through, now I understand it's just a natural part of moving on," so there's some learning and resilience that gives me hope in this.

22:24 Molly Rapert: Anne, you mentioned this in your first response to Matt today, this student says, "Sometimes I think to myself, is this the life I even want to be living? It's safe to say I feel buried between things and I'm almost stuck in the middle of the person I want to be and the person I am today," those were almost guru words verbatim.

22:44 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: Yeah.

22:46 Molly Rapert: And the student says, "I've allowed myself to deteriorate for months and I've completely lost who I once used to be. COVID's taken away many things, it's definitely taken away my identity." And so Matt, when you think about the randomness of how we came to this conversation, it's from a non-fiction short story that my daughter gave me two years ago, it's Anne's research stream, and the literature on identity theory, it's the student's desire to find meaning in this, and I think the fourth thing is, it's just a shareable idea. Anne and I have brought up this idea to other people and they just instantly say, "You know, that's it, I don't know my place anymore, and I can't envision when I'm gonna find it."

23:34 Matt Waller: So I have a couple of questions from this, I'll start with you, Anne, and then I have a question for you Molly, you mentioned that it's good if you've got a student that's sad to help them create a narrative that works, is it possible to do that as a college? In other words, could we create a narrative around what's going on? I mean, I'm not sure if it's possible or not, but create a narrative that we can help adapt on this, if you will.

24:07 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: I think the answer to that question is really found in research on grief, 'cause that's what our students... A lot of them are going through is grief and they're looking for meaning, and one of the things I've learned doing research on identity loss is that some of the research on grief that we've counted on for many years, for example, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' stages of grief, actually is not how the grief process works. More recent research on grief tells us that the way people get through sadness is between processing the loss, which is narrating what's happened to me, and then oscillating to another place where they're beginning to see and beginning to touch and try out a new identity. And I think that's what we could do for our students, we could get them thinking about when this COVID thing is done, or even if they're stuck in it, who are they going to be in this place and try out a new identity, so let go of what I should have had or I wanted to have, 'cause it's gone. It is gone, but how do I be in this new space and begin to try out some things, and what happens is you come right back to grief and you come right back to your loss for a while, 'cause that's all you know.

25:33 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: Basically, you're having to re-map your brain to think of yourself in a new way, so it's the letting go and the moving on and moving between those two spaces that actually eventually helps you narrate it and helps you move on, and so I think it's a good question, "What can we do to help our students narrate that for themselves?" Molly did it with her question in class, right? That was the beginning place to narrate it, but I think we should look at that, maybe we need some conversations about... That help students do that, or sessions that help students do that.

26:11 Matt Waller: So it really ties in to my question to Molly because what I was wondering, of course is, can you do this on mass. And what triggered that thought was when you first started talking, Anne about right at the begin of our conversation about identity and part of identity is what we long to be, that reminded me of psychographics, if you know your psychographics and your demographics, then you can use marketing to direct thoughts and ideas. And so Molly, one question I have is I'm not an expert on psychographics or identity, so I need to make that clear, so I could be wrong about this, but is there some overlap there between those two?

27:04 Molly Rapert: I think there's overlap in that if you look at psychographics, really focusing on values and lifestyles, things that people either are or that they long to be, they aspire to be, that's so much of what psychographics will look at. I think that's... Maybe that's the marketing language for the management phenomenon. Yeah, I think we're looking at the same coin, but two different sides of it.

27:30 Matt Waller: I was thinking, marketing firms and marketing functions of organizations many times, once they identify what the psychographics are, then sometimes they will use marketing tools, I guess I would say to draw those people in and to help them, in some cases, imagine something. Like imagine themselves with a product or a service, and so I was just wondering, Molly, is there any validity to that?

28:11 Molly Rapert: You know, it's interesting in that because you're putting words and a framework to something that I just tried in my class, but I had not thought about in these terms. When I read my students' essays, at first I just feel very ill-equipped to handle this... This is not my strong point. I'm not a particularly reflective, introspective person, I don't think... And so this is a little out of my comfort zone, but I would look and read these narratives that they were so gracious and putting down on paper, and so I found themes like, "Here's a group that feel positive, they found reconnections with their family or with church or with community, here's a group that's feeling in deep grief, there's a third group that's just kind of abiding, they're just passing time." They just say, You know, I'm not... I think one person said, "I'm living through this, but I'm not really living," another group said they can't even envision the future and what they're stepping towards, so they feel uncertain, so I took those kind of key themes, they were about seven of them, and I brought six former students in and did 15-minute interviews with each of them about content related to the class, but I asked each of them to speak to one of these themes in a subtle way.

29:38 Molly Rapert: So Lu Colin spoke to the fact that he graduated in 2010 in the midst of financial chAnne O'Leary-Kellys as a financial major who had plans for Wall Street and was on Wall Street when Lehman Brothers fell, and realized his future was gone as he had envisioned it for most of his life.

30:00 Matt Waller: Well, it's like you've identified the personas that are experiencing this, and so then I wonder, to help students thrive in this difficult environment if we could use a marketing approach.

30:17 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: Yeah, and I think we can figure out if they're in that loss place in a way that they can grow from, or if they need a little nudge, they need some help re-narrating to get them into that, Finding-a-meaning place.

30:32 Molly Rapert: An added benefit might be too, in many of these essays that my students wrote, they spoke about... That they felt helpless in terms of helping their families, they told stories of addictions that parents had, financial catastrophe, economic hardships, the list goes on and for them to watch their parents navigating this tough time, it's kind of exciting to think that maybe if we're equipping students to them in turn have these conversations with family, there's a pretty strong ripple effect.

31:11 Matt Waller: If we were to act on this, what are some next steps we could take?

31:18 Anne O'Leary-Kelly: I mean, Molly sort of set us off down a path, I think of asking how students are feeling, then I think we might come back to identity theory and look for some possible solutions to that. So yeah, I love this conversation, I think it gives us some ideas. Isn't that funny how we each carried around a little bit of a picture of this, but it was only through this conversation that we put it all together?

31:45 Molly Rapert: Right, I'm gonna circle back to this Home At Last short story, because I love one of the closing lines in it, the author says that we can rebuild and remake ourselves in our communities over and over and over again, and that's the hope that I have, that we're going to be able to equip students to re-build and re-make themselves during this time, and that we're not all just going to be stuck in between.

32:17 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC Podcast, one word that's B-E-E-P-I-C Podcast. And now, be epic.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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