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CONTACT Summer 2020

Rising to the Challenge

The theme of the summer 2020 edition of Contact, Fitchburg State's alumni magazine, was Rising to the Challenge. Members of the university community - including students, faculty, staff, and alumni - all stepped up in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read their stories below, or visit the Contact Summer 2020 page to see the magazine (and past issues)  in their entirety.

Alumni Stories | Student StoriesFaculty, Staff and Administrators

Alumni Stories

Solving Problems - Salvatore Emma '83

Sal Emma '83It’s been a theme in the successful career of Salvatore Emma ’83: solving timely problems.

Emma had long since seen his professional aspirations realized by becoming the CEO of a successful public company – Micron, Inc., based in downtown Fitchburg – when he had an epiphany. “I decided that I wanted to do something outside the corporate environment,” he recalled. “I wanted to do something to help with this problem.”

“This problem” was the rash of school shootings. The husband of an educator, Emma decided to start a new company to equip teachers with the ability to save lives in the event of an active shooter. The result was TeacherLock, an ultra-secure deadbolt locking system designed to secure classrooms quickly without a teacher having to fumble for keys that also allows for rapid egress. The system has been installed in thousands of classrooms across the country already. “We started with a couple of mammoth sales to large districts out in the Midwest,” said Emma. “We came out with a device that satisfies the building code nationwide. It’s really the only device in the world that does what it does.”

The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the school year nationwide, and Emma saw another opportunity to solve a timely problem when he learned of the shortage of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and first responders. “We’ve got all this equipment for prototyping and product development; let’s put them to use,” he recalled saying. “We found an open source respirator and face shield, and got our 3D printers running. I set them to run overnight and when I wake up in the morning the basket can be full of visors.”

Emma has delivered the masks in person to Heywood Hospital in Gardner and deliveries have been made to numerous police and fire departments in New England, as well as to a physician who was one of the heroes of the Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas. The company manufactured child-sized versions depicting Star Wars characters. “Generally anyone who asks for one gets one,” Emma said.

Emma and his partners, including fellow Fitchburg State graduate Mark Bingham ’83, are not collecting any money for their masks, nor are they seeking any stimulus payments from the federal government in these challenging times. “We don’t need it, so we’re not going to take it,” he said.

This project is a way for Emma and his partners to pass on their good fortune, he said.

“Fitchburg State gave us a more practical education, and it was very personal as well,” he said. “I wasn’t the best student, but I learned. I started out right after school as an accountant. I ended up as a CEO of a public company. How does that happen? My professors taught me all the fundamentals about business, as much as you can from a book. But then they talked how about how to learn, how to work hard. That carried me. We achieved our goal in business. Climb the ladder and get all the way to the top. Once you’re there and you realize there are other things, that kind of brings it full circle to me. To be able to help out in the community still is such a blessing.”

Every Day is Different - Sgt. Ryan Nardone '06

Sgt Ryan Nardone and student Christopher DickeyMashpee Police Sgt. Ryan Nardone ’06 is passionate about serving his community and playing a positive role in its safety. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed that mission, but it’s made a significant impact on the day-to-day experience of being a police officer.

“We’re very reactive now, and not as proactive as we used to be,” Nardone said. “It’s difficult to report to a shift and have that personable approach that we’re used to. Everything is done over the telephone now, because people want to stay in their houses.”

The volume of police calls for Nardone’s Cape Cod community has dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic, and no one knows what the future holds. “This could be the new norm or this could be over this summer,” he said. “Most officers want to be proactive, go out there and help the public. They don’t want to be call-takers. Every day is different and that’s what pushed me to this profession.”

Nardone said Fitchburg State’s police program – whose graduates complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice as well as certification to serve in municipal police departments – is a potential game-changer for the profession.

“They’re at a huge advantage above students at other colleges,” he said. “I envy them. It’s new and cutting edge, but education is key nowadays. People aren’t getting hired in my profession without degrees. The public wants a well-educated individual to protect and serve. If a college-educated kid is coming out with an advanced degree and already completed a full-time police academy, they’re going to get scooped up.”

Nardone saw that same spirit in the Fitchburg State criminal justice students he invited to shadow him on the job earlier this academic year. “I loved the shadowing experience,” he said. “I jumped at the opportunity to welcome students from Fitchburg State to my department. I’m glad these young adults could put themselves in a police cruiser and see if this is something they want to do full-time.”

One of those students was Christopher Dickey ’20, who spent several hours with Sgt. Nardone over winter break. “I loved being with him,” Dickey said. “He’s an awesome guy, really down to earth and really looks out for his community. That’s his number one priority.”

Dickey was grateful for another perspective on public safety. Dickey is studying criminal justice and had an internship this spring with the U.S. Marshals Service through the university’s affiliation with The Washington Center. While he saw a lot in his two months in the nation’s capital, the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, cut the internship short.

His experiences with Sgt. Nardone and in Washington, D.C. only cemented his commitment to his chosen career path, said Dickey.

