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Student Voices: Quality undergraduate education before, during and after COVID-19

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

By Lauren Boultbee, Maple League Student Fellow, Bishop’s University

In an interesting article posted in the “Financial Times”, Yuval Noah Harari explores “the world after coronavirus” and the long-term implications of decisions being made today, in response to this unprecedented global disruption. We are asked to consider “When choosing between alternatives, … not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of a world we will inhabit once the storm passes.” This guiding focus can be of great help to us now as the Maple League addresses the challenges we face today, provides support to our communities and implements innovative solutions that help to manage the current disruption but also (and arguably more importantly) that make us stronger in the long run and more capable of offering the most relevant 21st century undergraduate education possible.

At the heart of our consortium is the commitment to being brave, innovative, and connected while demonstrating the ability to pivot and always be guided by our values and ultimately what is best for our students. We can proudly say that we have been working hard across all campuses since the onset of the disruption presented by COVID-19 to meet the needs of students and faculty, and I am confident as the dust continues to settle on this new reality that we will continue to find more creative ways to support our communities and ultimately learn together.

As is the regular practice of the Maple League, even during the pandemic, we have managed to dare, differentiate ourselves from other institutions and have remained student centered (online now that we cannot be together in person). From the first signs that this pandemic was going to in fact disrupt our communities here in Canada, Maple League partners, including students, professors, fellows and supporting communities, have demonstrated a willingness to embrace the messiness of this experience and be vulnerable while still being committed to making the best of the situation. The transparency of accurate information (versus a totalitarian scare tactic approach or the withholding of facts) along with a commitment to problem-solving has, I believe, been at the heart of what has enlisted the “better angels of our nature”. The toleration of vulnerability and uncertainty are always a must if we are striving for honesty, creativity and innovation. Being open and communicating reduces fear and makes people feel heard and appreciated. Now more than ever I have appreciated the Maple League’s willingness to embrace vulnerability to ensure that we remain secure in our connection to one another. An example of this openness came in the form of initial communications from my Principal Michael Goldbloom stating that although the path forward was not yet clear, the priority of the Bishop’s community was to first and foremost ensure everyone’s health and safety and secondly to guarantee that the academic semester would not be in jeopardy. As an expectant graduate, this message was a great comfort and allowed me to refocus my energies on my studies and fellowship tasks confident that my future was secure, if not yet clearly outlined in detail. Professors also illustrated a willingness to be vulnerable in some early communications that outlined their uncertainty of how they would proceed with our courses or what modifications would need to be made in order to pivot to an online form of learning; almost always these emails concluded with the importance of taking care of ourselves and feeling free to reach out for support when needed. Some faculty provided their home or cell phone numbers to students to ensure that lines of communication were always open and that the connection we enjoy in our classrooms was not lost now that we were physically separated.

For the most part, my experience with course adaptations has been a positive one. Most professors acknowledged where distance would provide a significant disruption to the planned syllabus and made modifications accordingly, with their students’ success in mind. Other examples of how Bishop’s in particular has demonstrated a commitment to being student centered include the postponement of convocation and the option for students to choose a pass/fail mark for their courses rather than a numerical grade for their transcripts if they deem this the best choice for them. Unilateral decisions are not made unnecessarily, and this will allow for students to continue to pursue their academic goals in a way that is personal to their needs. Principal Goldbloom acknowledged in his video message to the graduating class that he appreciates how important gathering for Convocation is to students and I am grateful that Bishop’s, unlike other schools, has not chosen to cancel the event altogether or move it to a virtual ceremony. While we are all mourning the loss of the connection we so easily took for granted on our intimate campuses, it is important to recognize and celebrate where we have been able to dare and differentiate ourselves and remain student centered.

Fast tracked responses to the pandemic implemented by the Maple League as a consortium are wonderful examples of learning that will continue to sustain us and make our institutions stronger in the future. The MLTLC (Maple League Teaching & Learning Centre) Open Office Hours provided comfort, support and professional development opportunities for faculty and students during an unprecedented disruption; the community this initiative built will hopefully be one we can continue to leverage when things return to normal and will continue to enhance the learning that takes place in our classrooms. Mental health communications and the offering of the Seven Sacred Teachings Mindfulness Workshop are examples of how we have dared to be student centered and responsive now, during the pandemic, but are certainly ingredients that could be added to our “regularly scheduled programming” in some form. The research recently undertaken by St. FX and Indiana University, into how our communities are coping with the COVID-19 disruption, is a wonderful example of a current response that can have a long-lasting and positive effect on our consortium. These initiatives and the positive response they’ve received provide further proof that resilience is a focus we should never lose sight of and one that we should continue to develop in our students if they are to be well-equipped citizens of tomorrow.

More than ever before, I believe that making a case for the model of education offered by the Maple League is an exercise in passion that will be met with appreciation from the next generation of undergraduate students and their parents. As a Business Marketing and Entrepreneurship student first, I well understand that any marketing plan must be backed by information on the market as it exists, the customer, and the competition. Monetizing undergraduate education is not the answer and I am certainly not advocating for an approach which characterizes degrees as commodities; however, I believe it is prudent to understand the market and act on trends and preferences that others have overlooked in order to develop and expand a loyal community. I believe COVID-19, the experiences it necessitated, along with the many other unique, well established Maple League offerings (JUMP Mentoring, Up 4 Debate, student-faculty research opportunities, experiential learning courses and more) will ensure our model of education is appreciated and continues to thrive.

The uncertainty of these times and the long-lasting fragility many will experience are not reasons to avoid a Maple League school, but rather the very reason to choose one of our institutions. We have proven ourselves a close-knit community that puts the well-being of its members above all else; this personal approach will be more appreciated than ever in the new world we will inhabit. We have always been student centered and this disruption was just another opportunity to prove how true that Maple League value is. As Harari reminds us, this too shall pass, and life will return to normal. Families who understand this will still appreciate the experience of a quality education in its holistic and varied ways. I believe we should look forward to spreading word of the Maple League and the uniqueness it brings to an undergraduate educational experience. We can proudly say that when faced with the unprecedented disruption of COVID-19, we innovated rapidly and met the needs of our community. Pivoting in the short term, as all institutions have had to do, is not by any means a reason to overhaul a model of 21st century undergraduate education which has proven itself (and continues to prove) successful in countless ways for generations.

In the meantime, as we continue to navigate this messy journey, I hope we never lose sight of the important question: what do we want things to look like on the other side of this experience and how can we best achieve that reality together?

Lauren Boultbee is a member of the graduating Class of 2020 at Bishop’s University, and the Maple League Advancement and Communications Student Fellow.

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