FORGING AHEAD DURING TIMES OF UNCERTAINTY

Erika S. Veth, EdD
Millennium Computer Systems, Ltd.
June 17, 2020

Toward the end of March, when we’d all been sent home to work and school for our children had been cancelled, I purchased a chicken egg incubator thinking that hatching a new brood of baby chicks might be a good way to pass the time. We have had chickens for years and whenever we need to refresh the flock, we usually head on down to the farm and feed store and pick out a few fluffy cute chicks to raise until they are ready to join the flock. However, we’d never hatched chicks before and since we would all be indefinitely available to hand-turn eggs several times a day, we decided to give it a go.

Like our time in quarantine, lock-down, and the various phases of re-openings and new social distancing guidelines, hatching and subsequently raising chicks was a really good reminder that life in all forms has many uncertainties, some loss, an innate persistence to keep going, and, of course, much joy.

Most of us are united in this time of unknowns—some of us working from home, some essential workers at hospitals and grocery stores having to go to work each day, and so many finding themselves suddenly un- or under-employed. And none of us knowing when it will be over or when it will improve—perhaps it will get worse again. The entire team at Millennium has been working from home since mid-March, and our primary goal is to support our current clients rather than to assertively reach out to potential new clients (as is part of my job), knowing that they too are in this weird purgatory of sorts. There are countless unknowns when it comes to budgets, state/provincial funding, and fall enrollment. So how can colleges and universities commit to new software implementations when they aren’t sure the dollars will be there in the next fiscal year? We understand that and have only recently started dipping our toes back into prospective customer outreach.

However, as is the case with baby chicks, we must continue to march forward and make decisions with the information we have available to us. When we first turned on our incubator on March 31st, we debated how many eggs to put in—we wanted about 2-3 new hens for egg laying, but there were so many ambiguities. If we added too few eggs, it was all too possible to end up with only a lonely rooster. If we incubated too many eggs, we could end up with far too many birds than could fit in our coop. In the end, we decided to incubate six eggs.

As with quarantine, we had to wait about ten days before we could candle the eggs. Candling is the process of shining a bright flashlight into the bottom of an incubating egg in a dark room to check for signs of life. So for ten days, my husband, children, and I took turns rotating the little brown eggs every few hours. We hoped we were doing this correctly, turning them 180 degrees each time, not leaving them on one side for too long, and checking every article on egg incubation I could find. After ten days, our family huddled around the incubator in the dark of night with all the lights turned off, and I candled each egg. The first egg clearly was not developing, which was a disappointing start, but the other five all showed signs of life! After that, we candled the eggs every few days until they were so full, it was impossible to know if they were still alive in their eggshell homes.

Then came lockdown. Literally and ironically, the last three days before a baby chick is hatched are known as “lockdown.” Much like many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic, we closed the incubator lid for the last time until the hatching process ended. Sounds easy, right?

As a former university executive, I know that those leading the operational side of an institution prefer as much certainty as possible for sound planning purposes, and therefore, I really like that feeling too. Too many unknowns are cause for sleepless nights and the type of stress that causes heartburn. I am sure many of our colleagues at colleges and universities around the globe are feeling these types of pressures right now as well. When you don’t know if campus will be open in the fall or if the government will be able to provide the same amount of funding as the prior year, it is hard to simply put a lid on something and call it good. So, in a similar way, I peeked at those eggs twenty times a day through the small viewing window. Did that one wiggle? Did I just hear a peep? Should I open it quickly to make sure the humidity is still high enough?

But then, a whole day early, on April 20, one of the eggs hatched! A tiny, wet, yellow, baby dinosaur-looking creature emerged, proudly announcing its arrival with surprisingly loud peeping. My family and I hunched together, shoulder-to-shoulder, watching this miracle. While the new reality of our world swirled around us outside our door and my kids’ online lessons awaited, we felt that thrill and awe of a new life emerging into the world.

After a collective sigh of relief that at least one of our eggs had hatched, a new type of worry began and an entirely new set of doubts! Big Bird, as this little guy had been dubbed, seemed to be terrorizing the remaining four eggs as he learned to walk, stumbling around like a toddler, sending the eggs rolling around the incubator, knocking them into one another and the walls of the incubator. New questions! Should I remove the new chick before he’s fluffy and dry, risking his life to spare the others? Should I quickly open the incubator and try and move the remaining eggs back to where they were? More Googling, more stressing.

We decided to leave Big Bird in the incubator overnight, having read this should be okay, and when we awoke the next morning, the other four eggs were at various stages of hatching. One little guy, the last to hatch, took 24 hours to emerge and from the beginning, he was weaker than the rest. After they had all fluffed up as much as possible, we moved them into a temporary home with a heat lamp in the library of our home so we could check on them regularly (note also that this occupied my children for many hours while my husband and I were able to work). Sadly, the fifth baby chick did not make it past his third day of life, and he was ceremoniously buried in the garden. RIP Little Peep.

You’d think we could breathe a sigh of relief once the remaining baby chicks seemed to thrive after about five weeks, but this brought an entirely new set of unknowns—how many are roosters? How many are hens? Will they be warm enough to sleep without the heat lamp? When can we add them to the existing flock? Will they all be gruesomely attacked by our current flock if we add them in too soon?

Like higher ed. (and frankly, most things right now), we could simply not answer any of those questions with absolute certainty. As we had seen with our first and last egg, sometimes things fail to take off, and sometimes they fail to thrive after a lot of effort and time. So like any good enrollment specialist, financial planner, or budget manager will confirm, the only thing to do is to review the existing data and literature, make the best decision possible based on what you’ve learned, and then monitor the results, making changes as needed.

We are now almost exactly 11 weeks into our journey with our chicks, and 14 weeks into our stay-at-home orders. Restrictions around the US and Canada are slowly lifting as we begin a new sort of life together but apart—much like our chicks who joined the flock a couple of weeks ago. They socially distance from the rest of the flock but are figuring out how to navigate their new environment.

I know that many of our friends in higher education are in much the same place, as are we at Millennium. Our top priority is supporting our current clients, but recently new clients are starting to reach out again, scheduling software demos and daring themselves to imagine next year—perhaps with FAST applications helping them do their jobs more efficiently and lightening the workload of their furloughed staff. Only time will tell what happens next in this unprecedented situation we are all in, together, but there is one thing I do know for sure—time marches on and we must do so as well, making the best decisions we can in the face of uncertainty.

To think of time–of all that retrospection!

To think of to-day, and the ages continued henceforward!

–Walt Whitman