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September 29, 2020
That’s the word President Stephen V. Sundborg, S.J., says he hears most often around Seattle University. And it was the theme of the virtual fall community forum he hosted for alumni, donors and friends of the university on Sept. 24.
“We’re delivering our education in a manner or a mode that’s unprecedented. Ninety percent of it is virtually,” says Father Sundborg. “That’s unprecedented. The experience of our students and how they are engaging their college experience is unprecedented. The efforts we are taking and the actions we are engaged in to counter racial injustice is unprecedented. And we’re dealing with some unprecedented financial challenges because of COVID 19.”
President Sundborg challenged alumni to engage with the university in an “unprecedented way” when he announced during the forum the launch of Our Moment of Mission: The President’s Challenge.
Noting that this is the final year of the university’s The Campaign for the Uncommon Good and of his presidency, he said “We want to bring more of our alumni into action and engagement with Seattle University than there has been before.”
The goal is to bring 10,000 alumni back to the university to engage by “connecting, by volunteering and by giving.” He also urged alumni to be “unprecedented” in these efforts. “It would mean everything to this university and personally it would mean everything to me.”
The forum touched on other challenges and opportunities, including the process of naming the next president, who for the first time will not be a Jesuit, unlike the 21 previous leaders.
“Seattle University has prepared very well for this transition, we’re very confident about the future and we’re delighted to be able to take this step,” said Fr. Sundborg.
Despite it being an extraordinary year, “we are in remarkably positive spirits. When we needed to be creative, we have been creative. When we needed to be greater colleagues and collaborative with one another we found out the way to do it. When we needed to learn how to use the technology and a phenomenal way to deliver our education and engage with our students, we learned how to do it that way. When we were challenged on how to move forward on practical means of countering racial injustice, we did it.”
The process of discovery led to two important things: Jesuit education—with its deep engagement with people and the world underlined by faith and spirituality—was made for this moment. And the completion and adoption of a strategic plan just six weeks before the pandemic hit gives a clear direction and shape to what the university will become.
Here are some additional key takeaways from the forum, which included student speakers as well as administrators.
Despite the challenging time for higher education and Seattle U, “we also see signs of hope and signs that we will reemerge from these times,” said Provost Shane P. Martin. “Our strength during this time of crisis is leaning into our Jesuit roots in every way, but especially our curriculum. While we are in a virtual environment, we are being thoughtful about that in every way. Our faculty have really risen to the challenge of moving to a virtual environment.”
Claire Rodgers, ’21, a resident assistant and double major who spoke at the forum, said she was nervous about how the pandemic would impact the academic experience when it hit last March. “But as spring quarter began, I saw that our professors were doing everything they could to bring the in-person experience to the online platform.” She cited Zoom office hours, staying after class to meet with students and that for her, “the coolest thing is that professors acknowledged they were learning with us through the transition. Instead of acting like they were Zoom pros or that they knew everything, they instead chose to be flexible, kind and listen to students about what we needed during that time.”
Diversity and inclusion
Natasha Martin, JD, vice president for diversity and inclusion, said that the university seeks to align antiracism to its strategic directions and purpose. To that end, five initiatives were identified to facilitate anti-racist education and to accelerate structural change for greater racial equity, diversity and inclusion across the institution. She shared information about a plan called LIFT SU that encompasses the following initiatives: Listen and learn, Impact through intentional action, Fail forward and Transform together.
“These (initiatives) will better position us to translate our statements of support and our values as an institution into action so we can be responsive with specific actions and create the kind of environment that Jesuit education is made for,” she said.
The student experience
“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented all of us with unexpected challenges and many difficult decisions,” said Alvin Sturdivant, vice president for Student Development. “Like you, we face these circumstances with determination, but recognize the need for our plans to remain flexible as conditions change and as we become aware of the evolving needs of our students, both those studying remotely and those here with us on campus.”
Acknowledging that the new academic year hasn’t been easy, particularly for university’s first-year students, Sturdivant said “we remain steadfast in our resolve and commitment to ensuring all of our students have the opportunity to thrive at Seattle University despite the numerous challenges they and we face. The source of our resolve in these times is staying true to our Catholic Jesuit mission while abiding by our responsibilities inherent in living cura personalis—caring for the whole person.”
Student Development, in partnership with programs and colleges and schools across the university, are looking at a variety of ways to build community by bringing students together, both in-person and virtually. “And we remain committed to doing so,” noted Sturdivant, “in a way that continues to prioritize and preserve the health and safety of our community.”
“We know our students are demonstrating courage, strength and resiliency, but they are also experiencing Zoom fatigue, stress, anxiety, isolation and loneliness, among other challenges,” he said. “Many of our students have adapted extremely well to the virtual learning and engagement environment and for some, face-to-face isn’t just a preference, but more conducive to their learning and way of being.”
About 1,100 students currently live on campus. Campus Ministry, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Student Health Center continue to provide direct support to students in need. CAPS manages a full caseload using tele-counseling and case management services. “The Student Health Center remains on the frontlines of our institutional response to COVID-19, coordinating testing, contact tracing and providing direct support to students,” said Sturdivant.
Campus Ministry has resumed in-person mass for students and continues to provide one-on-one counseling and coaching, spiritual direction and small group and cohort-based virtual opportunities to keep students connected. On the health and well-being front, University Recreation recently began offering limited open recreation opportunities at SU Park and the tennis courts. And university clubs and organizations are continuing to find innovative ways to hold meetings, events and connect with new and returning students.
During a question and answer period, Sturdivant also listed the Wellness and Health Promotion office, which does preventative education work aimed at helping students understand how to manage their way through these times. He also noted how faculty, staff and advisors engage with students daily, offering outreach and support.
Stephanie Perez, ’21, a graduate student in the Master in Sports Business Leadership program, who also spoke at the forum, said, “My experience at Seattle U has been great. The connections I’ve built with faculty and my cohort have been tremendous. I’m grateful for mentors and faculty members who are making things very easy, constantly reminding us that things are going to be OK, being able to send an email out and have a one-on-one interaction. Having empathy during this time is very key to keeping us engaged.”
Perez added that as a woman of color she is thankful for the university talking about and acting on racial injustice.
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