OUR PANDEMIC YEAR
Picture a speedboat and an aircraft carrier.
Suddenly, an unforeseen obstacle, like an iceberg – or maybe a worldwide pandemic – is ahead. Which vessel can turn the fastest?
That’s the analogy University of Mobile President Lonnie Burnett uses when describing how UM has not only survived, but thrived, during the pandemic.
“A university of our size is like a speedboat – because of our size, we have the ability to be nimble, which is more difficult for large universities. Larger schools are like aircraft carriers – they are hard to turn quickly,” Burnett said.
That ability to rapidly adjust to a changing and challenging year is key to the university’s growth during the pandemic, despite a nationwide trend of declining college enrollments.
So, too, is the university’s culture, where personal connections are as simple as a professor knowing a student’s name and as complex as praying together for a student’s deepest concerns.
These turbulent times revealed something else, as well.
“We’ve always known that our product was valuable, but we saw it in a very real way during this whole thing. And we’re still seeing it,” Burnett said.
Turbulent times help us see other things as well. They can strip away the nonessential and show who you are at your core. For the University of Mobile, this past year revealed hidden strengths, sparked creativity and innovation, and highlighted the importance of Christ-centered mentoring in higher education.
With over 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, there are plenty of options for higher education.
But there’s nothing quite like the University of Mobile.
“We have something special here,” said Hugh Mitchell, a junior majoring in business and finance. “The teachers we have here are phenomenal.
They are personal. They are relatable. They are world class. There are other Christian colleges around, but there’s no way they’re like UM.”
UM’s niche is one-on-one mentoring, President Lonnie Burnett said. “We can know our students. We can pray with our students. We can mentor our students. That’s what makes us unique. That product, right now, in this time, is extremely valuable.”
A student survey taken in the early days of the pandemic showed the value of mentoring relationships and strength of the campus community. Given space to offer a “shout out” for anything they thought worked particularly well, students overwhelmingly cited the ways faculty and staff checked on them, prayed for them, and were available to support them through personal challenges as well as with coursework.
Mikayla Persons, a junior majoring in accounting, said the challenges associated with COVID-19 “have made being a student tougher than usual, however, I am grateful for a university that is committed to my physical, spiritual and academic health as a student.
“Whether it’s helping me build my schedule or being available for office hours, the entire campus is devoted to my success as a student. I know that I am a better believer, student and individual because of the education and experiences I have received at the University of Mobile.”
With small classes and a 13-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, a focus on student engagement permeates every aspect of the University of Mobile experience, said Shirley Sutterfield ’03 & ’07, executive director of Student Success.
“For us, it is important to the overall success of the student as it applies to our mission. We seek to help our students develop and grow academically, spiritually, socially, emotionally and
professionally. We do not want our students to simply attend our school, or even to simply graduate from our school. We want our students to thrive, not only while in college but beyond. We want to walk the entire journey with them, from entrance to graduation, and beyond,” Sutterfield said.
The University of Mobile’s “speedboat advantage” was evident last spring, when colleges and schools across the nation suddenly were forced to switch on-ground courses to online delivery.
“We literally went on spring break and came back as an all online school, which I still think is amazing,” President Lonnie Burnett said.
Something that might have taken years to accomplish under normal circumstances – there would have been debates, meetings, committees – happened in just two weeks.
“We have learned that we can be very flexible.”
Like colleges throughout the nation, UM postponed spring graduation. (Burnett promised students they would have their graduation ceremony on campus in December – see photos of the celebration on Page 8.)
A slower summer schedule gave faculty and administrators more time to redefine how education could be delivered in the age of COVID-19.
Dr. Todd Greer, vice president for academic affairs, said UM chose a HyFlex model that became a national norm during the pandemic. It combines
Zoom/synchronous learning and on-ground classes, with students alternating between the two. So if a classroom normally holds 30 desks, but with CDC guidelines can only fit 15 in a room while maintaining proper distancing, half the class will come to the classroom on Monday while the other 15 students participate via Zoom – then the groups switch on Wednesday.
If students test positive, have exposure or a heightened level of concern, they are still able to participate in live classes using the Zoom platform.
