Stronger together

How DU is uniting and supporting its community during the COVID-19 crisis

Komal Gandhi, a junior international business major, is one of thousands of DU students who find themselves in a new reality because of COVID-19. Regular hangouts with campus friends now take place on FaceTime or Zoom. She has more time for studying and for new hobbies, like embroidery. Rather than walking from campus building to campus building, she is attending all her classes online.

Gandhi is not only living through the pandemic in real time, she also is studying it in one of her spring term classes, Contemporary Issues in the Global Economy. One of many courses that changed direction at the last minute to deal directly with the COVID-19 outbreak, the class finds students discussing economic stimulus, the virus’ effects on the stock market, and the ramifications of a record number of unemployment claims for the country going forward.

Main Coronavirus Page
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The latest news and information on the coronavirus
Student Assistance Fund
Support for students unable to meet
immediate, essential expenses

“Even though the situation is less than ideal, I think we’re really fortunate to be studying stuff like that,” Gandhi says. “It’s so relevant to know what’s happening and understand how it’s affecting the average person and the macroeconomic scale of things. It’s really exciting to be able to discuss that in a classroom. People are going to be studying this in their history classes, but never with the perspective of being able to be in the center of things and analyze it.”

Like most of the world, DU is in a de facto quarantine thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, waiting until it’s safe to reopen and for people to meet face-to-face once again. The library, once a hub of academic and social activity, sits empty, with shelves full of books waiting to be read. There are no Frisbees on the green, no baristas at the cafes, no teams on the lacrosse field, no fans in the bleachers.

But if there’s anything good about a crisis, it’s this — how it awakens the power of community, how it unites people in darkness, how it pushes us toward creative solutions and quick decisions.

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That has been the case at DU since March, when the pandemic began upending day-to-day life. Faculty and students made a lightning-fast and successful transition to online teaching and learning; units and departments around the University took to the virtual world to unite the DU community; and the administration worked around the clock to find new ways to support students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents.

“I am, on the one hand, amazed by this resilience, and on the other, not at all surprised,” says Chancellor Jeremy Haefner. “DU has always been defined by our strong and steady spirit, and I have never felt that more keenly or seen it expressed more vividly than during these last few weeks.”

The classroom goes digital

Even University administrators admit that they often arrive at big decisions at a stately and deliberate pace, which makes it all the more significant just how quickly the shift to online learning took place in March. The transition happened most rapidly at the Sturm College of Law, which operates on a semester system and was midway through its spring term when the decision was made to put classes online. Faculty members there had just a couple of days to make the shift.

Other departments at DU had a bit more time to plan their transition to online teaching, but it still required a tremendous effort — and a great deal of creativity and flexibility — on the part of faculty members, many of whom had never before taught an online class.

“We had painting faculty who were like, ‘How do you teach a studio painting class online?’ It was fascinating to walk through that with them, because that was nothing they [had] ever considered,” says Karen Swanson, director of faculty learning groups and scholarship at DU’s Office of Teaching and Learning, which served as a resource for faculty members as they worked to transition their courses.

“We had music faculty come in and say, ‘How do we do an ensemble when people are all over the country, and possibly in different countries?’” Swanson continues. “The conversations were absolutely fascinating. There were people who were less than excited about the move; there were some who were worried but open; and there were some who just wanted to up their game. It really was heartening that, regardless of how people came to the task, they all ended up functional come day one, week one. That was pretty edifying to see.”

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DU stepped up to help with solutions, paying to mail paints, brushes and other supplies to art students and to ship keyboards and professional-quality microphones to music students. New hardware and software were purchased for digital lab classes in the sciences, and clinics in the Graduate School of Social Work and the Graduate School of Professional Psychology adopted a telehealth model so that students still could conduct the clinical work so crucial to finishing their degrees.

“The need for physical distancing affected the way we delivered coursework for the spring term, but we did not compromise on our commitment to maintain low student-faculty ratios and to deliver rich engagement in experiential learning opportunities,” Haefner says. “I was encouraged and excited by the innovative ways in which our faculty worked quickly and effectively to replicate their world-class teaching through digital means.”

