No one could have predicted COVID-19, or its far-reaching effects.
But Penn State Mont Alto’s sense of campus community and focus on student success, coupled with being resourced as a world-class university, positioned it well to adapt, innovate and stay connected over the spring 2020 semester.
From virtual festivals to Zoom awards ceremonies, Penn State Mont Alto faculty and staff are taking a look back at how they were challenged, lessons learned, and how those lessons will serve students in the future.
For 14 years, Penn State Mont Alto’s Academic Festival exhibited students’ work produced during the academic year, including artwork, research projects, oral presentations and informational exhibits. As Penn State moved to remote learning in mid-March in response to COVID-19, it became apparent this year’s 15th anniversary festival would not take place in its traditional format. The festival committee knew the event wastoo important to cancel, so the members rolled up their sleeves, assessed their resources and innovated.
The Academic Festival used a combination of Zoom, online videos and ScholarSphere - Penn State’s digital repository for scholarly work - to create an event that took place on the original festival date. Some adaptations worked so well, they might be part of next year’s festival.
“We weren’t sure how students would respond. Would they still want to participate in a virtual event?” said Patricia Gochenauer, career counselor, “Students are resilient. They still participated. Attendance didn’t decrease.’’
Gochenauer also shared that the online format for this year’s festival means that students can share the links to their projects on their LinkedIn profiles and on graduate school applications. The virtual setting also made it easier for families, friends and local community members to attend.
Online resources available at Penn State Mont Alto’s library played an important role in student success during the Academic Festival, and throughout the past semester. Many library resources remain available online, including e-books, scholarly articles and research databases. Librarians are available to assist students with accessing them.
Recognizing that student success and well-being includes staying active, the Penn State Mont Alto athletic department has been releasing weekly workout challenge videos. The exercises are designed to be user-friendly, body-weight exercises for which no equipment is needed. Students have been sharing their own clips, and faculty have been creating and sharing fun TikTok video compilations.
Michael Doncheski, Ph.D, chief academic officer, was very happy with how well students and faculty adapted to remote learning.
“It wasn’t perfect, but we learned we are far more agile as a campus and university than we knew,” he said.
Doncheski pointed to the speed with which the local campus loaned laptops and hotspots, and the university’s ability to provide instructional designers as a benefit of having a local community within a larger university infrastructure.
He was especially heartened by the connectedness of the virtual 2020 commencement ceremony and the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society induction ceremony, which recognizes adult learners.
Faculty and staff support
Students were not the only beneficiaries of COVID-related support during the semester. Several initiatives brought information and connectedness to help faculty and staff through the challenges.
Kira Hamman, director of the honors program, and Robin Yaure, program coordinator for the baccalaureate psychology program, immediately recognized the need for such support. They initiated a Faculty Happy Hour and a popular Social Distance Lunch Hour. The weekly lunch hour provided answers to questions about technology and remote pedagogy, as well as general moral support. Doug Prowant, director of information technology, was present at each lunch hour to troubleshoot, and the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence was invited to explore the nuances of online learning.
The end of the semester was celebrated with a Who’s Zoomin’ Who award ceremony, which replaced an end-of-year luncheon and campus celebration. The online ceremony provided the traditional recognitions for campus contributions and employment milestones and also recognized the faculty and staff who met the challenge of remote delivery head on.
Hamman and Kelly Sprinkle, kinesiology lecturer, transitioned Weekly Recess - a weekly movement program for faculty and staff - to a virtual weekly wellness challenge. They tracked several data points for each participant through an app called MapMyRun, which staff and faculty downloaded to their phones.
“My secret goal was to match the guidelines for weekly physical fitness, and many did,” Sprinkle said. She acknowledged setting up and maintaining the program took time and focus. She was encouraged by the response and felt strongly that “movement is a viable part of who we are and a much-needed component of a suddenly sedentary lifestyle.”
A strong campus community and the resources of a world-class university allowed Penn State Mont Alto to continue to prioritize student success in a period of uncertainty and panic.