It's Going to Change Us - Korry Dow '07

Korry Dow 07Korry Dow ’07 has worked in healthcare for more than a dozen years but has never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. President of Nashoba Valley Medical Center in Ayer, Dow said community hospitals like hers will be feeling the ramifications of the pandemic for years.

“It’s going to change us dramatically,” she said, explaining the challenges created by the downturn in elective procedures during the pandemic. “We’re planning on, ‘What’s it going to look like when we open up for elective cases, and the amount of personal protective equipment we’re going to need. I can see us forever wearing masks, potentially. If it’s not this strain of COVID, it’s going to be the next one.”

Operationally, the hospital has been adapting through technology, and Dow thinks that is the way of the future. “It’s our new way of life,” she said. “I’m always on a conference call instead of being in a boardroom. I think that’s going to stick. I think telemedicine within our primary care offices is going to change, and we will be able to reach out to a population of people we couldn’t before because of demographics and geography. This could potentially help us.”

Dow’s journey to her leadership role came about with a combination of opportunity and readiness. She began her MBA after the birth of her daughter and finished her last class just before the birth of her son. “I fit that MBA in. It was something I just wanted to do,” Dow said. “Now that I’m where I am, it was very necessary that I had that background.” With her credentials, Dow was working as manager of accounting at Nashoba Valley in 2008. When her boss retired, Dow found herself facing an opportunity and became the hospital’s chief financial officer. Eventually she was the hospital’s interim president, and assumed full responsibilities in March 2019.

“Every step along the way has just been unexpected,” she said. “I feel like I was meant to be here. I’ve been at the right place at the right time. It feels really good to love the job you’re doing.”

The New Reality - Mallory-Anne Perron '14

Mallory Anne Perron 14Mallory-Anne Perron ’14 has worked as a nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for three years. Perron had seen a lot in her time working at one of the biggest hospitals in a major U.S. city, but knew the COVID-19 pandemic would present new challenges. When the hospital was preparing to convert certain units into COVID intensive care units (ICU), Perron volunteered to relocate to care for these patients. 

“I’m young and I’m healthy and I thought I could help my co-workers,” she said. “I’ve never seen sicker patients in my life, and it was a surge of patients who were so critically ill. Even the veteran nurses are amazed. A large number of COVID ICU patients are intubated and need a machine to support their breathing. As nurses, we’re all learning to be flexible and adapt to the new reality. It’s just part of being an ICU nurse.”

Perron studied exercise physiology at Fitchburg State and was active on campus, serving as president of the Student Government Association running the Volunteer Center. She decided to pursue a degree in nursing after graduating from Fitchburg State, and said the interdisciplinary work that is so central to nursing has been informed by her experiences on campus. “All the leadership roles helped me gain more confidence in myself and my ability to speak to other people,” Perron said. “They helped mold me into being the person that I am.”

The challenges of working in medicine during a pandemic hit home for Perron in March. “I woke up one day and just didn’t feel well at all,” she said. “I thought maybe I’d worked out too hard.” But after finding she had a fever, she was tested for COVID-19 and the results were positive. “It was scary, but I kind of knew I had it when I started feeling the symptoms,” she said. “I was afraid, but I knew I was in the best place to be.”

She lay low for a few weeks at home, with her roommate’s – also a nurse – keeping an eye on her as she isolated herself.

The experience has not shaken her commitment to her path. “I’m just trying to do my job,” said Perron, who is looking at going back to school to pursue a career as a certified registered nurse anesthetist. “I don’t feel like a hero. I took an oath to take care of people and that’s all that I’m trying to do.”

Reducing Their Risk - Robert "Biff" Quinn '81

Watertown Fire Chief Robert Biff QuinnWatertown Fire Chief Robert “Biff” Quinn ’81 has been a firefighter for more than 30 years, but has seen nothing like the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s been most of my day for the last few months,” he said. “From the get-go, we had to establish a lot of procedures internally for the firefighters to keep them safe.”

Those measures include multiple temperature checks per shift and assessments to make sure none of his firefighters has been exposed. As of early May, two members of the department had tested positive, so they and the firefighters with whom they were on duty had to be quarantined for two weeks.

Chief Quinn is also the emergency management director for the town of Watertown, with a population of 36,000. In that role he’s been meeting daily with other municipal departments on their response to the pandemic, including the public school’s efforts to feed students and working to keep the populations of senior housing complexes and group homes from being exposed. In the first two months of the pandemic, more than 200 cases and 11 deaths had been confirmed in the town.

“It’s been a tough thing to deal with,” he said. “For the most part, people have been very cooperative. I’m lucky that everybody’s been on board and working hard to keep themselves from getting exposed.”

Chief Quinn, who was appointed to his current role in 2018, studied medical technology at Fitchburg State. He was working at a blood bank in Cambridge when his brother-in-law encouraged him to take the firefighter’s exam. “I was ready for a change and said, ‘Let me give this a try. I can always go back to lab work,’” he recalled. “I got hired in Watertown and here I am, 33 years later. It’s turned out to be a very rewarding career for me.”

