Commentary: This is what The Citadel learned during a tumultuous 2020

As seen in The Post and Courier, by Citadel President Gen. Glenn Walters, USMC (Ret.)

Early March 2020 — it seems long ago that we began to fully understand the impact that COVID-19 would have on the world and, closer to home, our college.

Like every major institution — indeed, every part of our society — we’ve had to rethink our way of doing business to care for our people, accomplish our mission and set conditions for the post-COVID-19 future. Racial and political tensions across our nation intensified an already precarious situation.

As 2020 comes to an end, this is a good time to reflect. We’ve learned a lot and validated some time-honored leadership principles that we will continue to rely on next term.

The wide-ranging impact of COVID-19 was like nothing most of us have ever seen. From widespread illness, death of loved ones and friends and devastating economic effects to debilitating fear and uncertainty, the pandemic touched everyone in our society, either directly or indirectly.

Since the challenges imposed by the pandemic affect us all, one guiding principle for our response is that everyone must to be a part of the solution. There were immediate challenges, such as taking our 1,400-course curriculum completely online while our cadets were on spring break, conducting The Citadel’s first-ever virtual commencement, laying the groundwork for returning to campus in the fall semester and overcoming a multitude of obstacles this past semester.

Our campus community demonstrated the grit for which The Citadel is renowned. This year has been challenging, but it has also been a rich in-person experience that gave our faculty, staff, cadets and students opportunities to test themselves in real-world crisis leadership.

At The Citadel, we support each other, but we also know we should try to make our own luck. Our facilities and proximity to Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, Parris Island, made us an ideal location for the Marines to quarantine recruits before shipping out for basic training. We had the privilege of helping them continue their crucial national security mission, while using what would otherwise had become a ghost town campus.

As an added benefit, our partnership with the Marines enabled us to plan for cadet and student life in a pandemic environment — we learned what worked and what didn’t. Our generous alumni and donors, as always, demonstrated their inclination to help, setting records in both donors and dollars during our Giving Day in May. They also endowed a COVID-19 Relief Fund which enabled the college to fund grants, laptops or internet hotspots for dozens of cadets, students or employees facing economic hardship.

Members of our campus community have also contributed a tremendous amount of time, effort and energy in our community by creating N95 masks, laundering linens for the city’s warming shelters for the homeless and myriad other outreach opportunities. There’s no more powerful way to create camaraderie than being there for each other when times are tough.

Any organization facing a crisis does well to remain true to its values, and The Citadel is no exception. Our core values of honor, duty and respect are always a prominent part of campus life, and they have been essential in navigating this difficult year.

The COVID-19 environment presented innumerable complications, but our campus community came together to treat our safety measures as a duty we perform to protect each other. Indeed, Cadet Colonel Nick Piacentini, regimental commander of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets, referred to operating in a COVID environment as “the ultimate team sport.”

And while racial and political tension dominated the news across the country, it was encouraging to see members of our campus community treat each other with respect and thoughtfulness. Institutions of higher learning, in particular, must always be places where we can disagree without demeaning one another.

In August, I told our returning cadets that their most memorable experiences and their most powerful relationships are developed when they are overcoming challenges together.

We understand we have more obstacles ahead to complete this academic year. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth the effort. Going through this experience together as a community will make us better, and if we continue to do it right, we will create bonds that can never be broken.

Retired Gen. Glenn M. Walters, a 1979 Citadel graduate and the 34th assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, is president of The Citadel.