Though no specialized equipment was needed for more traditional lecture- or discussion-style classes — think English, business and law—the switch still demanded some adjustment. The social interaction that happens naturally on a campus is mostly missing in a Zoom meeting, students found, and whether classes are taught “synchronously” — in real time, with professors and students meeting in online classrooms — or “asynchronously,” with instructors posting videos and lessons for students to review on their own time, it requires more attention and dedication than ever before to keep the pace.

“It’s a lot more about self-discipline and keeping your phone aside,” Gandhi says. “You could have your laptop open and your Zoom open, but then just be on Instagram or Facebook or whatever, and no one would even know. I think self-discipline is really necessary if you want to keep up those grades.”

Online classes have benefits beyond the academic. In a topsy-turvy world, logging in for your next class is a welcome burst of normalcy for many Pioneers—students and faculty alike.

“Because everything is closed, students are saying that these classes — these small blips in time — are the one or two moments every day that are normal and they feel at peace with what’s happening outside,” says Corinne Lengsfeld, interim provost and executive vice chancellor. “They’re more dedicated to actually making this work because it is a piece of hope; it is a piece of stability; it is the thing that keeps them going.”

Getting engaged

How do you keep a community connected when the real world goes dark? That was the challenge for academic and other University units that overnight lost the ability to engage with one another face-to-face. Hungrier than ever for a sense of community, DU started looking for new ways to connect in the virtual world.

Creative solutions arrived quickly. A new website, Stay Connected, launched March 27 with a variety of resources for alums, parents, donors and others, from webinars and career guidance to resources for families and tips for working from home.

“When the realities of physical distancing took place, the first thing we did was realize there’s a lot of value that DU can add right now,” says Wyatt Hornsby, assistant vice chancellor of creative engagement. “We have such incredible experts; we have such an incredible community; and we have a lot of useful resources right now.”

The alumni engagement team reached out to alumni to host webinars and offer advice and looked around the University for events and resources it could add to the Stay Connected site, all in an effort to provide alums with a one-stop shop. In its first few weeks, the site saw more than 3,000 registrants for its wide variety of programming.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How can we show up for our alums and really deliver value to them?’” Hornsby says. “We took stock of where are people at right now, and the goal was truly to be there for our alums.”

Elsewhere the Division of Athletics and Recreation launched a site offering online fitness classes for mind and body, while students who were participating in club sports like kayaking and rugby interacted instead through sports trivia games and the exciting world of esports. DU’s Community + Values initiative, created in 2019 to bring the University closer together, began a weekly webinar series on such topics as online learning, self-care and leadership during uncertain times.

University College, which specializes in continuing and professional studies, offered a number of its popular online enrichment courses — in topics like Colorado history, Buddhist meditation and female singer-songwriters of the 1970s — for free on its website. And the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, which has particular expertise in infant and early childhood mental health, launched a virtual morning dance party for kids and families. It happens from 8 to 8:30 a.m. every day of the week from the home of Tracy Vozar, a clinical assistant professor at the school. Whether the theme is dinosaurs or Disney, people from around the country log on each morning to get their day started with a fun dose of movement.

Tracy Vozar, a clinical assistant professor at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, hosts a daily online dance party for kids and families.

“As a clinical psychologist, I’m especially interested in ways to promote mental health and well-being and relationships among people, and I’m particularly focused on caregiver-child relationships,” says Vozar, who hosts the dance sessions with her husband and three kids. “I had this idea about the dance parties, and I thought, ‘We’ll just throw it out there, and if nothing else we’ll try it, and it’ll be fun to dance with some folks for a few days.’ I have been blown away by the effectiveness of the dance parties. During this very strange time we’re all going through, it really feels powerful and important. And it’s just fun.”

Online connections are happening in other areas of the University as well. Project X-ITE, DU’s hub for entrepreneurship, is hosting more than 30 online workshops through the end of May. They feature community mentors, startup founders and experts across Colorado, speaking on topics from economic uncertainty to launching software to mental health support. The Division of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence, meanwhile, created a slew of digital events for students, from interactive movie parties and virtual museum tours to online books clubs and trivia nights.

“Social isolation was already an issue on college campuses, and now, with physical distancing and the health and economic implications of this pandemic, we are at greater risk of feeling anxiety, loneliness and depression,” says Lili Rodriguez, vice chancellor of campus life and inclusive excellence. “We know we can’t mimic the on-campus experience fully, but we will absolutely try our hardest to ensure that students have opportunities to stay connected, have fun and laugh.”