Doing My Part - Marissa Arseneau '17

Marissa Arseneau Marissa Arseneau ’17 graduated from Fitchburg State with a degree in exercise and sports science and soon set her sights on a career as a physician assistant (PA). “I think it’s one of the most incredible fields in medicine,” she said. “I wanted to be a PA because they are great liaisons between the physician and the nurse or the clinical staff. Wherever we’re needed, we’re able to step up and provide.”

Arseneau had a job offer at a New Hampshire urgent care facility even before she finished her PA program last December. By her third week at work this spring, the COVID-19 pandemic had struck. “In March our clinic had new guidelines for COVID-19, and any patient with upper respiratory symptoms was not allowed inside the clinic and we were seeing them in the parking lot,” Arseneau said. “I was swabbing multiple COVID patients a day. It was definitely overwhelming for every member of the clinical staff. As an urgent care, we’re trying to care for patients who we can keep out of the emergency room, because the ERs are needed for more critically ill patients.”

And while her clinic had sufficient personal protective equipment like masks and respirators, Arseneau said she knows not everyone on the front line has been so fortunate. “I have friends that are working at local hospitals and family health clinics where they have to wear the same N95 masks for a week straight, because there just aren’t enough supplies,” she said.

Arseneau said she never expected to encounter such a singular public health crisis so early in her career. “It’s definitely been hard and anxiety-provoking, because I’ve been putting myself at risk every day for my patients. But I’m extremely grateful I can do my part and lend a hand to helping the people in need at this time. I would much rather be a new graduate PA than be someone who wishes they could help and they can’t. When it is over, it’s just going to make me a better provider. It’s surreal to be in part of something that is going to go down in history. I’m glad I could lend a hand in it.”

Total Non-Normal - Joseph Baeta '92

Joseph BaetaEducators across the country found themselves having to radically reinvent their professions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Norton Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Baeta ’92, the challenges will be enduring.

“We’re in total non-normal right now,” he said, expressing concerns that staff members who are nearing retirement age may decide they have had enough of what was already a stressful profession. “It’s a whole different dynamic, for the students, for the staff, for the families.”

While many are concerned about students’ regressing in their learning, Baeta is confident that students can learn in a variety of settings. “I’m more worried about their social/emotional well-being,” he said. “I’m worried about the long-term implications of this period and what it means.”

For Baeta’s district, that includes trying to find ways to honor graduating students and reschedule rites of passage like the prom. He’s confident that today’s students will be resilient enough to weather these challenging times.

Baeta’s own career began soon after he graduated from Fitchburg State, where he was choosing between a life in education or pursuing a law degree. He took the entrance exam for law school but a friend’s father offered him a job as a full-time, one-year substitute teacher, and he had found his path. “I got to see the world as a teacher,” Baeta said, describing work in vocational-technical schools as well as in districts with severe poverty as well as affluent communities. For seven years he has been superintendent in Norton.

The challenges of the pandemic blur a lot of lines.

“All of us are being asked to do things differently, so none of us feels alone,” said Baeta, who thinks the opportunities of online education will have far-reaching effects for traditional and special education models. “I think the way teachers’ work is going to change.”

Reaching Each Other - Heidi Cowley '11

Heidi Cowley ’11 has teaching in her blood. Cowley has taught art for kindergarten to 5th grade at Page Hilltop School in Ayer for the past 14 years, and her grandmother, Mildred (Crooker) Hassett, a 1917 graduate of the Normal School at Fitchburg (known today as Fitchburg State University) was also an educator. Times were different for her grandmother, though. Teachers in that era weren’t allowed to be married, for one thing. But Cowley learned about an unexpected parallel in her family history this spring.

Her grandmother was teaching in Athol when the influenza pandemic of 1918 shuttered schools. In one of the detailed journals that Cowley recently discovered, Crooker wrote on Sept. 24 of that year that nine of her 14 students were absent. The following day the school was closed, and Crooker was out of work. She took the train from Athol back to her parents’ home in Fitchburg, found another job, and eventually married and started a family.

Cowley, who completed a master’s degree in visual arts education at Fitchburg State, is grateful she had other options. “I had to think about how to reach my students online, and that’s when I started with the idea of a book,” she said. “I draw a lot of coloring pages that kids have at school, so I was thinking about a series of those that kids could download. And then it grew into an actual children’s book. I recorded myself reading it and shared the video with my kids.”

The result was a self-published book, Just Staying Home, that has already resonated with readers with its messages about adapting to the new reality of no sports or play dates. The book also encourages kids to do what's right, be kind to their families and even jokes that they’ve got time to clean their rooms.

“I had a mom of one second-grader tell me that her son, who is really reluctant to write, thought I drew him writing in the book,” she said. “I thought I was done when I sent it to the kids, but I’ve had a lot of people ask me about it. When a nurse from a pediatric intensive care unit asked for multiple copies, it really pushed me to find a way to get it published. If it’s a way to help people reach others and feel connected, that’s good.”

Just Stay Home will be available via Blurb.com in standard and coloring book formats.

