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When the COVID-19 pandemic threw most of the world into lockdown Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, faced a problem: How to form students in community, faith and scholarship when the campus is empty?
In May 5 remarks at the Honors Convocation, President Stephen D. Minnis, described this historical importance of the college’s mission — “the education of men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.”
“When Plato opened his academy in 380 BC, he educated within a community of scholarship. This Academy existed for over 900 years. The year Plato’s Academy closed, St. Benedict carried on this tradition with a twist — he began educating within a community of faith and scholarship.”
“This way of education has been the best way to educate students for centuries,” he said.
Early on in the pandemic President Minnis asked every member of the college community to think of ways to promote the mission while in lockdown.
Community Across a Distance
Building a dynamic community is a central facet of the college’s mission. Grace Mulcahy, director of the college’s counseling center, told Nicholas Salamunovich in the Benedictine College Circuit that the lockdown made it an even higher priority.
“We are made to live in community with each other,” Mulcahy told the paper. “This is a common theme that has come up, discussing how to adapt socially and how to meet our need for connection.”
President Minnis reached out in a note sent to students early in the pandemic, urging them to keep living the mission of the college at home. The college followed up by sending a care package to each student containing items including hand sanitizer and a bingo card of activities to do to keep in touch.
Resident Advisors kept a schedule of contacting students who had been living in their hall, to keep in touch with them and address any concerns, and Student Ambassadors and the Student Government Association ran an outreach program that checked up on every student.
The college also reached out through social media.
The college’s Student Activities office kept up a busy schedule of outreach, including such events as a Trivia Night from home using Zoom and Kahoot and including students, faculty and staff.
Diane Holly, student activities director, told Benedictine College Circuit reporter Audrey Rawson that she was excited by the results.
“It was one of the first times for a lot of people to see everyone outside of their classes,” she told Rawson. “It was really nice to have that kind of a setting … and see each others’ faces and hang out and doing something fun together at the same time.”
Alumni stepped up also, participating in mentoring and outreach to students through the Raven Walk platform. The college launched the online tool last year, just in time for the coronavirus pandemic, giving students the ability to move their job searches online and make video appointments with the college’s career services office, alumni mentors, and prospective employers. The Leaven newspaper spotlighted the Raven Walk program and how two Raven seniors saw the program as a life saver in difficult times.
Faith During a Crisis
Thriving faith life is also central to the college’s mission. At the beginning of the lockdown, in a Facebook Live Town Hall Meeting, Benedictine College chaplain Father Simon Baker said: “I can promise you that God is not absent from this moment. This is a crisis, and it was exactly for times of crisis that Christians were made. We were born for this.”
“The world is falling apart in fear,” he said, but “Christians are meant to be people of faith who see things not from the world’s perspective but from God’s perspective. And Ravens too. We were born for this. We were made for this. The world needs witnesses that see the reality of God’s kingdom even in really dark and difficult times.”
The college began “virtual” faith efforts shortly after the pandemic hit.
Father Simon followed up his discussion at the Town Hall Meeting with a a series of podcasts, Casting Into the Deep, offering students great, engaging advice for keeping the faith at home. These podcasts are available now on iTunes, Spotify, and most podcast apps. Click here for Apple podcasts or listen on Google Podcasts or watch episodes on this website.
Father Simon and other monks continued Spiritual Direction appointments during lockdown and the monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey expanded the annual Holy Week Retreat for students online and ended up giving the retreat to 3,000 people on six continents.
The college continued spiritual direction appointments and hosted Virtual Emmaus nights by Zoom. Students discussed “Living a Life of Mission,” Marriage and Family, and more.
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students, FOCUS, which was founded at Benedictine College, hosted “Virtual Upper Room” Events, as well as continuing Bible studies by Zoom.
The college continued forming students in RCIA and continued its monthly Underground series online, with talks by popular Catholic speakers.
College Ministry even hosted its yearly music/talent event, Jam for the Lamb, on YouTube. “I hope people tune in and find entertainment in and it brings families together,” the events organizer, senior Kylie Mulholland told the Benedictine College Circuit.
Students and alumni made extraordinary efforts to reach out to those impacted by the pandemic and the lockdown, and their stories were collected on a “Ravens Will Rise” page on the college website.
Scholarship Via Screens
Scholarship — academic excellence — is the most important aspect of the mission, however. And this posed a problem for Benedictine in the pandemic.
But Benedictine College professors threw themselves into the effort, said Dean of the College, Dr. Kimberly Shankman. At the end of the year Honors Convocation, she awarded all the college’s “Distinguished Educator of the Year” award to all faculty.
“Who should we honor tonight?” she asked. “ Who responded to this emergency change with grace, determination, and perseverance? Who threw themselves in to revamping their entire semester in about a week to give their students the best possible outcome? Who offered their expertise, their experience, and even the stories of their failures, to help their colleagues find the right solutions for their classes?”
Her answer: “The whole faculty rose to this challenge with grace, patience, cooperation and flexibility.”
Early on in the lockdown, the college administered an extensive survey to find out what challenges students were facing in the lockdown. Faculty changed their approaches to address the biggest problems students were facing.
The college also produced a series of online study tips to help students stay on track.
Even disciplines that are difficult to teach online, such as choir, rose to the challenge, with Timothy Tharaldson leading his students in an online performance of Crucifixus by Antonio Lotti.
John Ward described professors’ efforts to teach classes online in an article in the Benedictine College Circuit. The situation was particularly difficult for courses that require close observation of students, such as architecture.
“The students I teach are very polite and gracious and tend, on average, to want to express the best about what we are all attempting,” despite problems, architecture’s John Haigh told Ward. “We are in this together.”
There was a clearer path forward for some professors. Jean Rioux, Chair of the Philosophy Department, has been active in home-schooling, where distance learning was already a fact of life.
“For the last ten years, I have been teaching an online college credit class to high schoolers, so I was aware of how online classes work,” Rioux told Ward.
There were even some bright spots that were only made possible by the pandemic. Guest professors that “Zoomed in” to help teach classes included:
Professors shared their online study arrangements with the community via social media, and so did students. The Benedictine College Circuit even shared ideas for at-home study spaces.
“We create spaces in our homes for designated activities,” said student Maria Blong, a senior from Chariton, Iowa. “I knew I wouldn’t be a successful as an online student if I didn’t fashion my own study area to keep my sanity.”
The semester ended with the Honors Convocation at which students were honored by professors for extraordinary work. The convocation featured more special guests including members of the board of directors, past Distinguished Educators of the Year, benefactors for whom campus buildings are named, George Weigel, Father Michael Schmitz, and Kansas City Fox 4 News Anchor John Holt.
President Minnis said he was gratified by all the efforts that have been made to continue to live the mission during the pandemic.
“We have faced tough things in the past. And we will face tough things in the future,” he said. “But it has always been the mission of community, faith and scholarship that has brought us through.”