The same things that make somebody successful inside the classroom make someone successful in the digital classroom – consistency, proactive communication with faculty, resourcefulness and resilience.
“Part of the personal touch that an institution like UM can provide is that faculty know the students and know when they are missing or challenges are present, and can work through those on a case-by- case basis,” Greer said.
“We are working with students to build resilience– challenges inevitably will come, but resilience is learning how to bounce back from those.”
UM has a well-deserved reputation as one of the safest universities in Alabama, and that has been an asset throughout the pandemic.
“During COVID-19, parents sent kids to us from bigger schools because they wanted assurance that their child wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, that someone would reach out.” President Lonnie Burnett said.
Someone like Joy Jacobs, R.N.
Jacobs joined UM in early February 2020 as wellness coordinator for a new Campus Wellness Center. The new position was a welcomed way for the wife of beloved Coach Mike Jacobs, who had passed away a few months earlier, to use her knowledge and skills to benefit a UM family the couple had invested in throughout their lives.
“Our God is a God of surprises,” she said. “What I thought was going to be a place to come and still be around the baseball players, coaches, students and heal (from her husband’s sudden death) – instead, He sent me into a storm.”
Jacobs was well-prepared for the storm, however, with a background in quality assurance, infection control, risk management and health education. She became a vital part of a team that developed UM’s COVID-19 policies and procedures, even as information from the CDC and state health department changed – sometimes hourly.
During the slower summer months, every department across the university was involved in preparing for “The Return of the Rams” with detailed plans for monitoring, tracing, masking, distancing, quarantining and isolating. That included dorm rooms set aside for students required to quarantine or isolate due to illness or exposure. Every aspect of college was reimagined, from academics to student activities. As the
2020-2021 year progressed, many activities and athletic competitions were rescheduled, put on pause or canceled – but classes and campus life were able to continue with the safety procedures that had been put in place.
For Jacobs, some of the lessons learned throughout the ordeal are personal.
“I think that He had a plan and a purpose. It kept me busy, it kept me on my knees. My dependence on Him became stronger.”
She has continued the ministry to baseball players the couple started – she brings brownies to the team and coaches, and meets to encourage and pray with them. And she’s seen that ministry expand.
“I have been able to communicate with a lot of other students through their quarantine and isolation, and just show God’s love. He has shown me that this definitely is where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been overwhelmed quite a few times, but God has seen me through all of it,” Jacobs said.
The pressure cooker that was 2020 – and continues into 2021 – resulted in new ways of teaching, new subjects to teach, and new means of understanding one another and our world.
“If you’re a Christ-centered university, then that shapes your whole outlook on issues of people. It shapes your view on caring for people,” said President Lonnie Burnett.
“We want to be a diverse campus, an inclusive campus. We have looked at new programs, even new majors, new events. Our goal is to make sure that any student that comes to this university will always feel like they are a valuable part of this family. I would never want a student to feel like they did not belong at this university,” he said.
The President’s Task Force on Diversity and Engagement was created during the summer of 2020, co-chaired by Dr. Kathy Dunning, dean of the School of Business, and Dr. Monica Motley, community leader and managing partner at The iNSPYR Group. The committee, which included UM students and alumni, was tasked with making recommendations to the president on areas from campus activities to hiring practices, and exploring ideas ranging from diversity training to new student groups.
As fall semester started, so did UM Unity, a new student club with the purpose of building community in a diverse atmosphere. Dr. Cassidy Cooper, associate professor of sociology, is faculty sponsor of the club started by students Sydney Bishop and Maddison Hill.
Bishop, a senior majoring in sociology, said UM Unity is a response to racial unrest in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd. It’s something the students started out of love, to bring people together, talk about the rich history of Black people, create a positive space to share personal experiences, and educate other individuals on campus who are interested in learning.
“It’s why our club is called Unity, because God put us on this earth to walk this path together. That is what we are working to do,” Bishop said.
Students invite speakers such as history professor and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Matthew Downs, who spoke about the U.S. Constitution, electoral college, gerrymandering and Alabama Constitution. Meetings also include social gatherings or litter walks around campus and the Mobile area community, where participants serve together.
