Our New Normal

We’re entering our seventh week back on campus. The new normal is mask-on-mask communication and teaching, COVID testing at least weekly, and lots of outdoor time and activities. We have been five weeks with ZERO positive tests out of 9,493 tests! Overall, we’re at 4 positive test results out of 12,323 as of October 2.

Once I knew we had the option of COVID testing and getting timely results through the Broad Institute of Cambridge, I felt very comfortable that testing, along with measures we’ve taken on campus and in the classrooms, would keep our community as safe as possible.

Students seem truly grateful to be on campus and are doing all they can to keep the herd safe. I teach a senior PDS class this semester, and they have been very determined to finish their senior year on campus.

Thanks to excellent weather the past six weeks, we have been able to make extensive use of the great outdoors. Tents near Lombard and Daniels Auditorium have allowed students to study, take a boxed meal, or get together in the open air. Intramurals have started up for softball, wiffle ball and kickball. Outdoor movies are shown (weather permitting), food trucks make an occasional visit, and the list goes on.

While fall sports competition has been cancelled, our teams remain active. During the first two weeks of the semester, masked student athletes did individual strength and conditioning at social distances until we saw how testing was going. In mid-semester, athletics transitioned to workouts and practice in groups of 10 by team. Currently, the majority of our teams are transitioning into phase two of our approach which allows for larger groups and move involved practices.

There are always concerns making decisions during a state of uncertainty. That said, I always believed we had a solid plan for in-person classes and residential students this fall.

Celebrating the Class of 2020

On the morning of Saturday, May 2nd, Nichols celebrated Commencement as usual. Not really. Commencement in the time of COVID-19 has turned into a unique experience for almost every college in the country. It posed a challenge to make this occasion as meaningful as possible to our seniors, their loved ones, and their friends.

While the graduates have been promised an in-person Commencement at a later date, I wanted students to come away from the celebration event feeling recognized, properly honored, and loved. They spent four good years at Nichols, made strong friendships, learned much, and now are headed to success in their chosen careers.

For me, this felt bittersweet. I missed being able to see students in person during the end of the semester and their typical senior week events. Nevertheless, we stayed upbeat and celebratory while still being mindful that we were celebrating in the midst of an international health crisis.

“The disruption you experienced this semester is unprecedented. but can there be a better class number than 2020? I think not,” I intoned on Zoom. “I remember joking about this during our Fall 2016 welcome event. I said that you would be able to look back on your time at Nichols with perfect 20/20 vision. And will you ever.”

This celebration also conjured numbers of the digital kind. At our peak, we had over 750 people around the country and beyond watching live at the same time. By the following Monday morning, we counted nearly 3,000 views. The livestream garnered 150 comments, and across our social media channels, the event resulted in over 168,000 impressions on Saturday alone.

As I reassured the graduates in virtual attendance — in real time or asynchronously, “Think of the story you will tell in the years and decades ahead to your children and grandchildren. With your perfect hindsight, you’ll say, ‘Back in my time, in the Class of 2020, we made history!’”

Yes, we did.

Going Up!

One of my favorite springtime activities is the annual Elevator Speech Competition, for which I serve as a judge and rapt audience member. This year I had to fulfill both roles online for the first time. And, so did the Nichols students who presented via the videoconferencing app Zoom and were streamed live to an audience far from campus.

The Elevator Speech Competition requires students to make their case to a potential employer in about the time it takes that conveyance to reach the higher floors. And at Nichols, it’s become a study in the personal accomplishments, self-awareness, and self-confidence of students reaching for their own career heights.

A majority of the competitors in 2020 were first-year students. They were amazingly poised and articulate. Many talked about adversity they had overcome. All were quite brave giving a speech from their homes via Zoom.

It was hard selecting a winner. For the first time, there were two first place winners. Alex Stroshine, a senior Finance Major and a 4+1 student simultaneously pursuing her master’s degree, focused on the importance of balancing self with others and embracing change. Hannah Vangel, a transfer student and junior psychology major, talked about the importance of a growth mindset and, in accepting her prize, noted how welcoming she has found Nichols since she arrived.

