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Looking back and looking forward: lessons from the pandemic

Illustrated by Ndidi Nwosu

By Nicole Lhuillier     4/27/21 10:39pm

The Rice community is eagerly anticipating a return to some kind of normal in the fall semester. Still, it’s clear that not everything will be the same as before the pandemic — but maybe for good reason. While the past year has been undeniably difficult, the Rice community can leave it with important takeaways. We asked administrators, faculty and student leaders what they have learned and what they envision for Rice when distancing, masking and virtual interactions are not the default procedures of the campus experience.

Classrooms and community

Many faculty have said there are aspects of teaching during the pandemic — such as online office hours, which are more flexible, and virtual guest lectures — that they appreciate and want to continue in the future, according to Robin Paige, the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. Paige and kinesiology professor Cassandra Diep said hosting guest speakers from out of town is accessible through technology like Zoom.

“We use technology in ways that most faculty had never used it before, so we learned a lot of lessons about how to have our pedagogy or our learning goals in the classroom really drive our technology decisions,” Paige said. “I think that will be what we’re going to bring into the fall.”

Diep (Jones College ’07) said that she hopes Rice continues to incorporate virtual experiences even when remote learning is not necessary. She said that with technology, both instructors like herself and student organizations have been able to facilitate experiences they did not carry out before the pandemic — discussion forums on Canvas and online workshops, for example.

“Before the pandemic, Rice was behind in online learning. Other universities had online courses and entire online degree programs, but Rice valued the traditional in-person experience and had minimal online learning,” Diep said. “I’m all for the in-person experience and prefer in-person classes, but the pandemic has revealed that online or virtual aspects are also valuable.”

Diep said she hopes professors enhance engagement by incorporating technology, like slides and online polls, and active learning techniques, like breakout rooms and flipped classrooms. According to Diep, classrooms and buildings, many of which are still the same as when she was an undergraduate at Rice, can be refreshed as well.

“I hope Rice continues to push the needle forward when it comes to updating and modernizing the classroom experience,” Diep said. 

Paige, a sociology adjunct professor, said faculty have learned how to be flexible in the way they conduct their courses and in the way students engage. Alongside greater flexibility, Paige expects more conversation with students and feedback mechanisms next school year, she said.

“I know a lot of faculty and myself … really value collecting feedback from students on a regular basis: checking in with students, asking not only how are they doing as people, but [also] how are they doing in terms of their success in the course, how is the course format working for them,” Paige said.

Since the transition to remote platforms last year, connection and community have been two things for instructors to keep in mind, according to Paige. She said she thinks that Rice faculty have done an exceptional job building community by connecting with students in different formats, and they will need to continue to do so in the future, after so much remote learning.

“I think what we see is we’re definitely more thoughtful and responsive teachers in the classroom,” Paige said. “The pandemic really made us more empathetic as instructors, as mentors, as colleagues to each other.”

Experiencing the pandemic and working at Rice, people have realized the importance of relationships, such as those between administration, faculty and students, which can be further enriched, according to Paige. 

“[Rice is] a great place for that because of our residential college system, because of our size, and as we’re growing the undergraduate population, this is a great opportunity for us to focus on, what did we learn about building these strong relationships in the last year and how can we build upon what we’ve learned?” Paige said.

Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman said that a situation like operating in person during the pandemic could not be managed without teamwork, community and collaboration. She said she has been impressed by how well people have risen to the challenge.

“When I think about what has worked well — I think, relatively speaking, Rice has managed this situation probably about as best as we could have hoped for — it truly is because of how strong we act as a collective team,” Gorman said. “And I can think about that through the various interactions I’ve had with [not only] student leaders and students in general, but also faculty, staff, admin.”

Health, public and private

Gorman said the pandemic has been a horrible example to everyone of the significance of public health measures, which were easily taken for granted pre-pandemic. 

“Back when I used to teach medical sociology, I would say success in public health is a negative. It means you don’t have polluted water; you don’t have air that’s problematic; you don’t have disease spreading around,” Gorman said. “When you have the absence of a problem, you forget why you have to stay diligent [about] certain things to keep that problem at bay.”

Gorman hopes people are more aware that they are a part of a larger community and that individual actions matter for community health, she said, and she hopes this awareness is retained.

“Thinking about that as a community and an institution, are there things from this that we can take forward to continue to promote health in every way?” Gorman said. “Health is a very holistic thing. It’s physical health; it’s mental health; it’s social health; it’s spiritual health; it’s all of it.”

According to Diep, public health is undervalued and underfunded: it lacks resources, trained professionals and overall appreciation. In addition, Diep said that according to research and her conversations with students at Rice, rates of mental health and substance use concerns among college students are growing.

