Charlie Morse

As associate dean for student development and director of counseling at WPI’s Student Development and Counseling Center (SDCC),  Morse has helped the WPI community navigate the challenges of living through a global pandemic.

What is your role at WPI?

As associate dean, I oversee and support the director of health services and the director of accessibility services, as well as those two offices. Before I started in this role, I was the full-time director of counseling services at WPI, and that’s been the bulk of my role, historically. I had a clinical internship at WPI in 1992–93 and stayed on part-time while I was a stay-at-home dad. I was hired full-time in 2000.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic change that role?

In March, as WPI was shutting down, we had well over 500 students seeing counselors or who were connected to counselors in some way. So as WPI was starting to shift into virtual delivery of classes, we shifted into a virtual format and were able to continue seeing students until May.

In the summer, when the director of health services retired, my world turned upside down. I got far more involved in the health planning side of things. We began talking about creating two health services clinics to separate COVID care from well care. We had no public health office, so we needed to build that by finding people, funding them, and finding space for them on a de-densified campus.*

“I take a 360-degree view. I think from this survival mode, creativity and strength will carry forward as an inner resilience.”

I joined a working group charged with figuring out how to do this and what policies, procedures, and systems were going to be needed. It was amazing, meaningful, consequential work, but it was hard, because we were doing this while also getting ready to bring the students back. There was no model to follow. The fact that it was meaningful is what kept us going, because early on there was no end in sight. I am so thankful we have learned so much.

How has the SDCC worked to help students in these difficult times?

We’ve asked ourselves, how do we double down on the work we are doing to help the campus community find a healthy environment, and how do we help students learn about coping and resilience. We hope and expect, beyond anything we do, that they will carry that sense of resiliency forward. Because this isn’t just a pandemic. The pandemic has broken open racial and economic injustices, and political and societal divisions. The pandemic has laid it bare.

Will the pandemic have long-term consequences?

We all have been impacted by the pandemic, and we’ve all been separated from each other. Students, faculty, and staff have shifted into survival mode—just wanting to get through. In some respects, it’s a simplified life. We’re holding on and supporting each other. But it is survival mode; none of us thrives like this. I’ve been so impressed by our students and young people’s inner resilience. But long-term, I can only guess at the impact on mental health. There’s been so much loss for our students. There’s been so much suffering, and I expect we will see that when the dust settles.

What gives you hope?

I take a 360-degree view. I think from this survival mode, creativity and strength will carry forward as an inner resilience. We are slowing down, students especially. They realize it’s OK to slow down. Young people expected so much of themselves.

My two younger children got married in 2020. They had small weddings with receptions in our driveway—not what we had imagined, but we wouldn’t change it. One was on November 7, a day with unseasonably warm temperatures. Since we couldn’t gather inside, we did feel the weather was a gift.

A year from now, I hope the vaccine has been fully deployed, so that as a society we begin to feel safe enough to reopen again; that we are in the clear to gather in large groups, to sing, and to dance. I would love to be celebrating that. I expect we will be able to.

I am excited about reclaiming normalcy, but it won’t look the same. It became clear to me how we were driving ourselves. I hope this helps us reevaluate what’s most important in life: family, friends, and education.

* The new public health team includes Lisa Pearlman, director of health services (see Conversation with the President, Winter 2020), Jennifer Hapgood-White, isolation/quarantine coordinator, and Chloe Green, COVID testing

Charlie Morse was also part of a multi-disciplinary panel this spring on Student Mental Health: Surviving Isolation, Stress, Depression, and Anxiety. Part of WPI’s Critical Conversations series, Morse and panelists shared ways students can not only alleviate their own stress, but also reach out to their peers and build trust and community. Read the story.

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