This article appears in the Fall 2020 Edition of Curry Magazine
By Lynda Curtis
It had been months since the last time Nicole Bousquet '21 had stepped on the Curry College campus, her "home away from home." When the communication major returned in August for the start of the fall semester, she felt eager for the sense of normalcy and to reunite with friends, teammates, and teachers.
"It feels great to be back with all of my friends and to see some of my professors again," she said. "I work here at the Early Childhood Center and I missed being with all the kids. I’m grateful to enjoy my senior year back on our campus even if it means adapting to the new circumstances in our world right now."
For Bousquet, it’s that deep connection to the people on the Milton campus that she missed most when the COVID-19 global pandemic closed Curry's physical gates in March. Sadness at being apart through the traditional spring classes, events and celebrations was a sentiment everyone in the College community shared.
"I’ll never again take going to class for granted," shared Kaila Pineda '23, a business major, in April. "I realized that it’s such a gift to be able to physically be in class, to see the teacher, and to talk with the other students. I think that I’ll always remember this crazy time and what a privilege it is to be able to go to my classes."
Yet, even as health and safety mandates and concerns around the pandemic limited the community’s physical connections in the spring and fall of 2020, the same dear and devoted people at Curry – now represented as masked but smiling faces, or encouraging voices on phones and screens – have remained the anchor to the College’s perseverance through the global health crisis. Through challenge and hardship, the coronavirus has only strengthened the community's commitment to one another, as faculty, students, staff and alumni have discovered new ways to thrive in uncertain times.
It was the afternoon of March 11 that definitively marked the spring semester as unlike any other in the College's 141-year history. As the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prepared to issue a stay-at-home advisory, along with colleges and universities state and nation-wide, President Kenneth K. Quigley, Jr. announced that all in-person classes were suspended and that students should not return to either the Milton or Plymouth campuses following Spring Break. Study abroad trips were recalled or cancelled, off-campus education field experiences, internships, and clinicals came to a halt. The Commonwealth Coast Conference suspended all athletic competition through the semester effective following the return of the athletes training on Spring Break trips in Maryland, South Carolina and Florida.
To fulfill that mission, Curry College, like thousands of other institutions across the world, moved education online. During the extended Spring Break, hundreds of administrators, faculty, and staff worked tirelessly to convert classroom-based courses to virtual learning environments. With the use of Zoom and other digital learning tools, traditional classes, labs, and studios were transformed into pre-recorded simulation exercises, live game-show type quizzes, and interactive virtual field trips. When classes began again on March 23, students continued group work with virtual breakout rooms to finalize capstone projects or produce short films, podcasts, and presentations. Career coaches led virtual mock interviews while the Early Childhood Center on campus continued show-and-tell with their preschoolers via webcams. Tutors conducted exam review with students in virtual chat rooms. Other institutional services and academic support resources, including the Levin Library, continued with telephone and online sessions.
Executive Vice President and Provost Dr. David Szczerbacki offered support and encouragement as students embraced the new challenges. "Having the ability to quickly adapt to change and engage with new technologies are skills we all continue to hone, and are skills that will serve you well in your professional pursuits after your graduation from Curry College. Curry’s commitment to your success remains as strong as ever and we will get through this together as a community supporting each other."
"It is wonderful to see how flexible everyone is as they step up to the plate for a game never previously played and where the goal line and rules keeping moving," said Program for Advancement of Learning Professor and Faculty Chair Diane Webber, of the creative learning strategies enacted throughout the spring.
It was Curry's innate sense of community that provided comfort and togetherness even as faculty, staff and students were divided geographically. "In our art classes, working together presents an opportunity to commiserate and identify with each other’s struggles. We meet each other’s pets. We see each other in their private spaces. Our new virtual lives have deepened the connection to our student community," said Heather Davis, associate lecturer in the fine and applied arts program.
Politics and History Professor Dr. Bill Nancarrow says the shift online is responsible for a once-in-a-lifetime connection he made with a student’s grandmother. Together on Zoom, he and a student reviewed an assignment on the Great Migration, a period during the 20th century when Black Americans moved north by the millions, fleeing poverty and segregation. During the video chat, the student revealed that her grandmother, whom she recently moved from campus to live with, had been one of those migrants and moved from Alabama to New York in the 1960s.
"She asked if I wanted to meet her grandmother and I said, 'sure.' And the three of us talked for several minutes about her journey. This was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in 23 years as an educator. And it wouldn’t have happened had we not been forced into a new environment."
Like Dr. Nancarrow, Curry's Center for Career Development too found unexpected opportunities as a result of the world’s shift online. In place of the Career & Internship Fair traditionally held each April, the CCD created a "Virtual Resume Drop" that allowed students to upload their resume to be featured in an e-Resume book shared with roughly 3,700 potential employers. The team also launched a "Look Who’s Hiring" virtual event series where students could meet and speak with potential employers from all over the country including New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Hosting the events remotely only opened new doors for students to engage with companies that might traditionally not have attended the campus Career Fair, says the CCD.
Sophie Barrett '20, a sociology major, received two job offers from employers she met at the virtual information sessions and started her new position in July at the New England Center for Children. From early spring through the summer, Barrett joined other students who also found career or internship success despite the tumultuous times. Working remotely, Jack Supino '21 produced simulated live NBA gameplay videos for the Boxford Cable Access Television station, Josh Goldstein '21 sat in on virtual briefing calls with financial advisors as an intern with UBS Financial Services, and Brittany Soares ’21 turned her virtual summer internship with Citizens Bank into a fulltime job offer, where she’ll join the team as a software engineer after graduating in May.
