COVID-19: How the Westminster Spirit Remains Alive During a Pandemic
by Lewis Figun Westbrook (’21)
COVID-19 has changed our lives and the Westminster community immensely. The 2020 Fall Semester has been a new experience for both first-year and returning students as some classes are online while in-person classes are set up to allow for social distancing. Other classes take place outside—and all require that students and professors wear masks.
For a student like me—who currently lives off campus and has exclusively remote classes—this means I have stepped on campus only six times this semester. This has been a very different experience from what I had grown accustomed to. Last year, I lived in the dorms and spent almost every waking moment immersed in the Westminster community. When the academic year came to an end, I moved off campus for my senior year because I wanted to experience renting before I graduated. I’ve really enjoyed getting to live in my own space, but the pandemic and the safety guidelines that go along with it have also left me feeling very isolated from my classes and friends in a way that I didn’t anticipate. I knew that living off campus would be different, but COVID has amplified all the changes. Last year, I saw my friends daily and ran a weekly board game club. Now, seeing my friends is a special treat and the board game club has been disbanded. While I miss that constant connection with people, I feel more confident in my abilities and independence.
In an effort to learn more about how other community members are experiencing these changes, I spoke with individuals on campus to gauge how they feel about the changes and what they are doing to try to keep the Westminster spirit alive. Though this semester has been hard and different, some of the most important things that make Westminster special have remained the same.
Joan Roque, assistant professor of chemistry, says the most challenging part for her is group work but technology has really been helping. Some technology has been provided by Westminster such as Owl, a camera installed in classrooms to provide 360-video to students attending class through programs like Zoom. Other technology comes from professors’ own research. Joan took a class on how to teach online and applied what she learned to her classes. According to her, other professors are trying to discover more about online learning too.
What I found most inspiring though is that a group of Westminster faculty have been leading their own series of workshops over the course of the semester. Joan is a part of this group and led a workshop about recording videos. “It was one thing we used that was efficient when we transitioned to online teaching back in March,” Joan says. “That seemed to be really useful for faculty—and I learned a lot of things too.”
This focus on peer learning also created a community between the faculty. Joan says she was able to meet a lot more people from other departments because of the workshops. COVID-19 pushed Joan and many other professors to learn new things and now Joan has an assortment of tools she plans to continue using. “Although we are putting in a lot of effort now,” Joan says. “I think it’s going to pay off.”
Provost Debbie Tahmassebi says the one big goal she has is to create a healthy and safe environment to educate students. This means there are changes to the way classes look, but they still hold the same philosophy.
“What’s the same is that we focus on the engagement between our students and faculty,” Debbie says. “The faculty is here because they enjoy teaching and working with students. Classes are always constructed with student-learning in mind.”
It is really easy to see that focus when you look at professors like Joan who are putting in the work to make student learning as easy as possible by taking the time to discover new ways of improving their teaching environments. This approach to rethinking the classroom speaks to one of Westminster’s core values: lifelong learning. The global pandemic’s effect on the college has not been without its challenges, but the campus community has proven its ability to rise to the challenge through stepping outside comfort zones and exploring new ways to thrive.
“You always learn something new anytime you have to stop and think about how and why you do things,” Debbie says.
Jenessa Jimoh (’22) is a business economics major who lives on campus this semester and is also an RA. According to Jenessa, living on campus looks very different now because students are not allowed to have anyone in their dorms and can only hang out in group floor spaces with other students living on the same floor. Jenessa says she herself is struggling to make friends. “I understand that professors are probably going through it too,” she says.
President Beth Dobkin says that COVID-19 is affecting all of her decisions as president and causes her to juggle her normal responsibilities while always thinking about safety. “Health and safety are ever-present anyway,” Beth says. “But in a COVID environment, it really requires us to think ahead.”
Westminster College has implemented a lot of changes to create a safe environment for campus community members. Examples include requiring everyone on campus to wear a mask, canceling events, closing the campus to external community members, and reconfiguring the layout of Shaw to meet social-distancing guidelines. Of course, there are some challenges that come along with adhering to safety guidelines. For example, Beth mentioned that it can be difficult to communicate without seeing people’s facial expressions. She says she misses talking in-person to people, too, but these safety precautions are important.
“I would love for students to know how much care and commitment there is for them,” Beth says. “That can be hard to know in this environment where you can’t see people.”
While working on this piece, I thought a lot about what changed and what didn’t because of COVID-19, and I started to realize some things: The convocation was online, but we still welcomed our first-years with open arms and provided them with the tools they need to thrive. Graduation was a drive-through, but our professors were still there to give graduates one last send-off and congratulate them on all the things they have and will accomplish. Classes look completely different, but our professors are banding together to provide me and my fellow students with the best education possible given the circumstances.
It is really easy to be mad at the world right now—and we definitely have that right because so many mistakes and ignorant choices had to happen for us to get where we are. But it is also important to remember that we all love Westminster for the community and people—and we are all trying to protect that by staying as connected as possible given the circumstances.
It’s not perfect, but that was never the goal.
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.