Cooper said UM Unity draws students from all backgrounds and gives students an opportunity to find a space to share and talk about sensitive issues.
“I think there’s something we are missing in our social media age when it comes to learning together and interacting and growing. I don’t think you overcome the divisiveness in our country without having face-to-face conversations. This is allowing students to do that, with a little bit of leadership but not interference,” Cooper said.
A new major or minor in African American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences is one of several new academic programs added during the pandemic. It is an interdisciplinary program encompassing courses in history, sociology, psychology, Christian studies, government and law, and music.
Bishop said she welcomed the addition.
“I think it’s awesome. I wish that African American history was more intertwined with what we learn as we grow older. I’m extraordinarily grateful that at UM we are taking steps to acknowledge that history has more than one part,” Bishop said.
As Covid-19 struck the United States, every part of society was forced to adapt. Literally overnight, drastic change occurred in higher education, and it was evident that technology would play a greater role as a medium for education, said Dr. Todd Greer, vice president for academic affairs.
The university accessed funds through the Alabama Governor’s Office made available through the CARES Act and developed a faculty technology studio. The studio is located in a renovated space once occupied by the mailroom on the first floor of Weaver Hall.
“Utilizing cutting-edge technology, like the LightBoard, faculty are able to record videos that give a three-dimensional framework to the material by bringing the faculty member into their slide deck,” Greer explained.
UM’s Center for Collaborative Teaching and Learning is working with faculty to plan for and integrate these new video opportunities in both online and on-ground teaching, to better support the learning and safety needs of students. The technology has already been utilized by faculty to stream seminars and training sessions for local organizations.
“As our society continues to adapt to the changes brought on because of COVID-19, technology will continue to play an important role in making certain that a Christ-centered education is accessible to all interested students,” Greer said.
Pippi Longstocking had a problem, and Mother Goose called upon her friends from children’s literature to help Pippi solve it, during the semi-annual “Book Talk” presented in October by students, faculty and staff from the University of Mobile School of Education.
The colorful cast of characters ranged from the Big Bad Wolf, played by UM President Lonnie Burnett, to the Once-ler, played by elementary education major Brandy Segreto. Students, faculty and university administrators dressed the part of book characters as they took turns on stage with Pippi Longstocking, played by Associate Professor of Education Karen Dennis, and Assistant Professor of Education Brenda Chastain as Mother Goose.
The School of Education usually presents Book Talks in person in elementary school classrooms. When the pandemic moved learning online for area schools, UM’s educators got creative. Using new technology in George and Pat Dorsett Auditorium, formerly Weaver Auditorium, Book Talk was videotaped and distributed along with donated books to schools such as Chickasaw Elementary and Bright Beginnings Academy.
Across the university, challenges of pandemic life became opportunities for creativity.
The Alabama School of the Arts moved performances outdoors, held rehearsals by sections rather than entire groups, performed with masks, limited in-person seating and introduced live-streaming.
The University of Mobile is one of the few colleges able to continue in-person visit days and campus tours, complete with temperature checks, social distancing and masks. Virtual visit days were added, and UM hosted a drive-through college fair that brought colleges from across the southeast to the Weaver Hall parking lot for a Trunk-or-Treat style event for prospective students and families.
“We have been able to provide the full array of campus tours despite the pandemic,” said
Faith Baker ’14, assistant director of admissions. “While some adjustments have been made to comply with state requirements and to give alternate options for our guests, this past year we have hosted families in all formats. Private individual family tours, traditional UM Days, and virtual campus visits have all been options.”
While college recruiting nationwide is a big question mark since most high schools are not allowing admissions counselors on campus to meet with prospective students, Burnett said he is optimistic about fall enrollment.
“My feeling is there is a pent-up demand for students that just sat out from college. They told their parents, ‘I’ll go work a year while things normalize.’ I think that, come fall, we’re going to see a fresh new wave of students that have put off their decision. They want to go to college, but they’re just waiting to see what happens. I think it’s going to be a big fall for us,” Burnett said.