This year’s competition joined other spring semester activities—from the annual academic awards ceremony in April to the Class of 2020 Celebration earlier this month—all taking place virtually. These occasions demonstrated the commitment in all areas of the College to ensure our students stayed connected and had good experiences over the last six weeks of the semester. While not quite as good as being there in person, the events certainly celebrated, honored, and showcased our amazing students.

The 2020 elevator speeches of all participating students now live on YouTube.

Another thing these students have in common: They are all definitely going up!

Springtime on a Quiet Campus

The last month has been unlike any I’ve spent as an educator. Having to change to many of us working from home rather than on campus, institute synchronous online classes in the undergraduate program, and help students, faculty, and staff through such a disorienting time have been firsts for me.

It certainly is strange walking around this beautiful campus with no students when it should be bustling with activity. I think I saw a tear in our Bison statue Thunder’s eye the other day when I walked by. The only good thing is that parking is plentiful—there’s no climb up two sets of stairs!

In announcing the need to academically distance several weeks ago, I sent a message to the Class of 2020, which read in part, “It is truly impossible to express how very sorry I am that your final semester has been disrupted in such a profound way. In-person courses with faculty and classmates, presentations, field trips, athletic events, personal travel, and fun times with friends have been postponed or cancelled.”

“For many of you and your families, I remember being there the day you moved into Shamie or other residence halls. And I fondly remember shaking each of your hands as we came together during fall orientation. You are all in my heart. Please know it aches for you.”

I’ve since read a number of tweets, texts, and other messages from seniors sharing their sense of loss and disappointment that the culminating events they were anticipating—from awards ceremonies to socials—are not to be this year.

One of my all-time favorite gatherings is the Commencement Eve dinner, where nominated seniors and students from our Graduate and Professional Studies program celebrate with the Board of Trustees. Each student brings two guests and invites a staff or faculty member whom they feel has had a big impact on them. All of the students speak about their Nichols experience. I tear up every year. I will also miss being a judge for the Mr. Nichols competition, the champagne brunch and toast, and so many other events.

I’ve been especially thinking the past two weeks about our seniors, who will spend their last term at Nichols remotely, including postponing their Commencement ceremony. We are planning a virtual celebration of sorts on May 2. This will NOT be an online graduation. I promised our seniors that we will schedule an in-person event with all the pomp and circumstance once we are allowed to hold large gatherings again. I just can’t predict when that might be, but I look forward to it eagerly.

And we will not let the hard work, progress, and contributions of the Class of 2020 go unnoticed or unappreciated. They have done Nichols proud for the past four years and made a difference in all our lives. I can’t wait for the day when we call the Class of 2020 herd back home to the Hill.

Bison are tough. The Herd is strong. We will all look back on this as one of the most profound events in our lifetime. But we will emerge from it stronger with much more appreciation of all the things large and small for which we are thankful.

Basking in the Warmth of Nichols Alumni

Baseball teams head to Florida in February and March for spring training in the warm sunshine. So do I for my annual visit with our growing numbers of Nichols alumni, with whom I find an even greater warmth.

There is always one large event in Naples, and this year we had over 70 attendees. I remember my first Naples event nine years ago where we had less than 20 folks. It has been really fun seeing the participation and enthusiasm grow every year for this get together.

There are always new faces. One this year was from the Class of 1972, and it was his first time at a Florida gathering. While most attendees from earlier Naples events came from classes of the 1960s and 70s, the turnout now spans a wider range. This year we also had about a dozen people from the 1980s, a few from the 1990s, and a recent graduate from the class of 2019. Folks traveled from Miami, the Tampa area, and even South Carolina!

On my Sunshine State sojourns, I also spend several days visiting with individuals. My travels this time took to me Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, Ft. Lauderdale, and Punta Gorda. Luckily I subscribe to Audible, so I was able to take down a lengthy audio book during my trek along the east coast of Florida and back up the Gulf Coast.

I certainly don’t adhere to any diet during this trip. One day I had breakfast, lunch, and dinner out with alums! One of my regular stops includes homemade key lime pie that is the most amazing thing you’ve ever tasted.

I’ve been fortunate to get to know so many amazing alumni and friends of the College. Sometimes we reminisce about their losses of family and classmates that occurred over the last year. Mostly, we marvel at their longstanding connection to Nichols and what their college days have meant to them through the years.