Cowley looks forward to being back with her students, and in the meantime encourages them to record their experiences of the current time, just as her grandmother did. “I think there’s a hopefulness to it,” she said. “If she’d stayed a teacher, she wouldn’t have gotten married to my grandfather and not had a family. Maybe there’s a hopefulness in seeing this has happened before, and we’ve come through it.”

Student Stories

Getting a Kick out of Learning - Linnea D'Acchille '21

Linnea D'AcchilleLinnea D'Acchille ’21 wanted to visit her sister and her newborn nephew over spring break, so she headed from home in upstate New York to Virginia. While she was visiting, the pandemic forced the cessation of face-to-face classes for the rest of the semester. D’Acchille, a biology major, stayed in Virginia to help watch her nephew and continue her remote studies.

“What disappointed me most was I just loved all my professors,” said D’Acchille, who recently switched majors from criminal justice to biology. “It felt like I actually found what I want to do, so I was disappointed that we weren’t coming back to campus.”

But she was pleasantly surprised by how successful remote instruction was for her program. “I can’t say enough good things about my professors,” she said. “They have been so understanding. I’d rather be in the classroom learning, but the faculty are definitely on top of their stuff.”

D’Acchille transferred to Fitchburg State last fall, recruited as a kicker for the men’s football team. “The guys were all very nice, and reached out to me over the summer last year and said to let them know if I needed anything,” she said.

She looks forward to the day athletic competitions can resume. In the meantime, she said she appreciates how understanding the faculty have been of the disruptions experienced this semester and hopes her fellow students are as accommodating. “I hope everyone will appreciate each other more,” she said. “Everybody should be more understanding of each other.”

It's Never Too Late - Johanna Viteri '20

Johanna ViteriJohanna Viteri ’20 had long ago abandoned dreams of finishing her education. She enrolled at Atlantic Union College in 1988, but after one year of school, she withdrew to care for the ailing grandmother who raised her. “I had to put my education on hold, then I got pregnant with my son,” she recalled. “Life happened. But I always had that dream of finishing my degree.”

Viteri had a job that would pay for college classes, so she took a few online courses in finance and eventually found her way to Fitchburg State. “A good friend of mine told me, ‘Just take one course at a time and you’ll get there.’ I said, ‘That will take me forever.’ But as I moved along, there were opportunities when I could take two courses, or even a summer class. As I went along, I just wanted to get it done.”

Viteri had enjoyed her online classes, but she was in fear of her final mathematics course. She opted for an in-person class, where she felt she could get more support, if she needed it. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and all courses were moved to a remote model. Viteri can laugh now, but she was very apprehensive at the time.

“It was an adjustment, but the instructor was there for us and gave us resources when we didn’t understand the content,” she said. “The professors were always there to answer questions, and that’s one of the things I really love about Fitchburg State. The professors are really vested in your success. It’s like a family.”

Viteri also enjoyed how applicable her classes were to her work at Care Central VNA & Hospice, where her title is “executive assistant” but her reality is wearing many hats.

With her degree complete, Viteri is elated at the completion of a long-held dream. “It’s never too late,” she said. “Learning is a process that should be a lifelong experience. When you stop learning, I think you die. Every day you have to learn.”

Getting to The Point - Alexa Nogueira '20

Alexa NogueiraAlexa Nogueira ’20 took the news of switching to a remote instructional model this spring in stride. As a commuter student, she said she welcomed the lack of stress associated with getting to an early class first thing in the morning, as well as the independence of learning on her own schedule. “I was able to control and manage my time,” she said.

And she had a lot to manage. In her final semester as an English Studies major, Nogueira took six classes and served as managing editor of The Point, the student-run newspaper. “I needed a portfolio, and that’s how I got started,” she said. “I expected to be constantly afraid. I was definitely shy and thought, ‘I’m going to have to talk to all these people.’”

She rose to the challenge. “I made a goal for myself that I was going to take on challenging stories and try my best,” she said. “I loved covering things happening in the city. I was making connections with officials and connecting with the community and I loved it.”

Nogueira covered stories about the relationship between the university and the community as well as breaking news from the city, like a three-alarm fire that displaced local residents.

The COVID-19 pandemic created new challenges for The Point staff. “I’m definitely proud of our response to the pandemic,” Nogueira said. “We’ve done some of our best and most challenging work. What we really wanted to do was get answers for students.”

Nogueira said the paper staff worked on topics ranging from refunds to graduation to what the university’s future held. At the same time, they produced features with ideas on how to take your mind off the stressful reality and decompress.

This year The Point had returned to its roots with a print edition. “The print edition is my greatest love and also my worst enemy,” Nogueira said with a laugh. “It’s a process that takes hours and hours and hours, but it’s so worth it. It’s special to have it on newsprint and it always looked so beautiful. It made the paper feel a little more authentic. But of course, once we transitioned to remote learning, it wasn’t really possible to have a print edition.”

