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Nichols College

Learn. Lead. Succeed

A Quiet Campus Hums Along

By Susan West Engelkemeyer
President, Nichols College

Trees are budding out and flowers are blooming at our college, but no students are here to take in the show. Our bronze mascot Thunder the Bison stands tall at his lonely post in the center of campus as a tear seems to well up in his eye. A quiet spring has overrun a normally bustling educational enterprise. 

This is the reality on college campuses as we adapt to new ways of doing things since this pandemic stalled the country a few short weeks ago. The good news is that parking is that parking is plentiful for the handful of employees who venture to campus on any given day! 

When spring break began on March 13th—yes, Friday the 13th—we announced that “in an abundance of caution” classes would resume online for two weeks starting Monday, March 23.  As with almost all colleges and most businesses, it soon became apparent that we would not be able to resume normal operations this spring. 

Caution had turned into concern, and abundance had come to mean the number of irreplaceable days on campus that our students, especially our seniors, would miss.

Our college classes now meet live online via the teleconferencing application Zoom.  Students enter their virtual classrooms with the same classmates they sat beside in class. The only difference is that the scenes now looks like the old quiz show Hollywood Squares on steroids, as live miniature pictures of the class members stack up in adjacent rows. 

It is noteworthy (and exciting) that attendance is better than it has been for in-person classes. Evidently the walk to the keyboard is a shorter haul and having a class at their fingertips suits these digital natives.  Students remark that they look forward to this one constant in their lives.

Our undergraduate courses have promptly changed their delivery method and incorporated guest speakers, student presentations, brief tutorials, and discussion groups to enable students to engage and learn.

Student support services have adapted to our new normal as well.  Career services schedule virtual office hours.  The tutoring center provides online sessions.  Counseling has moved to teletherapy, and advisors have ramped up email and Zoom sessions. 

We have held Zoom Town Hall meetings with our students to answer their questions and understand how they’re adjusting to their new circumstances. Student Affairs hosts daily Zoom drop-in sessions and has scheduled virtual Kahoot contests and other competitive games and activities.  

And our Annual Elevator Speech Competition (which challenges students to sum up their job qualifications in the time it takes to get to the 50th floor)?  Enter YouTube on the evening of April 15th.

Our campus may be quiet, but our off-campus connections are booming.

Staying in touch with prospective students has taken on a new meaning.  They attend Zoom sessions to learn about majors and concentrations from faculty and current students.  Coaches and athletes connect live with future teammates.  We conduct virtual open houses for students and families, replete with tours but without the snacks and beverages.  

Phone calls, emails, texts, and social media have long been time-honored parts of the process, but we have entered a brave new world destined to outlive the current health crisis and bring useful and permanent dimensions to the educational experience.

We haven’t stopped there.  We have just launched Zoom classes for high school students interested in earning college credits while they may have more time on their hands.

I’ve been especially thinking the past two weeks about our seniors, who will spend their last term at Nichols remotely. We are planning a virtual celebration on May 2, our original commencement day. This virus has stolen our traditions this year, but one thing we will replicate is the champagne toast to the graduating class. 

As we were parting last month, I promised our seniors that we would schedule an in-person event with all the pomp and circumstance once we are allowed to hold large gatherings again. I just can’t predict when that might be, but I eagerly look forward to it! 

What does the future hold? I believe there is a need – perhaps now more than ever – for the residential college experience. While we work hard to mimic in-person events and build community through Microsoft Teams, Zoom sessions, phone calls, and social media posts, it is still a substitute for the experience of coming of age surrounded by peers, professors and professional staff who are dedicated to your success.

While it is difficult at this time for us, along with other colleges, to predict what we will face in the fall semester, we are detailing various scenarios. Results from the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis provide a starting point for estimating enrollment and retention, but there really is no playbook for today’s crisis.

Bison are tough. The Herd is strong. We will all look back on this as one of the most profound events in our lifetime. But we will emerge from it stronger with much more appreciation of all the things large and small for which we are thankful.