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“A year of change”: Looking back on the 2020-2021 school year

As this unprecedented academic year comes to a close, Miami University students, faculty and administration are reflecting on the changes made and lessons learned this past year as they look toward the future.

The academic year started off with a phased-in reopening of the university. The first five weeks of the fall semester occurred online only, and students living in residence halls had a delayed move-in. The announcement, which came two weeks before students were to begin a staggered move-in, set the tone for the school year.

David Creamer, senior vice president for finance and business services, said if he could describe the school year in one word, it would be “unpredictable.”

“Things continued to be dynamic, and you couldn’t anticipate everything in regard to how the year would proceed,” Creamer said, “so you had to be prepared to deal with new things that might occur suddenly and be able to adapt quickly.”

Because the start of the fall semester was delayed, welcome and transition programs for first-years were held mainly online, which Student Body President Jannie Kamara said may have impacted their experience.

“With the shifting back of our start date, that really hurt the idea of connection, because we look at the first 50 days and how particularly a lot of first year students utilize those first 50 days to make new friends and form new relationships,” Kamara said. “And without that first 50 days, it just really took first-years in this place where they're just like, ‘I don't know what I'm doing here, I don't know how I'm going to navigate through here.’”

This wasn’t the case for every first-year, however. 

Allison Schmidt, a first-year biology major, was able to make connections by joining student organizations, like the running club, swimming club and the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega. She said she found it more difficult to keep up with academics.

“For me, [the difficult thing is] more on the academic side — not being able to go to office hours [in-person], get closer to the professors,” Schmidt said. “I’m a huge people-person, so having classes online and not being able to go to class and see other people and get to know people in my class, that was hard because I had to take a lot of my classes in my dorm, and it got lonely sometimes.”

Ethan Gutknecht, sophomore computer science major, also had a hard time adjusting to having online classes.

“It was kind of hard to build a relationship with professors just because everything was online,” he said.

Gutknecht was an on-campus student for the fall semester but switched to remote for the spring to save money. In the fall, students had to choose to return to campus or participate in remote learning, and first-years could also opt to take a gap year or semester.

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Creamer said many of the changes made this year have affected the university financially.

“We’ve obviously had more students studying remotely, not coming to Oxford; we intentionally reduced the occupancy in the residence halls,” Creamer said. “All those events meant that there was less revenue coming into the university than what we would normally experience, so financially, it’s had some negative impacts.” 

However, Creamer said these impacts were mitigated by stimulus funds as well as cutting spending across the university, including eliminating certain positions and suspending some construction projects. 

Brent Shock, vice president for enrollment management and student success, said even though less students came to campus in the fall, enrollment numbers will be back to normal next year.

“We ended up with a freshman class of about 3,800, which was down, and that was largely because we had about 300 students that said that they wanted to come to Miami but they wanted to wait either to the spring semester or this coming fall,” Shock said. “So when you put that number together, that puts it at about 4,100, and to give you some context, in 2018, our class was 3,925.”

Remote students took classes online only, but on-campus students took a mix of online, in-person and hybrid courses. Jayne Brownell, vice president for Student Life, said online formats were important in all aspects of the university.

“We probably advanced five years in three months of things that we wouldn’t have tried,” Brownell said.

Brownell said some virtual options that were made available this year may not go away either, including virtual supplemental instruction and tutoring, the orientation Canvas course for first-years and an online component of MegaFair.

“There are students that love the energy and the number of people at MegaFair, and there are introverts who walk up and they look at it and they walk away,” Brownell said. “I heard that Spectrum had more students sign up than ever before, because as a new student, you didn’t have to walk up to a table and come out to someone not knowing who was around you.”

Although she dislikes online classes, Schmidt hopes some aspects of them stick around.

“I think [professors] learned the art of recording things and maybe could use it in the future, because going back and watching lectures was probably the most useful thing ever,” she said. “So, hopefully they’ll [continue] to do that in the future.”

With having most of the academic year online, many students and professors alike experienced burnout more than in other years.

“I think the most challenging thing is ... the daily drain of the pandemic, and it’s the constant nature of the pandemic that it’s always with you,” Shock said. 

Because of the amount of burnout Kamara experienced, a lesson she learned during this year was one of self-care.

“I had to learn a lot about self-care — setting boundaries, stepping back from things, delegating things — because I can't do it all,” Kamara said. “I'm not Superwoman. I don't have six hands on my body that can send different emails. I'm just one person.” 

This school year was full of changes for everybody, from adapting to online formats to navigating COVID-19 regulations, testing and eventually, vaccines.

“This year was a year of change, because it made us look inward in the ways in which we can support each other as a campus,” Kamara said.

Even though it’s not what she ever imagined her first-year of college being like, Schmidt said her experience was overall a positive one.

“Everything’s kind of new for me coming in as a freshman, but I did have a really good time and just meeting new people was very exciting,” Schmidt said.

Alex Jennings, a senior information systems and analytics major, said her year was also positive because she found the silver lining of spending more time with her housemates and making the most of their senior year.

“Instead of going Uptown on weekends … we just did things at home with the people we love and did more intimate gatherings,” Jennings said, “which I think was honestly really cool because you really got to know people and make stronger connections because of that.”

Although nobody expected an academic year like this one, the Miami community has adapted to make it through the year.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any of us, and it may not be what any student wanted one of their four years to be,” Brownell said. “But I think that in the long run, students took away all kinds of lessons about themselves and what they’re capable of and how they can adapt in the world … I think [they] will look back and have this be a pretty influential time in their lives.”