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QUEST: Where There’s a Yote, There’s a Way

October 7, 2020

This story is included in the most-recent issue of Quest Magazine, the College's twice-yearly Alumni publication. To view the entire issue online, or to view longer-form "Quest Extra" pieces, click here.

The annals of time are likely to mark the recent period as the world before COVID-19 and the world after COVID-19. The pandemic has touched virtually every aspect of life on the planet in some way. And the way the narrative has played out so far, days feel like weeks and weeks feel like years. 

It almost seems like a year’s worth of events occurred between a record-setting Scholarship Gala on the evening of Friday, February 28 and the day the College became the first higher education institution in Idaho to announce it would go online-only for the rest of the semester on March 13th. Just a two-week period between those two events. “I’ll never forget that day,” Co-President Jim Everett said. “It was March 13th. A Friday the 13th.” 

The College had communicated to campus that following spring break, all classes would be completed online, students were encouraged to move off-campus as soon as they could, and all in-person events (including athletics and commencement) were canceled. Tears and shock flowed throughout campus as the realization set in that many of the in-person relationships and interactions were coming to a close in a matter of hours rather than months later at the end of the school year. 

But as difficult as the decision was to make, it was made by a unified administrative group. The senior leadership team had been meeting every morning to discuss the rapidly changing circumstances and spread of the coronavirus. Biomedical data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and advice from some of the top medical professionals in Southern Idaho were being discussed and evaluated, played out scenarios and assessed how they could affect the campus community.  

“We were doing our best to render what we thought was a prudent course of action that would be the best balance between health and safety on the one hand and our institutional mission on the other hand, which is transformative education,” said Vice President of Academic Affairs David Douglass. “We felt it was really important to err on the side of caution.” 

Simultaneously with the decision to close campus, College administrators set up processes for room and board funds to be either refunded (for graduating seniors) or credited (for continuing students). Unlike at many schools across the nation, arrangements were also made for international (and some domestic) students who could not return home safely to remain on campus, and many of those arrangements have been extended throughout the summer. “Those students need to stay in a stable place,” Everett said, “and we’re glad to be able to do it.” 

In the late spring, six task forces were formed to focus on details related to educational and operational functions of the College, including academics, health and safety, student life, athletics, summer employment, and financial stewardship. The College plans a phased reopening approach for August 2020, beginning with online-only instruction and an elective residence option for students prioritized by need. Should public health and safety conditions improve, the College will advance through phases of re-opening in-person activities and instruction.  

The Faculty

With the March 13 announcement, the faculty had two weeks to prepare for online instruction. Of note, the College has had two successive task forces over the past two years that produced white papers about how distance learning fits in with the traditional, in-person characteristic of the College. It’s likely it would have taken years to implement the type of online-learning delivery that COVID-19 forced the College to adopt in just two weeks’ time.  

“It would not have been surprising to anybody if it had been a complete disaster,” said David Douglass, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty. “I was just deeply impressed at how agile, how resilient, how graceful this community was in adjusting to an astonishing, unprecedented change for everybody. Folks managed it, by and large, as well as it could have been managed.” 

Assistant Director of Information Technology Alan Price ’10, who is credited with leading as smooth a technical transition as possible, quickly pulled together lab sessions for the faculty to learn the technology that would deliver their previously in-person instruction.  

Faculty changed their “office” hours to “student” hours, actively reaching out to students for individual virtual meetings to find out how they were doing, not only in the class, but overall.  

One of the most challenging areas of the educational endeavor to reproduce online is lab work across the sciences. Chemistry Associate Professor Carolyn Dadabay had just sent home 14 students in a 400-level biochemistry class and wanted a way to preserve some of the lab work they would now be missing, even if some students didn’t even have access to a kitchen. “I was trying to think of some simple experiments that they could do if they had nothing but a bathroom and could only use the stuff that I sent them,” she said. So she purchased various items such as enzymes, plastic test tubes, pH paper (all items that are safe to use in a home environment) from Amazon and had them delivered to each student. “I had all the stuff sent to me, because I also wasn’t going anywhere at the time, so I was home, taking pictures of me (showing) ‘here’s what it should look like.’ ” All this to give them the tools for the hands-on testing and learning that is critical in the sciences. 

Fellow Chemistry Professor Caleb Tormey had a similar approach through a different medium. His experiments required being in a lab. It wasn’t critical for general chemistry students to do the actual experiments, but it was important for them to get the data. He still wanted them to see how the data was gathered, so he created his own videos of the experiments. “I looked up YouTube creators to find out how to keep people watching. They said two key things are lighting and audio. If you get those two down, people are a lot less likely to click off.” Before long, Tormey used his webcam, a little tripod, and a microphone to produce quality videos, with a bit of his own unique creativity mixed in to keep his students’ attention when he couldn’t be in the same room with them.   

“I think students can tell if you are not trying to engage them,” Tormey added, “or doing your best for them.”  

The Students

No group on campus had its world disrupted more than the student body. Not only did students have to flip to online education, but in almost every case, they also had to move out of their residential setting in short order. Even those students who remained on campus felt the same disruption, as many needed to move to different residence halls as the College dedensified campus living. 

Reannon Suzuki never expected her sophomore year to be interrupted by a pandemic, but by March, she found herself back at her home in Mililani, Hawai’i, finishing her semester with online classes that had her up at 4:30 a.m. to make up for the time difference. 

“It was just stress after that,” Suzuki remembered. “Having to pack up all my stuff in a matter of days to come home and then start (online) classes again.” 

Suzuki plans to go to medical school and is studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) this summer. She says that even though it was rough at the beginning, she was able to adjust to her schedule and gives credit to the faculty for making it work.  

“I was really surprised at how well my professors handled everything,” she said. “I expected, since things were so last-minute, everything was going to be so chaotic. But my professors have been really supportive. They were very structured in what they expected from us with online classes. I’m really happy with the way things turned out.” 

Over 180 students needed to stay on campus because they couldn’t return home due to international travel restrictions, a lack of another place to go, or financial hardships imposed by travel expenses. Some of these students were also domestic students who did not have a safe home to which to return. 

Among the international students who stayed on campus, sophomore Christian Garcia from Venezuela heard from other international students he knew at other schools across the country and was thankful for the support he received at the College. “Oftentimes, people forget to appreciate the value of having something to eat or just a place to sleep,” he said. “I have talked to many of my friends in other places about how their colleges have helped them during this time, and the support we are receiving here at the C of I has no point of comparison. This makes me proud of being part of this community and makes me confident and hopeful about the future.” 

Parents of those students also expressed gratitude for the College continuing to support its students on campus through the spring and summer. One international parent wrote, “Many thanks for all the donors and corporate friends of the College who have decided, so generously, to sustain the international students during this atypical summer of 2020. I truly believe that all parents feel the same and are grateful for your permanent support.” 

The College of Idaho has a 129-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.