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SPLL 101 adapts in face of COVID-19

| Friday, August 21, 2020

As the institutions of the tri-campus community exist in a state of flux for daily proceedings on their campus, Saint Mary’s first-year common course, the Sophia Program for Liberal Learning — SPLL 101 — has required some adjustments for this semester.

SPLL 101 faculty coordinator Melissa Bialko said the first-year course involves meetings typically Monday, Wednesday and Friday for roughly the first half of the semester. Bialko’s role focuses on curating a syllabus for SPLL 101, communicating the goals of the syllabus to the faculty members and organizing the Monday sessions.

Continuing the first-year common course has been crucial this year, considering the disconnect that some students may feel to their first-year experience with certain precautions being taken, Bialko said, but the faculty commitment to the first years in SPLL 101 can be a guide for a more smooth transition into college life.

“The way I’ve designed the class … is not necessarily how to college, but how to Saint Mary’s,” Bialko said. “To help students be an immediate touch with resources … and the theory is that if they’re in immediate touch with those resources … when the stakes are a little bit lower by SPLL, they’ll be more likely to access those resources when they’re needed.”

Mondays for the SPLL 101 course include “big show sessions or big talks,” Bialko said, as a speaker will address all of the first years to discuss topics the entire class should hear — such as inclusion, diversity and vocation. Due to COVID-19 the Monday sessions have been taking place via Zoom.

The faculty advisor for each cohort of students decides what to discuss each Wednesday, Bialko said. Wednesdays also include talks with different offices and resource centers around campus to expose the first years to all that Saint Mary’s offers, with adjustments made to hold these informational sessions safely through videos, she said.

“Because of COVID … I am remediating a lot of tech concerns, helping faculty — much more than typically — decipher what methods of delivery might be most useful for them in their cohort, what they might most be comfortable with,” said Bialko.

Senior nursing student Delaney Goggins is a peer mentor for SPLL 101. She is primarily in charge of the class meetings on Fridays with Diane Fox — the director of the Office for Student Success — who serves as Goggins’ cohort advisor.

All the students in Goggins’ cohort are part of the Student Success program, just as Goggins was when she entered her first year. With 40 students, the cohort is larger than some of the others, Goggins said.

“My role as a peer mentor is just to be a source of advocacy for these girls — someone that they can rely on, someone that they can come to,” Goggins said.  “We’re trying to set our students up for success so they feel confident enough walking out into the real world.”

Goggins’ cohort has been meeting in Carroll Auditorium to allow for more space to social distance with many seats and rows in between them. All in attendance wear masks.

Goggins said the in-person interactions for SPLL have already been beneficial in the two weeks since the course started. She said she has noticed her students becoming more comfortable around each other as she alters her lessons each Friday to what the students need at that time.

“I’m really thankful that we’re still in person,” Goggins said. “I think it just allows the girls to be more comfortable with us and with each other, too. It helps them build connections and friendships a lot easier than it would be if it was over video chat.”

Because she has had to be more active in the individual cohorts and iron out any complications related to COVID-19 adjustments, Bialko said she has gotten to know the first-year class better than she might have otherwise.

“Just by virtue of the fact that problems occur and confusion occurs, I’ve been doing a lot more communicating with students that I may never get to meet … in person in their four years,” Bialko said. “That’s been a real big bright side of it, actually.”

Goggins said it is important for first-year students to understand that maintaining flexibility is key, rather than spending time worrying about what will happen next.

“We don’t know what’s next, but we know that we go to Saint Mary’s,” Goggins said. “We want to have that sense of community, which I think in-person does. But if we do need to go online … already even having these first couple weeks of school just by getting to know each other, I think that’ll be beneficial.”

Bialko sees resilience in the first years and has been amazed with how socialization is still occurring safely while focus remains on the importance of health and education, she said.

“[Saint Mary’s students] have clearly chosen to prioritize their education regardless of the circumstances,” Bialko said. “I think it’s very clear … our students have a strong commitment to their health and safety … and looking out for others.”

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