Silver Linings

Silver Linings

Out of the challenges of the pandemic came innovations bringing new ways of connecting the university to its students and alumni.

Throughout his half-century at the University of La Verne, economics and business Professor Ahmed Ispahani had stood before his students to begin class thousands of times–until March 13, 2020, when everything abruptly changed. As COVID-19 swept through California, President Devorah Lieberman made the difficult decision to go virtual. Within one week, all classes and services would become remote. Including Professor Ispahani’s.

“Listening to the news and speaking with colleagues, I assumed we would be virtual for a short time, maybe two weeks or a month,” President Lieberman recalled. Little did anyone know that the virtual delivery of all curricular and co-curricular activities and services would stretch not only through 2020, but deep into 2021 as well.

For Ispahani, at age 85 the university’s most senior professor, the prospect of remote teaching was daunting. “First thing I did was panic,” he admitted. “I was teaching three classes, and I’m not technical with computers.” In fact, he didn’t even own one any more—he was relying on his phone, having given his computer to a student who needed it.

Enter Ispahani’s colleague Yehia Mortagy, professor of information technology and decision sciences, who volunteered to help. Ispahani got a loaner computer and hotspot from the university. Mortagy set it up and provided assistance. Not only did Ispahani complete the spring 2020 semester, he’s a veteran in remote instruction now, having completed the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters as well.

Following the adage “Never let a crisis go to waste,” the university community adapted to changes the pandemic forced by developing new ways to serve students. Some will last long beyond the pandemic. They are the silver linings of a challenging year.

For years, counseling center clients asked for telehealth services, but the center was restricted by state and national guidelines. “Once COVID-19 hit, they relaxed those guidelines and we were able to provide telehealth services and reach so many more students,” said Elleni Koulos, director of counseling and psychological services. Among them were graduate students and those enrolled in regional campus and online programs for whom distance had made

in-person appointments difficult or impossible. No longer limited by the number of counseling

offices on campus, the staff has now increased from four to ten therapists, more than doubling the number of students who can be served.

Jamie Solis, director of student health services, saw a similar dynamic. “We’re doing some virtual appointments, which we’d never done before,” she said, with phone triage to determine if an in-person appointment is needed. Before the pandemic, some patients would not make or keep an appointment because they lacked time or gas money. Now, the no-show rate has dropped as students “can call in and speak to a doctor or be seen in their car if they are sick,” she said.

Providing the rich co-curricular experiences a university offers, during a time when in-person gatherings were not possible, meant that student affairs staff had to get creative to build engagement. Utilizing Campus Labs, a platform for planning, organizing, and promoting online events, “expanded the ability of students to participate, especially students who had family or work responsibilities that would have kept them from participating because it was harder to be in-person,” said Juan Regalado, chief student affairs officer. Even after the pandemic recedes, “We want to be able to keep this component.”

Virtual options for alumni have also dramatically increased. Kim Grant, assistant vice president for alumni engagement, said, “We’ve been through a sea-change on how we are thinking about alumni engagement. It has to be more than just in-person events.” Zooming has made it possible for alumni far from campus to speak, volunteer, and attend remote events such as “Leo Life Coaching” and the “Ask Me Anything” series. A digital library allows alumni to access content 24/7.

An alumni survey conducted last December suggested that the number one desire was for programming on health and well-being. “We were able to find a quick way to deliver results

by working with our Randall Lewis Center for Well-Being and Research colleagues,” said Grant. Since the center had started creating virtual workouts and meditation sessions for students, “it was very easy to extend these to alumni as well.” Even Homecoming pivoted to virtual, with panel discussions, games, and a virtual 5K fun run opening up the experience to alumni worldwide.

On-campus tours have always been a staple in the college recruiter’s toolkit. When in-person visits came to a screeching halt on March 13, 2020, Adam Wu, director of undergraduate admissions, and the rest of Vice President Mary Aguayo’s enrollment management team had to get creative. By the time socially-distanced campus tours began again 393 days later, they had launched new approaches that will long outlast the pandemic. One of the most popular is student-led Zoom tours. “I’ve also heard from students that they’ve loved the number of topics we’ve had for webinars,” said Wu. “We’ll definitely keep virtual meetings and webinars to supplement in-person, especially for out-of-state and international students.”

As Professor Ispahani’s experience vividly demonstrates, faculty faced huge challenges in converting to remote-only instruction with just a week to prepare. Yet silver linings are shining through.

Just ask journalism Professor George Keeler. “I have bonded with my students and entered into a learning culture that is more holistic,” he has found. “With Zoom, I am inside their homes. I have met their parents, brothers and sisters, sometimes during life-threatening moments. During a Zoom academic advising session, I met a student’s dad, a police officer who was suffering from COVID. The student wanted me to talk to her dad because he wasn’t doing well but was trying to stay out of the hospital.

We talked for a few minutes and he then said he would go to the hospital for his daughter’s sake. Thankfully, he fully recovered.”

Andrea Minkoff, assistant professor of education, has also found a deeper understanding of her students as she’s met their families online. It’s “a glimpse into our students’ lives, and they trust us to share it with us,” she said. Minkoff organizes Saturday morning coffee chat and writing support Zooms to help build community and learning support.

Minkoff’s colleague Amber Bechard, associate professor of education, said that digitizing processes made it possible for more children to receive literacy support from her Educational Specialist candidates—something that will outlast the pandemic.

“Another bonus is that our teacher candidates have gained important technology skills that they can use to broaden the impact of their expertise,” she said.

Management Professor Issam Ghazzawi no doubt spoke for many colleagues when he noted the challenge of keeping students’ attention in virtual classes. “Every couple of weeks I send an invite for an optional Zoom meeting for a course that was scheduled to be an online one,” he said. Students can discuss assignments or their individual papers. “Last term,” he said, “to my biggest surprise, out of 24 students I only missed two or three. Students feel they haven’t been abandoned. It’s something I will continue after the pandemic for the online classes.”

The COVID-19 shutdown could hardly have come at a more inopportune time for President Lieberman. The university’s $125 million comprehensive fundraising campaign was in full swing. Before the pandemic, she shared dinners almost nightly with guests and donors whose support was crucial to the campaign’s successful conclusion.

“You cannot allow a pandemic to take your focus off your goal,” Lieberman said. “The dinners became virtual. We would have the guests’ favorite restaurant deliver their favorite meal and a bottle of wine to their home. I would have dinner in my home and they in theirs.” The dinnertime Zoom conversations built relationships that led to investments in the university’s future. The campaign was completed a year early, $3 million over goal.

“It’s such a beautiful thing to think about what, in such a challenging time, has been positive,” Minkoff remarked. “I read an article that said the pandemic is a portal. What do we want to carry with us through it?”

For the University of La Verne community, what we will carry with us into the future are the things we learned to do better in what was a year of crisis and resilience, of staying apart, yet pulling together. It was a year when, as President Lieberman put it, we learned “you cannot quarantine community.” It was a year of silver linings.