Support system

Another important function of the Connected website is that it provides a quick link for users to donate to DU’s Student Assistance Fund, which provides support for students unable to meet immediate, essential expenses, including supplies for self-quarantine, funds for traveling home or basic food needs. The fund raised more than $58,000 over 30 days at the height of the pandemic.

Donate to the Student Assistance Fund

Other areas of campus rallied to offer support: The Health & Counseling Center adopted telemedicine so it could keep seeing students. For some staff members, an emergency COVID-19 leave fund kept paychecks coming after sick and vacation time had been exhausted.

Technological challenges were addressed as well, including shipping laptops to students who needed them and paying to upgrade internet service at the homes of faculty members experiencing spotty coverage.

“It’s all just about love for the faculty and love for the students,” Lengsfeld says. “To watch that happen was amazing. It’s the most inspiring thing I have experienced in my career.”

Despite DU’s success transitioning classes to the digital realm, Lengsfeld and her staff soon realized that online learning presents serious challenges for students in different time zones, those who struggle with technology or equipment issues, and those with different learning styles. In April, the provost’s office gave students the option of taking spring-term classes on a pass plus/pass/no pass basis. Optional per student per class, the grading system was arrived at after conversations with the Faculty Senate, the Faculty of Color Association, the Joint Council representing undergraduate affinity groups, Graduate Student Government and Undergraduate Student Government, which passed its own resolution to implement a pass/fail option for the 2020 spring term. The Sturm College of Law began offering the option in March.

“At the heart of this input is the principle of equity, as many of our students are struggling due to very different circumstances,” Lengsfeld and Haefner wrote in an email to the DU community. “We believe that the pass plus/pass/no pass option provides our students greater flexibility as we move through this unprecedented period. While it will not erase the disparities many of our students face, it will to some extent mitigate their frustration and anxiety. It is this principle of equity and our embrace of the public good that drives our decision.”

Looking past the crisis

Whether it’s a stronger sense of community, faculty gaining new skills or the innovative spirit behind countless outreach efforts, there were some silver linings to the COVID-19 crisis. Some of the lessons learned could serve the University well in the future, whether that means using online learning during snowstorms or when students are ill, offering more digital classes to learners around the globe or keeping alumni better connected in the virtual world.

“We’re all about student success and staying on track and graduation rates and making sure the students have a great experience,” Lengsfeld says. “A lot of the things we’re learning this term are going to help us, and [the crisis] rapidly pushed us to do things we were thinking about before. We had to stand it up in less than a week. It could have taken years.”

Many faculty members feel the same way, embracing the challenge of online teaching and looking at it as a learning experience instead of a temporary inconvenience.

“We treasure having in-person, close relationships with our students, and we know that we will get back to that,” says Andrea Stanton, chair of and associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies. “As a department, we are also trying to figure out what we can learn from this term. We’re going to try some things out this term, then we’re going to report back and we’re going to see what is it that we did that we can take forward — what is it in terms of the pedagogy we can take forward; what is it in terms of the community-building we can take forward? How can we make this a period that is as meaningful and positive as it can be, rather than simply something that we grit our teeth and get through?”

Tom Romero, associate provost of inclusive excellence and research and curriculum initiatives, associate professor in the Sturm College of Law, affiliate faculty in the Department of History, and faculty director for IRISE, DU’s Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (in)Equality, agrees.

“What I’ve seen from many of my colleagues in the law school is a great deal of empathy about the shared enterprise of learning and of education and of pedagogy,” he says. “I’m certainly hoping from the faculty side that this gives us time and opportunity to pause and reflect about how we engage with our students, how we effectively deliver content, [and] how we can be creative in reaching very different types of learners, with their very different types of access to resources.” 

Community effort

The pandemic is proving to be one of the most trying times in the University’s history, but through it all Haefner emphasizes the strength of the DU community. He praises students, faculty and staff for their “courageous, clear-headed and compassionate stance.” He says: “These are unbelievable times we find ourselves in, but I want to be very clear about something: We are fine as a university, and we will be fine. We will be stronger as a result of this experience.”


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