Coming into this fall semester, Kelly Wilding, a part-time professor at Point Park University, knew it would be a challenge to create a tight bond among her class of 13 students in City-University Life, a mandatory course for first-year students.

The pandemic led to the implementation of a hyflex format at Point Park, in which students split time learning in person and online. Additionally, students had the option of taking the class fully online.

As a student in the Ph.D. in Community Engagement program at Point Park, Wilding was mindful of the family-like atmosphere that was built in her cohort.

“We communicate regularly, study together, socialize outside of school, support each other academically and personally, and genuinely care about each other,” Wilding said. “I asked myself how I could draw upon the experiences of my cohort in a much shorter time frame, and how can I facilitate relationships in a hyflex class?”

To accomplish that, Wilding had the class form its own cohort and gave them an opportunity to create and vote on a nickname. They settled on the Pandemic Pioneers and designed their own logo — “Pioneers” is a university sports nickname. The group also developed a vision statement:

We are the Pandemic Pioneers!

We are not just ordinary students. We are visionaries of a better future! No matter what we face in the semester ahead, we can excel together. We will expand our opportunities, build relationships, be part of a community, and be the pioneers of a better future for our generation.

“By building a cohort-style classroom where we take time every week to reflect on how each of us is managing, we created a brave space for students to participate in broader discussions,” Wilding said. “The students welcomed the opportunity to meet and connect with each other on a more personal level.”

Across Point Park, faculty members are engaging students in ways that a year ago seemed unlikely, said Jonas Prida, Assistant Provost for Curriculum, Assessment and Accreditation.

“We’ve seen countless examples of faculty rising to the challenge and creatively engaging their students,” Prida said.

Learn how this professor boosts student engagement during COVID

Some examples include:
• The Conservatory of Performing Arts continued to teach aspiring dancers, actors and moviemakers through a combination of safely distanced, in-person classes and remote-learning opportunities.
• The School of Education creatively engaged with local schools to continue with student-teaching opportunities.
• In the School of Communication, the live election night coverage exemplified the heart of Point Park’s hands-on, community-based learning.

Wilding’s class ended up creating a students-only Instagram group just for the Pandemic Pioneers, defined a list of rules for civil discourse, submitted their own student engagement ideas, and participated in weekly discussion boards, including a robust “Race Card Project” discussion. Based on this project criteria, each student came up with six words around race, bias and discrimination, and discussed why they chose them. The group also participated in a weekly start-of-class mindfulness meditation and reflections session, for which students submitted personal work for the reflections slide with discussion prompts.

“This class was so family driven. We worked together, discussed together and lifted each other up every single class,” said Olivia Aubrey, an 18-year-old Musical Theatre major from Augusta, Ga. “We participated in feel-good service work and our eyes opened about the city in which we live. My biggest takeaway from this class was humanity.”

As part of the City-University Life class, students also participated in virtual service-learning projects. Some designed holiday cards with meaningful messages for isolated older adults or victims of abuse, while others contacted local legislators by email and phone to advocate for increased SNAP benefits.

“Fostering community is much more challenging during these difficult days, and we know that social connections are important for our mental health and resilience,” said Kurt Kumler, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of the University Counseling Center. “Incoming students this year have struggled to connect and Kelly’s approach likely helps to maximize the potential to experience community building via virtual engagement.”

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About the Author:

Lou Corsaro is Assistant Managing Director of University Marketing & Public Relations at Point Park University, a private nonprofit institution in Pittsburgh, Pa., with nearly 4,000 students.