Lessons in resilience

Emily Heffernan, Ph.D. teaches students in her ecology lab
Emily Heffernan, Ph.D. teaches students in her ecology lab

By Abby Weingarten

College life was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, impelling the New College community to reimagine everything—from how professors teach and innovate to how students learn and interact.

And, during a period of seemingly endless question marks, the campus found a way to create inspiring answers, solutions and momentum.

Faculty, staff and students adapted, regrouped and set their sights on a boundless future—even when they didn’t quite know how that would look. Students used their intellectual curiosity, self-reliance and resolve in the midst of chaos to make them better people (and to make the world better).

Unprecedented dilemmas were turned into growth opportunities that would ultimately shape the College’s future and showcase its unique ability to thrive under pressure.

Becoming Inventive Problem Solvers

No other college in the State University System (SUS) of Florida underwent the kind of transformation New College did during the shaky spring of 2020. After the campus was evacuated in mid-March, New College moved from 100 percent in-person classes to 100 percent virtual classes in the span of a couple of weeks.

The College went from an almost entirely residential campus to a totally remote setup. Former Director of Educational Technology Services Angie Fairweather crafted an advanced plan to make remote teaching an exciting, stimulating reality. Classes like art, marine biology and biochemistry—topics that might not necessarily translate well to a digital format—were reinvented flawlessly.

  • Kim Anderson, associate professor of art, worked with Cal Murgu (New College’s research, instruction and digital humanities librarian) to create a fully virtual thesis art exhibition for her students called The Embodied Mind. It was initially planned to have an in-person finale in the Isermann Gallery but was moved to an online format (and it was so high-tech that it was even viewable with virtual reality gear).
  • Athena Rycyk, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and marine science, introduced her students to March Mammal Madness (an annual online tournament of simulated combat competition among mammals, which educated participants about interspecies interactions). The experience was completely online at a time when oceanic group research was not feasible.
  • Associate Professor of Biochemistry Katherine Walstrom, Ph.D., could not involve her students in onsite lab work, so she inspired them to conduct remote research on COVID-19 for their year-end grant proposals. She hosted virtual class discussions as students devised new field experiments and planned to test hypotheses.
  • Burçin Bozkaya, Ph.D., professor of data science and the director of the data science graduate program, brought his students to the very center of the virtual communications movement mid-pandemic. He partnered with Riff Analytics (a Boston-based tech company), and involved his students in researching ways to fundamentally improve telecommunication. The students’ findings could be instrumental in determining how people interact in a more socially-distanced world.

The courses embodied the New College philosophy of keeping class sizes small and intimate, whether they were held in a classroom or on a screen. No Zoom meeting with 200 students from a massive lecture hall class could ever make the impact those customized gatherings made.

And not only did the professors provide compelling content for the students to learn, but they also engaged with them holistically, making sure they were progressing both intellectually and emotionally during the spring. The close connection between faculty and students, in many cases, grew even stronger during the shared experience of 2020.

The Counseling & Wellness Center (CWC) also ensured that students were taken care of in all aspects—mind, body and soul. Licensed psychologists Anne Fisher, Ph.D. (the CWC’s program director), and Duane G. Khan, Ph.D. (the assistant program director), moved all of their counseling sessions to a video chat platform called the Therapy Assistance Online (TAO) program. Additionally, the Student Success Center staff held virtual workshops and group chats, and offered personalized coaching via phone and Google hangouts.

Staying Committed to Student Success

As the economy and the job market shifted to an uncomfortable degree, New College remained fully committed to students’ success (pre- and post-graduation). Novo Collegians received the royal treatment when it came to career resources, propelling them to prosperous futures by the time they left. Multiple career-centric opportunities were made virtually accessible:

  • The Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO) worked fearlessly to reinvent networking events (at a time when shaking hands and making introductions at large gatherings was forbidden). The CEO had planned to host a Reverse Career on March 26 in Sudakoff Conference Center, and to invite employers to visit student booths for recruiting. When COVID-19 hit, CEO Director Dwayne Peterson and his staff turned what would have been an in-person extravaganza into an all-virtual experience. It was a massive success that drew interest from 76 employers, and the New College students who participated were bombarded with job opportunities.
  • When global travel became a non-option for many students, New College staff encouraged them to pursue virtual study abroad programs and internships. Florence Zamsky, Ph.D., the assistant director of off-campus study/study abroad programs; and Duane Smith, Ph.D., assistant director of prestigious fellowships for the CEO; generated interest in these programs. Third-year student Ky Miller, for example, began working remotely on an ethnographic research project about Costa Rica, waiting until she was able to physically travel there.
  • Three new certificate programs became available to New College students, giving them a leg up in career marketability: Bloomberg Market Concepts (which offers students a visual introduction to financial markets and the core functionality of the Bloomberg terminal) and Geographic Information Systems (equipping students with the tools to analyze geolocated data, explore datasets and design maps), as well as an affiliation with the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute (a professional association for investment management professionals that certifies and prepares students for the financial analysis field).

Life slowed down and to-do lists were put on hold due to the pandemic, but New College faculty and staff showed students that working toward a fulfilling future was not a back-burner item. Students learned that, to successfully progress as candidates in an ever-shifting world, staying competitive and marketable was paramount.