Switching to a digital edition was the only way to keep publishing, and Nogueira also credits Assistant Professor Wafa Unus, who teaches college newspaper production and advises The Point, for making it work. “Dr. Unus is so phenomenal,” Nogueira said.

“They’ve done a great job as student journalists and have shown admirable spirit and dedication to the craft,” Unus said, complimenting Nogueira and her classmates.

With her degree finished, Nogueira hopes to continue her career in journalism, including a freelance career that began as a student. She said future staff members at The Point should expect to hear from her, too. “I’ll bother the next staff, because I can’t get enough,” she said.

What I Was Meant To Do - Taylor Nelson '20

Taylor NelsonFor Taylor Nelson ’20, a career in healthcare has been a longtime calling. She lost her mother to cancer and that, combined with Nelson’s own experiences, inspired her to pursue that path. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to medical school or study nursing, but when I visited the Nursing Department at Fitchburg State I just knew it’s what I wanted to pursue,” she said. “I knew this path would let me work in a hospital and I could interact with people. It’s like being a therapist at the same time.”

The switch to remote instruction this semester was manageable for Nelson, who as a commuter student was used to studying at home. Taking exams online was a bit trickier, she said, and the pandemic has delayed when she can take the NCLEX licensure exam required of all nurses.

Nelson was in her final semester practicum and working as a tech and phlebotomist at an area hospital when the pandemic struck. After consulting her supervisor, she agreed it made sense to continue her studies rather than jump into direct care of COVID-19 patients. But just being in a hospital setting during these times has shown Nelson the impact of the crisis. “It’s crazy busy and exhausting,” she said. “It’s stressful, but at the end of the day I still want to go back. I just love nursing. It’s what I was meant to do.”

In the Zone - Laurie Furtado '22

Laurie FurtadoLaurie Furtado ’22 was a newcomer to remote instruction when the spring semester transitioned in March. “I always preferred to be in the classroom with face-to-face connections than completing work online and waiting for email responses,” said Furtado, who is majoring in special education for moderate disabilities pre-K to 8. “Remote learning has given me a bit more flexibility to listen to what I am feeling compared to typical in-person classes. When I was in the zone, even if it was at 2 in the morning, I was able to crank out all the work I could. Or at other times when I needed a break to step away and go for a walk or take a nap, I could do that too.”

The change came with a learning curve, however, as Furtado navigated the emotional rollercoaster of being separated from her job and friends on campus. “I feel that the university responded to the pandemic about as well as anyone could expect. This is such a time of uncertainty and absolutely everyone has questions they want answers to. Everyone is really just trying to do the best they can.”

Furtado said she was grateful for frequent communications from the campus about safety measures and refunds, as well as opportunities for recreation that were shared by the Office of Student Development. And she felt supported by the campus offices where she works as a tour guide, orientation leader, and alumni phon-a-thon caller. “They have all consistently reached out and checked in, and it is the things like that that make me feel taken care of by the university throughout the pandemic,” she said. 

A Remarkable Learning Experience - Brendan O'Flaherty '20

Brendan O'FlahertyBrendan O’Flaherty ’20 was performing his senior nursing practicum in an area emergency room when the COVID-19 pandemic struck this spring. The outbreak meant the cancellation of the practicum, which was a disappointment. “The transition from in-person lectures to remote instruction was made easier by the faculty. I was able to ask a multitude of questions, listen to recorded lectures about the material and have remote classes through Google,” he said. “After I watched the recorded lectures, I knew my professors would be readily available if I had any questions.”

O’Flaherty lamented the end of his practicum, which he described as a remarkable learning experience, but said he was grateful for his instructors’ commitment to keeping courses on track. “My nursing faculty clearly explained their expectations regarding assignments, quizzes and exams, and they had meetings for me and my classmates to answer any questions,” he said.

His interest in the profession came from his sister, who has been a registered nurse for three years. “I often tagged along with her and my family when she visited college open houses,” he said. “I always loved science, but I became fascinated when I saw the simulation labs and the medical equipment the nursing profession uses.”

He studied health assisting in high school and got his nursing assistant certification and briefly worked as a CNA. “Understanding how the human body works and how to care for patients is extremely interesting to me and makes me want to learn more about my profession,” said O’Flaherty, who is preparing for the NCLEX exam.

New Study Habits - Christopher Sutcliffe '23

Christopher SutcliffeChristopher Sutcliffe ’23 was enjoying his first year at Fitchburg State when the pandemic upended it. “The hardest part of the transition was moving back in with my whole family,” said Sutcliffe, a Rhode Island native majoring in Communications Media. “With both my dad and my sister working from home, we had some competition on where to set up for our work days. I was usually the one that got kicked out and had to sit at the kitchen counter.”

But Sutcliffe was able to adapt to his new surroundings and keep up with his studies, which included six classes in the spring semester. Looking ahead, Sutcliffe predicts he will benefit from the study habits he developed this spring, even if he missed the company of his peers. “The social interaction was a big piece I missed and I will enjoy working in groups for my major once I can get back onto campus,” he said.

