Five campuses repopulate, applying skills from the virtual world

New students enjoy a barbecue during orientation activities on the main Fresno Pacific University campus Aug. 19. — Fresno Pacific University New students enjoy a barbecue during orientation activities on the main Fresno Pacific University campus Aug. 19. — Fresno Pacific University

When COVID-19 pushed Fresno Pacific University into a virtual world, its people found opportunities amid the challenges.

In March 2020, FPU nearly emptied its five campuses throughout California’s Central Valley. Instruction shifted almost exclusively online for roughly 4,000 traditional and adult students attending undergraduate, bachelor’s degree completion, master’s degree and seminary classes, complicating planning and rattling nerves.

Living and teaching in California, the state with the nation’s ­highest number of COVID cases, was a challenge for the university, affiliated with the Pacific District Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

Adapting to lockdowns and mask mandates, students and staff absorbed new skills and efficiencies that translate into a post-pandemic world.

“We are stronger,” said Katie Fleener, dean of the School of Business. “We’re a better institution. We’re better educators. We’ve learned how to use technology to improve how we educate.”

For Fall, the University is re­turning to in-person instruction — albeit masked indoors — with greater knowledge and flexibility. The nearly wholesale virtual experience revealed new ways of doing business across university life.

Professors who had never taught online learned the virtual ropes with the help of colleagues, the FPU Center for Online Learning and even students. That door remains open for more and different types of teaching: a session-long lecture might be placed online to reserve class time for discussion and activities. This expanded foundation extends the university’s reach well beyond physical borders.

Among the most difficult challenges was making the human connection through a computer screen. The university is guided by the “Fresno Pacific Idea” — its interpretation of what it means to be a community of learners devoted to a distinctive vision of Christian higher education. Yet it was harder to build community via Zoom.

“At the beginning we were struggling,” Fleener said. “But we got better as time went on. We’ve learned how to build a stronger sense of community in an online environment.”

After FPU shut down, fewer than 200 students — mainly student-athletes — lived on campus. Campus life staff reached out partly by moving events and College Hour worship services online.

Some students experienced pandemic-fueled feelings of isolation and anxiety.

“I believe we need to be very attentive to student mental-health challenges over the next few years,” said Dale Scully, vice president for campus life.

The FPU community looks forward to in-person classes and the ministry of presence.

“You learn to plan and create alternative plans and try to make the best of the situation,” said Donald Griffith, vice president for advancement. “You have to learn to pivot.”

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