When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the School of Education’s day-to-day operations were altered abruptly and significantly. Nearly all employees pivoted to working remotely, while students’ classes were moved online. Throughout the pandemic, members of our School community went above and beyond to meet the many challenges.
After a year-and-a-half of remote work and largely virtual and hybrid instruction, faculty, staff, and students are returning to campus. There is still a long way to go as we discover our new normal. Students and employees are adjusting to finding the right balance in a new working and learning environment. The COVID-19 pandemic still looms and presents a lot of uncertainty — yet there is cautious optimism as well. Many look forward to rekindling community and collaboration to support each other during this new school year.
We spoke to some of our students, faculty, and staff to learn how the pandemic impacted them, what they learned from it, and what they are looking forward to this semester. Following are their stories:
Excited to get the full campus experience
As the child of two UW–Madison alumni, Megan Tennessen has always dreamed of becoming a Badger. However, she started her freshman year in the fall of 2020 during the pandemic. Her first semester, she figured nothing would be happening due to COVID-19, so she didn’t try to participate in much. However, by the second semester, she learned independence and resilience and decided to seek out new opportunities, including participating in a virtual theatre production.
“I auditioned for an online play — and got cast! Theatre performance requires teamwork, and it was sometimes hard to really connect with other (cast) members online,” says Tennessen. “I learned, though, that we can adapt to our situations, focusing on the positives. As a part of this production, I got to meet some fellow classmates in theatre, perform with a green screen, and continue to work on my passions.”
With the promise of campus reuniting this fall, Tennessen looks forward to having a fuller campus experience.
“I am looking forward to football games, tailgates, basketball games, theatre performances, and of course, in-person classes,” she says. “I didn’t get to have the full campus experience last year due to the pandemic, so I am beyond excited to see campus life flourishing.”
Looking forward to making memories with friends
Sofia Vandersluis, a junior this fall, had her college experience interrupted by the pandemic. Working as a new student leader during SOAR helped her fall back in love with Madison. Now, after several months of school during the pandemic, Vandersluis is excited to experience the new normal of campus life and being a more traditional student once again.
“I am looking forward to making memories with my friends,” says Vandersluis. “I am so excited to do everything. I am by no means a die-hard sports fan, but I will be at every game day!”
Vandersluis’ big takeaway from the pandemic is the importance of family.
“I am fortunate to have the smartest, most competent, and kind parents in the world — but growing up, I definitely took them for granted,” she says. “This past year with the variability, innate issues of being 20, and overall confusion, they were my rock, and I would not be where I am today if not for them.”
Looking to carry through grace and patience
Christine Gerbitz, a mother of five and a non-traditional teacher education student, drew lessons from the pandemic that she wants to carry into her eventual classroom.
“The biggest lesson I will take with me from during the pandemic involved watching the teachers I worked with and the instructors who worked with us,” says Gerbitz. “They extended grace. I saw it time and time again: teachers working to give their students the best possible chances to succeed under less-than-ideal circumstances. While I will have high expectations and rigorous academic content in my classroom, I want to carry through that grace and patience I saw and experienced in my classes and practicum classrooms.”
After having two online practicum experiences last year, Gerbitz looks forward to going into a classroom for her practicum this fall and meeting fellow students in her cohort in person.
Pandemic shifts priorities toward health
Our incoming students have also been shaped by the pandemic. Anjali Yadav is part of the very first cohort of the learning analytics master’s program, an online MS in educational psychology.
“Admittedly, I’m still wrapping my head around the events from the last 18 months since we are still in it in many ways,” says Yadav. “But I think the pandemic has understandably shifted many of our priorities toward health, in all its forms, and the well-being of our loved ones and ourselves. As a result, I’m noticing that people are willing to share their needs more readily and honestly.”
Yadavi works at an educational technology company in Washington, D.C., and looks forward to contributing to its work while furthering her education.
“The online, part-time format of the program is ideal in that it allows me to develop new professional skills while continuing to work here in D.C.,” says Yadav. “My company is doing really interesting and important work. I’m grateful that I can continue being a part of their efforts while furthering my own education. An emphasis of the learning analytics master’s program specifically is that the learnings in the program should inform our work, and our work should enrich our learnings in the program.”
Adds Yadav: “So, it really feels like the best of both worlds. I also want to give kudos to the team who helped design this program for creating many opportunities to engage with other students and learn from them despite being online and asynchronous.”
What it’s like to start a new job during the pandemic
Not just our students but our employees have also been deeply affected by COVID-19. Carly Marco, Javier Neira, and Ida Balderrama-Trudell started working in the School of Education during the pandemic. They shared what it was like to start a new job during this challenging period, and what they hope for in the upcoming fall semester.
Marco began her work as the Teacher Pledge program manager on March 24, 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. She recalls all the uncertainty at the beginning.
“I got a call that previous Friday informing me that some people were going to start working from home until we had more information about COVID-19,” says Marco. “By Monday, it was final — everyone was working from home indefinitely. I had to pick up my laptop from the School parking lot and have been working remotely until recently.”
She further adds how despite being virtual over most of the past 18 months, her School colleagues have made her feel welcome and supported.
“It’s the only thing I know, so it’s hard to compare! I’m so lucky to work with truly amazing colleagues who have welcomed me with open (virtual) arms,” says Marco. “In some ways, I feel like I know everyone really well — I’ve seen their homes, pets, spouses, and kids in the background of Zoom — but at the same time, we’ve never worked together in person. It’s kind of surreal to think about.”
This fall, she looks forward to adjusting to being in her new office, continuing to connect with our amazing students, and eating from all the delicious food trucks on campus.
Neira, who recruits for the School’s teacher education programs, started in December 2020. He explains how long it took for the new job to sink in.
“Starting a new job during a pandemic is crazy,” says Neira. “It was not until my second month of working when I came into the office to drop some things off when I finally realized I had started a new position.”
Like many others, the pandemic taught him the value of family and life.
“It was great to be reminded that we are here to create human connections that last a lifetime and improve everyone’s lives,” says Neira. “I had the privilege to see my son grow up during his first year on earth. I want to make sure that he grows up in a world where he will not take the simple things in life for granted. These last 18 months have been a time to meditate and appreciate our social networks and how we are going to tackle difficult situations in the future.”
As a recruiter, Neira looks forward to finally making connections on campus and in communities across Wisconsin.
“I believe my position can make a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “What we are doing at the School will have long-lasting effects in our school districts.”
Balderrama-Trudell was already working remotely at UW–Madison when she started her position with the School of Education in January 2021. Even though she was familiar with campus and remote working, the transition to her new role at the School was challenging.
“As someone who has been on campus but in a different unit during most of the pandemic, it was challenging in ways I didn’t expect,” says Balderrama-Trudell. “I’ve worked on campus for over 20 years as a graduate student and full-time employee and I have built many relationships with folx, including in the School of Education. None of that prepared me for starting a new role, in a new office, remotely. I’ve missed the casual meet ups in the hallways, or someone poking their head in the office to welcome you.”
As the director of student engagement in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Balderrama-Trudell is ready for the the fall semester:
“The energy of a new semester and a new academic year is always invigorating and a reminder of why I choose to do this work,” she says.
It is definitely a challenging time to return to campus. With the more virulent Delta variant spreading fast, many people are uncertain and hesitant. Campus is monitoring the situation and adjusting its response as needed. The COVID 19 response website provides faculty, staff, and students the latest updates and guidelines to keep the School community safe. But with high vaccination levels and safety precautions, there is a lot to look forward to as the new academic year begins. Whatever the new year brings, our resilient School community has shown it is prepared to adapt to challenges, offering flexibility and grace for themselves and others.