A Lifelong Passion - Queenstar Abekah '23

Queenstar AbekahQueenstar Abekah ’23 was navigating her first year of college life when the pandemic thrust her routine into a new gear. Abekah was born in Ghana and moved to the U.S. four years ago. She was enjoying life on campus and found herself back with her mother and younger brother in Pittsfield for the rest of the spring semester.

“It was difficult in the beginning, but after a week or two we got a hold of it,” she said, noting the learning curve was there for students as well as some professors. “Most of my classes were better online, in a way. If I had questions, I could get a hold of my teachers at any point, because they were always checking their email or contacting us to make sure we were OK.”

Abekah is majoring in education and looks forward to a career as a teacher. “I’ve always known I wanted to teach,” she said. “I’m going to go for that.”

Gaining Inspiration - Bridie Wolejko '20

Bridie WolejkoBridie Wolejko ’20 was a non-traditional student, arriving at Fitchburg State to finish her undergraduate degree about 20 years after starting her college career studying music in Boston. “I was excited and scared, because I was older than most everyone else in the undergraduate day program,” said Wolejko, who nonetheless enjoyed getting involved with the student-run radio station, WXPL 91.3 FM.

A visual artist, Wolejko was taking multiple studio art classes in her final semester when the university transitioned to remote instruction. It was a major shift. “One of the things that’s been a change is not having that peer feedback that we normally would have in classroom meetings,” she said. “Normally we’d all work on our paintings together in the same room, and you’re welcome to walk around and see what other people are doing and gain inspiration that way. Then we’d have group critiques when the instructors would set aside time where we could all offer positive feedback, and a little constructive criticism. That feels like it’s missing, but it doesn’t feel impossible.”

Wolejko enjoyed the online discussions and weekly virtual meetings with fellow students in her contemporary art class. “It’s been nice to reconnect in that way,” said Wolejko, who hopes to pursue a career as an art teacher. “It worked, for the most part.”

A Time of Transition

Spring on the Fitchburg State campus is typically a celebratory time. The campus erupts in color as flowers bloom and the buildup to commencement creates a joyful mood. This year everything typical was thrust aside. Faculty, staff and administrators adapted on the fly to support students in an extraordinary time.

Nicole Chelonis, Director of Digital Learning

When the university switched to a remote instructional model this spring, Director of Digital Learning Nicole Chelonis found herself at the center of a new reality. She worked closely with other campus experts to help faculty members adapt quickly to a very different delivery model.

“These past months I got to see exactly what our Fitchburg State community is, and I’m humbled and impressed by the way we came together as a campus to offer assistance and support to our students, faculty, and staff,” said Chelonis, who has been in her role since 2018. “Colleagues stepped outside their normal roles to offer support to me and to our faculty and the number of faculty who volunteered to assist their peers was inspiring.”

The rapid change this spring meant the typical development and review process for courses delivered remotely couldn’t happen.

“Our students and our faculty were asked to be flexible in their thinking about what quality teaching and learning looked like,” Chelonis said. “We asked faculty to rethink assessments and content delivery, to start with their learning objectives and adapt those goals to the tools they had at hand while also assessing the unusual needs of their students this term. It was really encouraging to see how willing the faculty were to try something and shift to something else if it didn’t work the way they wanted it to.”

More professional development was scheduled for the summer months to help faculty prepare for the fall semester, which most likely will be different from prior years.

“I think that the experiences of many educators this term has brought to light all the different available resources and ways that knowledge can be shared,” she said. “As uncomfortable and challenging as the spring term was, I think it will ultimately help advance the accessibility of educational experiences.”

Randy Howe, Communications Media

I have been working with online instruction for quite a while now, since 2000, starting when higher education was just beginning to embrace remote teaching via the Internet. I guess you could say that I am a digital immigrant. The tough part of being an early-adopter was the initial trial and error. There weren’t a lot of models out there as to how to do this. Initially, I scanned and posted my handwritten lecture notes for my online students to read, notes I referred to when I taught this same course to a live classroom. I didn’t have much time to prepare. Basically, I was scrambling, much like how we all scrambled this semester to move our classroom courses online.

For faculty, I find online course prep and implementation to be a lot more work than classroom courses, at least at the onset. All courses that we teach, online or not, go through classic instructional design problem solving, deep puzzles that require a lot of thought and perseverance to assemble it into a structure that we are happy with. What do we want our students to do? What information needs to be disseminated, how are we going to go about it, and so on? Classroom instruction comes naturally to us. Teaching online is different. It’s like trying to navigate a foreign country where the language and rules are constantly changing.

A benefit that I see is that online teaching can move faculty and students into deeper connections with the subject matter than classroom teaching. I feel I am a better professor all around if I teach at least a few courses online. If a student asks me a question about whatever we are talking about that day in a face-to-face classroom, I will search my mind for the best answer, offering them a response that is whatever comes to mind at the moment. Sometimes my answers are great. I might surprise myself with my acumen. Other times, not so much. The same can hold true for online teaching when responding to student questions. I almost always work hard to provide the best possible answer to that student because I have more time. I type out an answer, revisiting it, maybe researching it, thinking more about it, making the response as bullet-proof as possible for the simple fact that I have the time, and then click the send button.

