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Dear Penn State Students...

by on March 23, 2020 5:00 AM

This is an open letter to my university students:

It is at times unfathomable that we are here. I would much rather be meeting with you in my office, seeing you in your regular seat in the classroom or hearing you laugh with your peers outside my office in our Student Success Center. We are experiencing something that few of us have or will ever experience again in our lives.

I understand that this has been very hard for you.   It’s been hard for me too.

Most of us were on spring break – vacationing, hanging out at home or just taking a week off from our studies – when the word came down. Penn State and universities across the state and country were going to “remote learning” in response to the rapid spread of this virus. We were given short notice and little time to prepare. It quickly became clear that we weren’t going to be returning to our regular classroom or lab or academic settings for at least a few weeks.

Of course, since those initial announcements, the world has changed. The updates and new limits on our life seem to change daily, if not hourly. As of today, we don’t know when we’ll be back to our normal routines and what “normal” will ever look like again.

I’ve heard many people both within and outside of our academic community refer to what we are doing as “online education.” That is incorrect. Starting this past January, I was assigned to teach my first official online course through Penn State’s World Campus. That assignment came after two full semesters of work with instructional designers, professionals in outreach and a six-month review and reorganization of the way that I teach the material “in residence.” Prior to that, I had taken numerous (13, actually) training courses to learn how to interact online, work in groups online, develop online assessments, understand the non-traditional online students, etc. and all that goes along with teaching an online course.

And then came the coronavirus. We were given about four days to make the switch from a class or lab that is taught in person to teaching that same class or lab on the internet.  

In that announcement, you were thrown a curveball too. Many of you have selected the in-residence delivery system (i.e. moving to campus and attending classes in person) because of the way you learn or the fact that you wanted a traditional college experience. You learn better from hearing and watching and seeing a faculty member in the front of a classroom. You like the face-to-face interaction with your peers. You wanted the hands on, experiential classroom experience.   

I am so sorry that you aren’t getting that traditional college experience. Parties. Socials. Hanging out with friends. Recreation. Athletics. Clubs. Philanthropic activities. Events that you have been working so hard to design and deliver. Celebrations. And, yes, this disruption to your academic experience. It sucks. It really sucks. It’s also no one’s fault.

Who knows what the future holds?

As we have seen with other times of trouble in our community, these are the times that Penn Staters come together. These times have been when we are at our best.  “We are” is so much more than just a crowd cheer at a football game.

The new priority for universities is to make sure students have access to the theory, skills and competencies – and that we assess your understanding of those theories, test those skills and measure those competences – under unprecedented challenges. We want to make sure that when you present your Penn State degree to either a potential employer or a graduate school that the decision maker(s) on the other side will know you know what you are supposed to know. We are striving to keep you on pace to graduate. We want you to start the next leg of your life’s journey with all of the tools you will need to be successful.  

We need some things from you to help us do that.

First, understand that faculty, staff, your peers and even the university administrators are all in the same boat. We are with you. Although “grown ups” at universities have plans in place for emergencies and we review and practice those plans, this one has tested all of us. None of us have been through this before. All of us are experiencing the frustration, the uncertainty and the fear of the unknown that this virus has brought to 2020. Please be patient with us as we work out your many questions.  

We understand that your fear and frustration may be showing as anger. People are tense. Emotions are running high. That goes for us too.  We are also locked-in, shut down, worried about what’s to come, and have many of the same stressors that you do. We worry about our futures, our finances, our family, our health and the health of our loved ones.

We are also worrying about you.   

When you leave Penn State, many of you will be stepping into leadership roles. That means managing others. That means emotional intelligence: the ability to control, and express one's emotions, to empathize with others and to be judicious in our interpersonal relationships. Emotional intelligence is said to be one of the top characteristics that employers look for in hiring and promoting. This is a good time to practice those skills. Rude comments online, disrespect on social media, disruptions in the remote learning environment and disregard for the precautions in place by the authorities isn’t helpful to you, to your family or to the university community.

Thankfully, the majority of you are representing Penn State with pride. You have shown up “in class.” You have asked respectful and thoughtful questions. You have expressed concerns about your peers. You have reached out to faculty. You understand that our whole community is unsure, so unsure. You are letting us know when you need support.

I look forward to hearing from you to set up a Zoom appointment just to chat. It makes me smile when you share a story or hold up your puppy or point out your messy bedroom in our remote classrooms. I have appreciated the calls and the emails checking in. We all rise when we lift others. In the meantime, take care of yourself. Get some sleep. Binge watch some good TV. Exercise. Reconnect with family. Have virtual gatherings with your friends. Kindness, like a virus, is also contagious.

I can’t wait until we are back on campus, back to our routine and back to all of those things that we have all taken for granted for too long.  

We are… all in this together.


Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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