“I think that once this pandemic is over, Rice needs to pay a lot of attention to mental health and substance abuse in the Rice community, especially among students,” Diep said. “Overall, Rice has done a great job of following the data and science to protect the Rice community from COVID-19 during this pandemic, so I hope Rice will follow the data and science to protect the Rice community from other concerns.”

Diep also said that work-life balance is hard for everyone, for working parents in particular, and the pandemic exacerbated their struggles.

“When everything, including childcare and schools, shut down, we were expected to be full-time parents, full-time employees, and full-time teachers – all at the same time,” Diep said. “I’m grateful that many employers, including Rice, have been understanding, but it took a pandemic for this to happen.”

For Mehta, the biggest lesson from college during the pandemic is that it is completely okay to not be constantly productive. After burning out last semester, Mehta has prioritized exercise, rest days during the week and a set bedtime — whether or not he has completed all his tasks for the day — and these changes were completely worth making, he said.

“I tried treating the fall 2020 semester like it was a normal one, and by the end of it, I was so exhausted,” Mehta said. “Over winter break I realized that I wouldn’t be able to keep running at full steam for another pandemic semester, and I’m glad to say that I made the spring semester different.”

Diep said she has learned to appreciate the present moment and now lives day-to-day. Before the pandemic, she lived for the future, in constant anticipation of events months or years down the road, she said. 

“Even in the beginning of the pandemic, I was looking forward to the summer and almost monotonously going through each day,” Diep said. “Eventually, I realized that this pandemic was going to last longer than expected and we don’t know what the future holds, so I had to live in the present.”

Student life

The pandemic didn’t stop Rice Program Council from holding in-person events for the student body — in line with campus protocols, of course. RPC had no precedent to guide members in developing pandemic-safe event plans, which required approval from Rice Crisis Management, according to current internal vice president and incoming president Divya Jain. Jain said she is grateful for every RPC member who worked tirelessly to adapt to the new situation.

Jain said she has learned a lot about Rice’s resources and departments since RPC is restricted in their use of outside vendors and many events have had to be held in outdoor spaces on campus. In the future, Jain wants RPC to maximize the resources available at Rice by continuing to communicate with campus departments, she said.

“Our committees worked closely with [Facilities Engineering and Planning] and the Student Center this year to rent equipment such as speaker systems, generators, trash-cans, golf carts and coolers to accommodate for these additional difficulties for our events this year,” Jain said. “I hadn’t previously realized all the useful resources these departments had.” 

Jain said she looks forward to larger events that are open to all Rice students and sufficiently supported by RPC members when COVID-19 is no longer a major concern.

“Increasing the event scale, while still adhering to safety protocols, is a priority of mine, and I hope to ensure that all RPC events are inclusive as well as bigger and better than even before the pandemic,” Jain said. “Capacity limits were particularly difficult to navigate this year because we’d have to find a balance between having enough RPC member volunteers to facilitate the event while also maximizing the number of non-RPC participants in the event.”

In different ways, student organizations have adjusted to the challenges of pandemic college life. Brown College sophomore Jay Mehta said he had thought COVID-19 would be under control by the start of the fall 2020 semester. As president of Nocturnal, he had a long list of things he wanted the a capella group to accomplish.

“Of course, COVID was still very much a problem in the fall, and it hit like a train,” Mehta said. “We didn’t do everything I had hoped.”

Due to many obstacles, Nocturnal’s fall 2020 project, a prerecorded Black Lives Matter benefit concert, wasn’t completed until this semester, according to Mehta. He said other Nocturnal officers — who arranged the music, taught it to members on-campus and remote and put together the audio and video — made it possible. Mehta said he learned that it’s impossible to prepare for everything and teamwork is essential in dealing with the inevitable hiccups. 

“Plan as best as you can and roll with the punches from there,” Mehta said. “Lean on the people around you for support because leadership does not need to be a singular effort.”

As president again next year, Mehta said he might want to increase social programming to make up for the previous semesters, but his main goal is to return to Nocturnal’s pre-pandemic model with their standard events.

“I’m proud of what we accomplished, but making a cappella happen virtually was an incredible amount of work,” Mehta said. “For the sake of avoiding burnout in the group, I really just want to bring back a ‘normal’ Nocturnal experience when COVID-19 isn’t a concern anymore.”

Gorman said that she thinks a good portion of the pandemic restrictions and policies will be sunsetted, although some COVID-19 concerns will still affect fall 2021. Gorman said that she feels optimistic and that she is looking forward to the new normal.

“I don’t think it’s going to be 100 percent normal come fall, but I do think it’s going to be a lot closer to normal than we are now, and I expect that from the student perspective it’s going to feel normal-ish,” Gorman said. “I want to interact with you all in typical ways again. As wonderful as Zoom can be, I’m gonna be really glad when I don’t have every meeting on Zoom anymore.”

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