I think the current semester has taught a lot of us, students and faculty, that getting together in this fashion is not so hard. I foresee more use of face-to-face, synchronous videoconferencing going forward. I don’t see it completely changing online course delivery. But I do see it as advantageous when, for instance, a sense of community is desired in an assignment. I am sure there are more instructional reasons to adopt videoconferencing. The fact is that professionals, such as those coming out of our current professional communication program, will probably spend more time in meetings on Zoom and Google Hangouts than previous generations. We’ll probably see a lot less planes in the sky as a result of all of this. This certainly has me thinking about what makes sense for using this technology in my courses going forward. I already have a few ideas.      

Laura Bayless, Vice President for Student Affairs

We launched a program this spring called Falcons Supporting Falcons, where 80 faculty and staff generously volunteered to make direct contact with students to see how they were adapting to the challenging times. We reached 2,500 students and were able to follow up with those who needed assistance from a variety of campus offices, and it really showed that we are part of a caring community.

J.J. Sylvia IV, Communications Media

For me, a sense of community in an online class comes through when students feel the instructor’s presence in the course and are able to engage in meaningful discussions with one another. To create a sense of instructor presence, I’ve found that weekly announcements paired with short videos introducing the material for each week help a great deal. Recently I've been expanding my use of collaborative digital annotations as a form of discussion and really enjoyed the community that this creates. I had one student this semester comment in an annotation that this was the first class where she’s not only learning from her professor but also learning so much from her peers as well. I think it's extremely valuable to recognize that we can all learn from one another. 

Kat McLellan, Director of Academic Coaching and Tutoring Center

The need to support students with new modes of instruction meant rethinking operations. We created “Ask a Tutor,” where students could submit written questions online, in addition to being able to drop-in or instead of having to make appointments for real-time online or phone conferencing. Our goal was to make an online tutoring system that was easily accessible, could replicate the feel of drop-in appointments, and didn’t cost any money to implement.

Steve Swartz, Chief Information Officer

Our campus migrated to Google applications earlier this year and that turned out to be a lifesaver. The video conferencing and recording systems were built-in, and there are no applications to install or update. We were able to loan out laptop computers and mobile “hot spots” to boost connectivity for students who needed them. We have been designing in redundancy and the ability to scale rapidly into our projects over the past few years, and that has been a major factor in our success.

Rob Hynes, Director of Counseling Services

None of the clinicians in the office had much experience providing ‘telehealth’ services, and it was a very busy week creating the sort of safe, private, and supportive mechanisms to enable remote counseling to work. The demand for services was robust. Counselors routinely commented on the incredible poise, patience, and resilience evidenced by our students through all of this. Their strength and courage helped to sustain us, the professionals, through this time.

Catherine Buell, Mathematics

Online discussion posts allowed students to connect to one another. If students are asked to read and respond to one another on the discussion board, students begin to hear each other's voices, think about different ideas, and learn from one another's perspectives. Students created videos of what hobbies they engaged in during quarantine. We posted pictures of our families including our pets. We also dreamt about what we would do first once quarantine was lifted. Most importantly, I held online classes every day at the same time our class was normally scheduled. My students continued to come to class for the entire two months we were quarantined. Due to these efforts our learning community was intact for the entire semester. 

Erin Rehrig, Biology/Chemistry

This semester was not as big of a jump as I thought. You can deliver fun lectures, you can have Google Hangouts, you can have fun with your students online. You have to try to connect with your students. Labs were harder to translate; I borrowed my colleague’s dissection videos. I loathe dissections. I’m a plant biologist. This semester’s experience reiterated, confirmed and bolstered some of my philosophies of being flexible with deadlines, keeping the lines of communication open but not necessarily flooding those lines of communication with information, and keeping students organized. Don’t flood them with information, and don’t flood them with busy work. I sent out maybe one email a week, and usually that was a to-do list, in order of priority. I tried to keep it to no more than four things: Watch the videos, do the homework, watch my lectures, take notes.

Danette Day, Education

Without online learning I could not have continued to teach my students during this pandemic. However, I believe that shift to online learning was successful because my students and I had already developed a connection.

There are many ways I create community using an online format. First, the discussion posts allow students to connect to one another. If students are asked to read and respond to one another on the discussion board, students begin to hear each other's voices, think about different ideas, and learn from one another’s perspectives. We created weekly challenges using the discussion posts and shared folders. Students created videos of what hobbies they engaged in during quarantine. We posted pictures of our families including our pets. We also dreamt about what we would do first once quarantine was lifted.

Most importantly, I held online classes every day at the same time our class was normally scheduled. Due to these efforts our learning community was intact for the entire semester. Going forward, I may use the weekly challenges as way to enhance our learning community. 