Yet, it was a group of nursing students who were presented with the ultimate career opportunity this year: caring for coronavirus patients. The School of Nursing partnered with Tufts Medical Center in March to allow roughly 20 senior nursing students to work as junior medical providers in support of the hospital’s nursing workforce. The Curry College cohort was among the first group of nursing students in the state to begin work alongside those on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Alongside nursing students, others studying public health, economics, and sociology also gained new learning opportunities by incorporating real-time analysis of the global pandemic. The real-world coursework started in the spring and continued throughout the fall semester. Sociology students became autoethnographers of quarantine, journaling about their experiences during the lockdown while economics students analyzed the pandemic’s socio-economic consequences. "We are truly witnessing economic history in the making," says Dr. Ishani Tewari, associate professor of business. Epidemiology students used the outbreak as a real-time case study to learn the science of COVID-19. The class studied the patterns of the virus and how that data informs public health programs and policies. As part of the course, students became certified in contact tracing in an online training led by Purdue University. Thomas Williamson ’20, a public health and wellness major and aspiring epidemiologist, says the current pandemic provides crucial context to the course’s in-class learning.
"We’re living in an infectious disease outbreak, and it’s a huge role in our lives whether we like it or not," he says. "COVID gives us another perspective on the concepts we’re learning. If we were talking about the black plague or the Spanish flu, it wouldn’t have the same impact."
In the spring, all courses and labs were conducted virtually; but for the fall, campus re-opened for living and learning with a mix of face-to-face, hybrid, and online courses designed to de-densify campus. This was only one of hundreds of measures implemented to protect the entire Curry community's health and safety. In preparation for the new academic year, the College convened a Return to Campus Institutional Committee in May to develop comprehensive plans regarding all aspects of campus life, including academics, student/residential life, technology, and athletics.
The Committee faced no small feat: together with College leadership and supported by subcommittees for all major areas, they were charged with finding a way to provide the distinctive in-person and on-campus living and learning experience that is a hallmark of Curry College while safeguarding the health and safety of the entire college community. Simultaneously, the College had to be prepared to launch flexible learning modalities and virtual experiences nearly overnight should the unpredictable public health crisis take a turn for the worse and again force institutions of higher education to close campuses.
"Lots of things will be different in the fall because of the COVID crisis... [but] our mission hasn’t changed, our commitment to our students hasn’t changed, and how hard we will work for our students to succeed hasn’t changed either," said President Quigley in a video address to the community on July 24.
After months of planning, the fall semester began on August 17– two weeks earlier than usual, to allow for a pre-Thanksgiving move-out of residence halls. For Curry and educational institutions worldwide, the "new normal" included social distancing protocols, mask-wearing requirements, low-density learning and living arrangements, and regular symptom monitoring and testing through the College’s partnership with the Harvard/MIT Broad Institute and their CoVerified mobile app.
All students were required to sign a mandatory Community Agreement outlining behavioral expectations before returning to campus. "It is important that on an ongoing basis, our students understand that together, by always thinking of how their actions may impact their friends, fellow students, families, professors and staff members, we can all help to create and maintain a safe environment at Curry," said Maryellen Kiley, vice president of Student Affairs in an email to students.
"Wearing my mask is my new normal," said Jackie Malloy '21, a criminal justice major. "Before leaving my dorm, I grab my keys, phone, and mask. We all need to do our part to keep each other safe."
On campus, masks became a daily accessory; COVID-19 testing was a weekly stop at the Miller Field House; classes were online, outside under a tent, or socially-distanced in cleared classrooms and labs; meals were often grab and go; fun was had at outdoor Open Mic nights, cornhole tournaments, or virtual paint nights. Athletes kept training and practices, but dropped travel and games; the Student Government Association and other student organizations met via Zoom; first-year students chatted and made new friends via Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat.
The new campus policies restricting visitors and large gatherings, and requiring face masks, social distancing and daily symptom screening allowed the College to keep the virus largely at bay. Moreover, when positive cases were identified, the aggressive weekly testing program–which administered over 25,000 tests this fall–allowed administrators to act quickly to isolate the infected and exposed, and keep the 14-day positivity rate on campus consistently below one percent, when both Milton and Massachusetts had rates significantly higher. Temporarily closing two residence halls– one in late September and the other in mid-October–to conduct robust contact tracing and carry out quarantine/isolation procedures–prevented small clusters of positive cases from multiplying and causing a campus-wide shut down. All of these efforts contributed to Curry successfully keeping the community safe and the campus open to allow a full residential experience for students for the entire fall semester, which concluded just before Thanksgiving.
Throughout the fall semester, every day, the individual faculty, staff, and students that make up Curry's unique community stayed committed to each other and the ultimate goal of keeping Curry safe. The administration established new best practices for campus operations; faculty led innovative teaching strategies in classrooms, and students adapted and found new ways to engage and participate on campus. The community’s collective success has now provided a framework for the spring semester, which at the time of publication the College hopes to conduct similarly to the fall, with similar precautions and structures in place to allow for in-person on-campus academic and residential life (all subject to changing federal, state and local public health regulations and considerations as the pandemic continues).
"Whatever the future holds, we look forward to continued success for Curry College," says President Quigley. "Thanks to our dedicated faculty and staff and the willingness of our students to adapt admirably to a new and unfamiliar environment, which are testaments to the strength of our Curry community, our experience this year has prepared us to navigate the challenges that lie ahead of us together. We will continue to improve, to evolve, and most importantly, to safeguard our community and deliver on our promise to provide a uniquely Curry educational experience."