May 26, 2021 at 9:30am
Dane Lisser

The unprecedented challenges we have all faced around the country and globally over the past year have essentially changed our way of living.

As this piece is being written, we, as a society, have been looking back on one year of the official declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic that has, and continues, to impact millions. For this writer, one question seems to be coming up more often from friends, family and colleagues ... where were you when COVID-19 became a reality?

March 11, 2020 ... the day that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 virus a pandemic. The announcement from the WHO was a surreal moment that was filled with questions and worrisome thoughts – What do we do? Everything from work, to events, to schools and sports were put on pause. We became socially distant.

Like all institutions of higher learning, Millikin University made the switch to online, distant learning for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester and encouraged students to stay home. In an e-mail to the campus community, past Millikin President Dr. Patrick E. White summed up his message with reinforcement by saying "we will be able to help one another thrive even in this difficult situation."

Students with masks

"Before the pandemic, as a cabinet leadership team we were constantly encouraged to be 'nimble and flexible.' I credit Dr. White with setting us up for success in this growth mindset. We were more prepared to tackle the challenges of the pandemic because we were already thinking every day about how to make Millikin better, more efficient and more student-focused," said Raphaella Prange, vice president for student affairs.

Millikin Provost Dr. Jeff Aper recalls the thought of astonishment when the news of the pandemic broke. "In over 40 years of experience working in education, I had never experienced that kind of dramatic and rapid shift in what we were doing in the middle of a semester. I was worried about the strain and demand it placed on faculty to make such a monumental shift on such short notice, and I was deeply saddened at the impact on so many key events for students, especially seniors," he said.

The initial transition for Millikin University to shift to remote learning, as quickly as it did, was extraordinary. One of the most important parts of the transition was the process of providing a safe environment for the students who remained on campus, ensuring all students had access to the support services they needed.

"It was always important for us to remain open in whatever capacity we were permitted to. We know that many students count on Millikin as their primary residence, and we were not going to abandon our students," said Prange.

"My primary worry was ensuring that any student who wished to remain at Millikin, whether on campus or not, could; and that meant focusing on removing any barriers to student persistence and staying engaged with student cases. This was certainly challenging when our team was forced to work from home. The physical distance between student support staff members and at-risk students amplified communication challenges."

As the spring 2020 semester continued on, traditional events like Celebrations of Scholarship, Honors Convocation and Spring Commencement became virtual. Things progressed into the summer, and the University prepared for the arrival of Dr. Jim Reynolds who began his new role as Millikin's 16th President on July 1.

Students with masks

The future was unpredictable as the University began preparations for the fall 2020 semester. Millikin officials carefully planned for the fall by developing a thoughtful set of guidelines that provided a great deal of support and assistance for the campus community, including using multiple methods to deliver classes: in-person, online or hybrid.

Millikin also developed its own COVID testing plan from the ground up that included contact tracing, finding a testing partner, developing testing criteria, flagging students prior to arrival on campus and implementing testing. Communication was a key element to the plan with the University being very transparent in revealing the number of tests that were administered along with the number of positive cases.

"The culture of compliance that we have been able to create and sustain is truly remarkable. I credit our success to the fact that we communicated clearly and consistently, and that all of us want to return to the Millikin experiences we know and love," Prange said. "We know that it takes each of us to be a part of the solution. I hear student-athletes, performing students and faculty alike talk about the compromises and sacrifices they have had to make personally during this pandemic. But, the common theme is that we are all doing it for the common good and our compliance means that we can return to the in-person Big Blue experience sooner."

Throughout this challenging time, Dr. Aper had one word to describe the response of the Millikin community — resilience. "I think it conveys in one word a sense of a story that is about bending but not breaking," he said. "People have been pushed hard by these circumstances, and much of what we are committed to has been disrupted and challenged. Still, we have found ways to continue, to persevere, and to support each other to try to protect each other and move forward. In the end, it is persevering in pursuit of something genuinely good and meaningful even in the face of challenge, uncertainty, fatigue, loneliness and risk that is a truly important story to remember and to tell as a saga of community and purpose."

Over the course of the year, cases on Millikin's campus remained low and the University partnered with SHIELD Illinois to implement an on-campus COVID-19 saliva- based testing program that became available to students on Jan. 11. There were certainly challenges, such as Zoom fatigue and trying to recreate student engagement programs virtually, but the University carried forward ... together.

"Our entire employee base pulled in the same direction. We all knew what was needed to make it through this time, and knew we could only do it together," Prange said. "The challenge became, 'how do you provide student life and engagement when you can't be together in any format?' We pride ourselves in having a tight-knit and welcoming community at Millikin. How do you welcome new students during the pandemic? How do you demonstrate how special Millikin is when everything we call a hallmark is not currently happening? I think this really exposed something that we knew all along, that Millikin is an immersive experience and the value of a Millikin education extends well past the classroom."

Students in class

As the academic year wraps up, university officials have already gathered to discuss preparations for next fall. In March 2021, an announcement was made that Millikin is planning to return to an in-person academic experience for the fall 2021 semester allowing students, faculty and staff to take full advantage of the University's on-campus Performance Learning model.

There is optimism for the future as the University hopes to get back to the Millikin experience we all know and love. Dr. Aper hopes that the end of the pandemic can be the beginning of a powerful sense of renewal and that the possibilities inherent all around us will seem more tangible and achievable.

"We will emerge from all of this better and stronger than before. I have said many times that the work we do here has never been more important, and I think that is most certainly and clearly true now and in the months and years ahead." — Dr. Jeff Aper, Provost, Millikin University

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