Andrea Olmstead, Humanities

I taught Ceramics and Intro to Studio Art during the Spring 2020 semester. For each class, I created step by step instructional Google Docs for the assignments. These Docs include imagery and links to YouTube videos of me explaining the technical processes for an assignment. They also include images of historical and contemporary artists and links to their websites. I also made a Screencast-O-Matic of me explaining each document. Every class day I held a non-mandatory Google Meet for students to ask questions, and made sure to respond quickly to student questions via email. I suggested a one on one Google Chat for students who needed it.

Those students who didn’t stay on the original class schedule found online learning to be overwhelming. Instead of spending the 4-6 scheduled hours a week on their assignments, they waited until the last minute to open the documents.

I think this experience has shown me that I can teach online, but it requires a particular type of student in order to be successful. It loses students who are strong visual and physical learners and might otherwise be successful in a structured classroom environment.

I've found that nothing compares to physically showing a student a particular method for working with an artistic material. In the classroom I can teach each student so their response to an assignment is different from other responses. 

Deborah Stone, Nursing

I was used to teaching online courses, but this semester our whole Nursing Department had to change our clinical experiences to an online platform as well. This was a challenge and could not have been done without the support of our chair, Debbie Benes, and our simulation expert, Rose Kronziah-Seme. Using the Google Hangout/Meet features enabled us to meet and see each other real time in a grid formation so you could see everyone in the class. I liked this and students also provided positive feedback. Looking ahead, I will continue to look for creative online methods such as virtual simulations. Not only do they allow students to have experiences without risking safety, students report enjoying a change from reading text and assigned articles, to practicing skills in a new way. I also hope I always appreciate and never take physical proximity and connection with others for granted again! 

Renee Scapparone, Business Administration

I have been teaching online with Fitchburg State since the “beginning of time,” the pre-Blackboard days, and currently oversee our 100 percent online business degree. The biggest advantages to remote instruction are really for the students, allowing them to attend class that is most convenient with their schedules.

From a teaching perspective, I am able to see if students are getting it based on their discussion board posts.  Often students are more talkative online than face-to-face. I also believe the more communication with students the better helping them to cope and adjust to the new normal. Faculty need to be more involved with their advisees with remote instruction, especially with the way they communicate. 

I am confident that my colleagues in the Business Administration Department went over and above the call this semester when reaching out to our students/advisees.

Robert Shapiro, Education

I've had quite a bit of experience with online/remote instruction over the years. I think the essential benefits to online courses center around the flexibility they offer. Because the amount of time needed to travel to and from class is eliminated, they can be a lot more efficient. Further, with asynchronous classes, there is a tremendous amount of flexibility in when students can access the material.

Many students are grappling with new challenges, be they related to family, employment, or other areas, and it might not make sense for them to be available on Mondays and Wednesdays at 11 a.m. My goal was to get as much of the course content up and available online very quickly following the cancellation of campus-based classes. By doing this, students who wanted to move ahead and complete their work early were able to do so, while others could go at a more leisurely pace.

Community is cultivated online in largely the same way it is cultivated face to face. By demonstrating your caring for students, by being actively engaged and responsive, by encouraging students to work collaboratively, and by incorporating student experiences in your subject matter (making it relevant), it's easy to feel connections with, and between, your students.

While it can be easier to accomplish those goals when you're seeing students face to face, there is nothing stopping faculty from keeping those same values when your connection to your students is across distance.  

Sally Moore, Humanities

Teaching online was completely new to me, and in the beginning I found myself scrambling to figure out the possibilities. The method I used was to make video demos for each project and an image presentation with a voiceover to show a mix of old masters and contemporary artists working with the same process, materials, or idea. I also posted a thread on the discussion board where they could show work in progress and ask questions or get advice, and then, another thread where they could post the finished project and comment on each other’s work. On some of the more difficult projects, such a making a marionette in puppetry, I had them post the project in parts in order to keep them on track and give them less daunting tasks to do for each deadline. I made sure that I emailed each student to find out what their various obstacles were, and to make sure they knew where to find materials. It is difficult not to be able to physically show students what they need to do to create work, especially since their projects are varied and have different possibilities in terms of technique and materials. But then again, I have seen some interesting, creative problem solving going on when they don’t have that help.

Petri Flint, Humanities

One challenge we had was simply to provide appropriate materials for students that would allow them to complete the remaining class projects, so the art faculty gathered together and spent a day assembling course-specific supply kits for students to pick up. Then we had to figure out how best to present the concepts and techniques that students would be tackling. I rethought the assignments that I had originally planned, and included a new assignment on the theme of social isolation or social intimacy in painting, in response to the situation that we all suddenly found ourselves in this semester.

jenn berg, Mathematics

I took the first week to learn about all the tools and existing resources and how to get my home office set up. I reached out to my students with a video and adjusted the syllabus to change how I assessed student skills without being able to reasonably give fair quizzes.

I used Google meet for one-on-one meetings with students to check in with them and answer questions, and as we got used to the system I started recording myself working through questions students had and then posting these videos to the course webpage.

After the first week I sent out a survey to check in with students to see if they wanted other things remotely, and I added once-a-week live meetings through Google.