When Meredith students left campus in March for spring break, they couldn’t have known that the rest of the semester would be changed in unprecedented ways. While campus leaders had been monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) and updating its longstanding pandemic plan, the situation changed rapidly in the United States while students were away. Based on guidance from state and federal officials, Meredith leaders made the decision to extend spring break by one week, and ultimately, to move all instruction to a remote learning model.
In announcing the change, President Jo Allen, ’80, acknowledged the difficulties it brought.
“I recognize how disheartening this news is for many of you – no student planned for such a dramatic change in the semester,” Allen said. “But I also know you are incredibly strong, resilient, and smart. As always, I thank you for your strength and ingenuity as we navigate this storm.”
Allen was correct that the Meredith community would meet these challenges with resilience and strength.
Faculty worked to revamp coursework for a new remote learning model, college programs staff adapted their services to teleconferences and other distance options, and Meredith staff in other offices transitioned to working from home. Technology Services staff, and their team of student assistants, played an important role in making sure the work of the College and its students could continue as seamlessly as possible. Essential staff, including campus police, housekeeping, facilities, and dining, continued to serve the reduced number of students who were allowed to remain on campus because of special circumstances.
Successful Academic Transition
Faculty worked tirelessly during students’ extended spring break to ensure they were ready for the transition to remote classes. Assistant Professor of Communication Alan Buck spent the week learning more about digital instruction. Like many instructors at Meredith, Buck typically focuses on in-person meetings and group projects to provide students with real world learning opportunities, so he had to get creative and reimagine his curriculum.
Buck also took time to reach out to students to offer reassurances as everyone dealt with the unexpected. “I am learning this week how to move our class online, so I ask that you please be patient with me, and I will do the same for you,” Buck wrote to his students. “This is new territory for all of us, and we will get through it together.”
Buck said he imagined students might respond with questions about their grades and how they might complete their projects. Instead, he was flooded with messages from students offering nothing but understanding and support.
Other faculty reported similar responses from students. Carol Finley, head of the dance and theatre department, held an informal Zoom video call with her dance students and faculty during the extended break topractice with the technology and to help calm students’ anxiety. Finley found that the mood was surprisingly joyful. “It was reassuring to know that none of us [were] in this alone,” she said.
That positivity and perseverance continued through the remainder of the semester. Provost and Senior Vice President Matthew Poslusny said he is incredibly proud of the Meredith community’s ability to adapt to challenges.
“We went from a traditional campus in-person experience to fully online in just about ten days. This could not have been done without faculty embracing new technology and without faculty and staff – especially those in Instructional Design & Academic Technology – helping each other learn this technology,” Poslusny said. “It could not have been done without everyone having patience, flexibility, and maintaining a positive attitude. Our students showed every day what Meredith Going Strong means.”
College Services Made Available in New Ways
Academic support was available for students, with the Learning Center offering virtual appointments and the Carlyle Campbell Library providing a wide range of services through their online branch. In addition, services including advising, career planning, StrongPoints®, and more were available virtually.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the emphasis on strengths through Meredith’s StrongPoints program, took on even greater significance. Because of the importance of using strengths to meet challenges, StrongPoints workshops and coaching appointments were made available online.
“The power of your strengths comes from using them. You need to know the tools you have at your disposal,” said Candice Webb, director of StrongPoints. “We want to teach students to reach for their strengths to overcome challenges and build resilience.”
Continued Support for Admissions and Recruitment
While much attention was given to supporting current students, Meredith also took action to make sure prospective students and their families were able to connect with Meredith’s Admissions Office. A special Virtual Welcome Center section of the admissions website was developed to allow students to experience Meredith virtually. The site includes options to connect with admissions and financial assistance counselors, to speak with faculty members and young alumnae, and to take virtual tours of campus and the residence halls. Admissions also held weekly events on Zoom, scheduling frequent Facebook Live chats with current students, and providing other online opportunities, recreating as much of the campus visit experience as possible in a virtual format.
Building Community Online
While students, faculty, and staff were apart physically, the Meredith community stayed strong together – and this was celebrated through the College’s social media, website, and via email. College leadership sent frequent updates to the campus community, offering critical information and words of support. Chaplain Donna Coletrane Battle sent weekly messages to the campus community as well, offering spiritual support. The Marketing Department launched a #MCStayingStrong campaign on social media, as a way to lift spirits and to let the Meredith community share their work and learn from home spaces, their four-legged “coworkers,” and their continued love for Meredith. The Alumnae Office instituted a new weekly email newsletter that was meant to keep alumnae connected to each other. Virtual chapter events were also offered.
Staying Strong in Italy
The strong sense of community at Meredith was felt all the way in Sansepolcro, Italy, where Meredith has hosted study abroad programs for more than 20 years. Assistant Director of Meredith in Italy Sara Andreini shared how she and her family were doing under “stay-at-home” orders.
“I’m working remotely, my kids are attending online classes, and I’m keeping busy planning future lessons for when my Meredith students will be able to study abroad in Sansepolcro again,” Andreini said. “We can’t go out except for grocery shopping or work,” said Andreini. “It’s hard for us as Italians because we are so used to seeing each other on a daily basis.”
Though life has changed temporarily, Andreini is looking forward to exploring her town again with her Meredith students. “In this time, I’m grateful for Meredith College: for all the students who have been here, for all the colleagues who have become friends, and for all the support that you are giving to our community,” she said. “Thank you, because we feel part of this wonderful Meredith community!”
Moving Forward with Strength
President Allen said the College community – in Raleigh, in Italy, and in students’ homes around the country – will have learned many lessons over the course of the pandemic and its aftermath.
“We’ll be asked what we learned about ourselves. I have no doubt that it will be that we cared deeply for each other. That we acted bravely, and with courage and kindness, in getting through a difficult time. We’ve seen adversity before and we have rebounded,” Allen said. “And we will do that again.”
Students agree that they learned about their strengths, and the strength of a Meredith education.
“Our last semester was simply cut too short. However, I am choosing to remember all the traditions we did get to experience,” said Lina Chaarawi, ’20. “Meredith College has truly shaped me into the woman I am today.”
To reassure her classmates, Belle Rose, ’20, reminded them of their lifelong bonds.
“We are not just strong, we are Meredith strong,” Rose said. “We will see each other again.”