“The pandemic has demonstrated, more than ever, the importance of an education—particularly a liberal arts education. The economy can change in an instant, as we have seen. Jobs disappear and new career opportunities emerge,” said New College Provost Barbara Feldman, Ph.D. “A good education and a college degree will make a student’s economic stability and opportunities for growth much, much better. It is the best insurance a student can have.”

Reopening the Campus

In late June, New College presented its plan to reopen campus to the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) for the SUS, and it included offering both in-person and remote learning options for the fall of 2020.

It was proposed that, in mid-August, the campus would look entirely different, with strict safety measures—from social distancing and face covering to deep cleaning and comprehensive testing—in order to mitigate health risks. Fisher conducted intensive research to help prepare the new guidelines.

“We’re a community at New College, and if we care about each other and do the best we can in terms of prevention, I think we can do a really good job this fall,” Fisher said. “I also think there are advantages to New College being a small campus. We are the only SUS institution trying to test 100 percent of our students (which is something larger universities simply don’t have the capacity to do because there are just too many people).”

Using personal protective equipment (PPE), engaging in shared responsibility training, and implementing a shorter academic calendar were all elements of the plan. Students received “welcome kits” with washable cloth face coverings, disposable face masks and hand sanitizer. Every student, staff and faculty member was tested prior to returning to campus, and drive-through testing clinics were set up outside of Sainer Pavilion. This enabled New College to establish a baseline against which to measure and trace future infections.

Because New College lacks a medical or public health school for in-house advice, Student Health Services on the adjacent University of South Florida (USF) Sarasota-Manatee campus provided all medical services to students.

The number of students living on campus (and thus, the density of residential halls) was also reduced. Cloth face coverings and social distancing were required in all indoor spaces on campus with more than one individual present (except for bedrooms), as well as in outdoor spaces where more than 10 people are gathered.

“If students have trouble with testing or resources or anything at all, we’re small enough that we can answer individual questions, and that’s a positive thing,” Fisher said. “I think we’re doing a number of things to mitigate our risk in ways our surrounding community is not. I hope we’ll be able to provide leadership to the community to show we’re being very responsible.”

Launching Hybrid Learning

New College continues to provide steady leadership during an unnerving area. It became clear in the late spring, summer and early fall of 2020 that the College doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Professors took the summer to regroup and returned in August with a fresh approach to hybrid (remote and in-person) instruction, even for academic experiences that were previously hands-on by nature—like science labs.

For example, in the Ecology Laboratory of Emily Heffernan, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and environmental studies, two Novo Collegians began conducting their insect-based class experiments entirely at home. To accommodate the off-campus learners, Heffernan packed and mailed boxes of supplies to them—measuring tools, vegetable seeds, plastic petri dishes and insect cultures in sealed vials.

“This lab is a great example of our students continuing their hands-on New College education in a remote setting,” said Heffernan, adding that 10 or more of her lab students were meeting in combinations of Zoom groups and in-person masked sessions. “The remote students can conduct several experiments along with the rest of the class.”

The student experiments involve testing resource partitioning in ants, allelopathy in local plants, and using living insects to validate the Lotka-Volterra competition model. Each student is contributing replicates to a larger class data set.

Bella Shuler, a second-year marine biology transfer student, is one of Heffernan’s 100 percent remote participants.

“I’m enjoying being able to collaborate with other students even though I’m currently remote,” Shuler said. “And I’m excited for the upcoming experiments we have including insects.”

Because of the ongoing outreach from her professors, Shuler said that learning from home this fall has been even more fulfilling than she expected.

“The transition to being a remote student at New College wasn’t easy at first, but this semester has been really great because the professors are so accommodating,” Shuler said. “In addition to Dr. Heffernan sending me supplies for our lab, another one of my professors is also sending me supplies, so it’s been really nice to have supportive professors at New College.”

For Heffernan, the semester has presented multiple challenges as an instructor, but her training as a tropical ecologist and entomologist has helped, she said.

“In the field, we learn to solve problems creatively, and I am certainly drawing on that background,” Heffernan said.

To encourage her student scientists to cultivate similar skills, Heffernan is devoting much of the fall to bolstering their professional development. Collaborating with the Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO), Heffernan is ensuring that all of her students end the semester having applied for a job, created a curriculum vitae and undergone a mock job interview.

“My students are also engaged in reviewing and analyzing citizen science data for other national ecological projects, and making connections with other ecologists and field station projects,” Heffernan said. “Students run experiments that test classical ecological theory and evaluate the patterns we see in nature.”

Her students are learning to prepare and present their work for scientific conferences, and to write professional-style manuscripts—all in addition to working in the Ecology Lab. And though the remote and in-person students may not be physically together this fall, they are cooperatively contributing to several final class projects—a skill that will likely serve them in their future scientific careers.

“My remote students are working along with their own materials, and together we generate a lot of data that we share as a class and students analyze,” Heffernan said. “I have been so impressed by the way our students (remote and on campus) have been supporting each other and collaborating.”

This support—for and from the students, and among the campus community as a whole—has enabled New College to navigate a year marked by unparalleled challenges. Collectively, the College learned how to move forward no matter what, and to be ready for anything.

To read all of the Nimbus Fall 2020 issue, visit issuu.com/newcol/docs/nimbus87-fall-web 

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.

Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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