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Faculty, students find creative way to build community while away from campus

| Judy Berthiaume

When Dr. Paul Kaldjian heard UW-Eau Claire was moving to online learning for the rest of the spring semester because of COVID-19, it took him a bit to realize what was worrying him most.

Paul Kaldjian

Dr. Paul Kaldjian

It wasn’t the actual technicalities of online teaching and learning that had him fretting. After all, the longtime geography professor knows that most Blugolds are digital natives, so he’s confident they’ll stay engaged regardless of the class format.

His worry was how they could maintain the sense of community that faculty work so hard to nurture when students were no longer filling classrooms, wandering the hallways or popping into faculty offices.

“In our department, we try to create a strong community,” says Kaldjian, chair of the geography and anthropology department. “You see that in the way students and faculty interact, in how we create our spaces and our hallways, and in our open-door policies. Faculty lead student clubs and we weave required field trips into our curriculum.

“It all conspires to bring students and faculty and staff together, and for all of us to grow together as a learning community.”

Delivering lectures and grading student work from a distance is doable. But how, Kaldjian wondered, could they nurture the strong sense of community that is so important to student success.

With that mind, he sent a note to geography and anthropology faculty and staff asking them to record short videos from home with encouraging messages for their students.

Anxious to brush up on his video editing skills anyway, Kaldjian weaved the clips into a single video and emailed it to geography and anthropology majors and minors. He saw it as a small gesture to let students know their professors were thinking about them.

He quickly learned that there was nothing small about the gesture in the eyes of the students.

Ethan Sailer-Haugland, an environmental geography major, appreciates the time faculty and staff invest in supporting students in and out of the classroom.

Ethan Sailer-Haugland, an environmental geography major, appreciates the time faculty and staff invest in supporting students in and out of the classroom.

“When I saw the video the professors sent us, I was really moved,” says Ethan Sailer-Haugland, an environmental geography major who also is earning a certificate in geospatial analysis. “This time can be very anxiety-filled with school and work, and it was reassuring knowing the professors were putting in the work to ensure we all have a good semester.

“I’ve always been impressed by faculty in the geography department, and the video was just another reason to be impressed.”

Abby Tekiela, a junior environmental geography major from Victoria, Minnesota, agrees, adding that while she was touched by the messages shared by faculty and staff in the video, she wasn’t surprised by the gesture.

“There is a lot of love in the department, and faculty as well as staff are consistently supporting their students,” Tekiela says. “Students receive emails on a weekly basis about job and internship opportunities, different opportunities to showcase research students have done, and professors are always willing and happy to help students achieve their learning and life goals.”

Abby Tekiela, an environmental geography major, was eager to thank faculty and staff for all they are doing to stay connected with students during a stressful time.

Abby Tekiela, an environmental geography major, was eager to thank faculty and staff for all they are doing to stay connected with students during a stressful time.

Students do appreciate all that faculty and staff do to support them, but they don’t always tell them, says Sailer-Haugland, a senior from Roseville, Minnesota, who will graduate in May.

“I think it's easier for professors to show us how they care, but it's just as important for us to remind them how thankful a lot of us are for their support and compassion during these difficult times and beyond,” Tekiela says.

So, after watching the faculty-created video, Sailer-Haugland and Tekiela decided it was the perfect time to say thank you to their faculty and staff — and they knew just how they wanted to do it.

With the help of their geography friends, the Blugolds made a video of their own with messages of appreciation and support for faculty and staff.

“We had the idea to make the video to show the professors they’re not alone and that the students appreciate their work,” Sailer-Haugland says. “Everyone is going through this and we need to support each other.”

Hopefully, Tekiela says, the video will tell faculty and staff that students are thankful for them and that they do recognize how challenging it will be to move the traditionally face-to-face curriculum online.

“The video was a simple way to show that our faculty and staff really do care, and I feel lucky to be a part of it,” Tekiela says.

Faculty and staff were touched by both the students’ gesture and their kind words, Kaldjian says of reactions to the student-created video.

“As teachers, we so often do stuff that’s behind the veil; things that students don’t realize that we’re doing,” Kaldjian says. “We teach, grade stuff and interact with hundreds of students. We have many rewards in this job, including thanks from students, but we don’t generally expect it.”

The student-created video is even more meaningful because they immediately made the effort despite it being a difficult and chaotic time, Kaldjian says.

“They thanked us in real time,” Kaldjian says. “It’s not us running into them on street 20 years from now and having them say they really liked our class way back when.

“So, when something like this happens, it’s like the students are acknowledging our care and our effort and our attention to them and that means a lot. They put thought, organization and effort into expressing thanks to us.”

The video also tells him that students recognize the value of community, Kaldjian says.

“I think our students are telling us that they’re really aware of how important our communities are to them,” Kaldjian says. “I think they also know how important those communities are going to be in getting all of us through these times.”

The student video has him feeling hopeful that the students will care for one another, support one another and help each other through this difficult time, Kaldjian says.

As difficult as it is to change gears so dramatically midway through the semester, Kaldjian is thankful that faculty and students had six weeks together on campus before moving to an online format.

“We miss them, that’s for sure,” Kaldjian says of students. “However, having that time together on campus allowed us to get to know each other at least a bit so we have a relationship on which to build. We know few of us will get this perfect, but we also know that we’re all going to be doing our best.

“We’re going to figure it out together because that’s what communities do.”

As she prepares to finish the semester far from the physical campus, Tekiela is drawing strength from lessons learned in her geography studies.

“Geography is all about space and place, and while we can't actually be in the same space and place right now, that doesn't mean we have to stop caring for one another and learning,” Tekiela says.

Top photo caption: Geography faculty spend significant time teaching students in the field as well as in traditional classrooms. The sense of community that develops because of the shared experiences helps students thrive.