This story is featured in the winter 2020 issue of St. Thomas Lawyer.
As soon as classes shifted to distance learning last spring due to COVID-19, Scott Swanson started making phone calls. His goal was to make sure all students in St. Thomas law school knew that faculty and staff cared about them.
As he began connecting with students, he soon discovered he wasn’t alone in his endeavor.
“The law school is very much a community, and we needed to reach out to people,” said Swanson, director of academic achievement. “I began going through the list of students and contacting 10 people a day. I discovered other [St. Thomas Law] people were doing similar things; it was clear for a whole bunch of us that this needed to be done. We didn’t need a meeting to figure that out.”
In March, Dean Robert Vischer had to prepare his school for a quick transition to remote learning. Tackling the technical logistics was necessary and maintaining a culture that values personal connections was vital. When classes resumed in August, faculty and most students chose in-person learning, while some remained online. Those on campus were required to wear a face covering and adhere to social-distancing guidelines.
“We really believe that our mission as a Catholic law school calls us to transcend what the traditional, very individualized competitive approach to law school has been, and really try to figure out what legal education looks like in a place that takes community seriously,” Vischer said. “The pandemic has put pressure on that. How do you build a community for new members entering in a pandemic? How do you maintain community for returning students, faculty and staff?”
The answer? Through a communitywide effort.
Keeping the Community Connected
The Law Student Government Association responded last spring by creating and supporting a strong online presence with events and activities, including virtual happy hours, TikTok video challenges, cooking contests, pop culture discussions and many other events.
“The executive director of events in the spring, 3L Wendy Raymond, did a great job coming up with online events and making sure students were staying connected and not getting bogged down by social distancing,” said 3L John Dixon, student government president, who noted more online events were being planned for the current semester.
When people returned to campus, the challenge was to find ways for them to meet face-to-face, whether it was scheduling outdoor get-togethers or making use of the balconies as meeting spaces.
During orientation week, extra relationship-building time was included in the schedule.
“One of the first things I say in my opening remarks when students come on campus is that the most important thing they’ll take from law school is not going to be their knowledge of the law; it’s going to be the friendships that they take with them into their career,” Vischer said.
A Focus on Academics
Along with community building, academics are always top of mind at St. Thomas Law. When courses moved online in March, law librarians equipped everyone with the skills needed to use Zoom, while faculty and staff worked to re-imagine what classes would look like. Grades were also changed to high pass, pass or fail.
While the switch to online in spring was quick, during the summer a more intentional plan for fall semester was developed. Social-distancing guidelines led to developing smaller class sizes and moving more courses online. Technology was added in classrooms to connect online learners. The school also structured fall semester to end in-person learning by Thanksgiving, with final exams being offered remotely.
“We’re trying to move toward a setting where we still combine that understanding and compassion for students by letting any student who needs to work fully online do so,” said Joel Nichols, associate dean for academic affairs. “We want to make sure to facilitate that. Also, the majority of students are in person and want to be in person when they can. We need to make sure there’s academic rigor and that we’re preparing them even now in hard times for the licensing exam that will come in nine months or nearly three years for some. There’s that dual focus of how do we pull off our educational mission and legitimate pedagogy in appropriate, rigorous ways, while being sensitive to people who are still living in a tough situation.”
One of the biggest challenges for fall was simultaneously instructing in-person and online students. Faculty needed to engage equally with all students, regardless of location – making sure to stay vigilant about including online students in the class, so they didn’t feel relegated to the margins. To help with this, classrooms were equipped with multiple microphones, cameras and monitors.
“It’s crucial – being conscious of the people who aren’t there in person and reminding yourself to reach out to them, to call on them, to be aware of listening for them,” said Professor and Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law Mark Osler. “With the experience of doing this [hybrid model] – even when we go back to having everybody in the classroom with us – we’ll be better teachers because we’ll become better listeners.”
Many of Osler’s classes have a coaching element to them. He shows students where to stand in a courtroom, how to interact with witnesses, how to read body language and other skills. These are hard to recreate online.
“You lose the immediacy of that when you don’t have the people right in front of you in class,” he said.
“That’s a challenge. You have to try and do it through description and video.”
Osler said the biggest lesson learned last spring is that the law school is capable of change – going from a traditional school to an online one in a matter of days. There’s a higher comfort level with uncertainty now, he said.
“The thing that impressed me about my colleagues is that nobody’s freaking out,” Osler said. “I see people at other schools [where] there’s a fair amount of negativity. I came here after 10 years of teaching at another law school, so I have a sense of what other schools are like. It’s rare the way we have a common purpose that allows us to focus on what needs to be done. That makes work so much better.”
Building a Culture of Care
During her first year of law school, 3L Sarah Williams was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Throughout treatment for the disease, she continued her studies without missing a beat.
Williams, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe, credits her friends, staff and faculty for helping her not fall behind during her cancer treatments. She said she has never felt like a number at St. Thomas Law, but a part of the greater community.
A hardship grant she received from the law school last spring also helped relieve some of the financial stress she faced after her workplace shut down because of the pandemic.
“After people came back from spring break, the school immediately notified us that if students had unexpected costs they could apply for this grant – it was a great bridge at the time,” said Williams, who was able to work remotely at a St. Cloud law firm over summer.
This fall, she was hoping to take the hybrid approach and attend some of her classes in-person. However, she relies on public transportation to get to school and didn’t want to take a chance of being exposed to COVID-19 on the bus.
“When they made it clear that every class would be fitted with the technology, I knew that for myself – and a lot of my classmates who might have elderly parents or who are staying with sick spouses or children – the decision was to do online,” Williams said.
So far, her online experience has been a positive one.
“Professors aren’t just engaging with the people in class,” Williams said. “They are also making sure to ask us for our input. They’re making sure they’re looking both at the class and us on the screen. We don’t just feel like we’re hiding in the background.”
Setting a Good Example
As a student leader, Dixon said he and his fellow peers in student government made sure to set a positive example when classes started in the fall.
“The reality is, in order to stay on campus, we have to show that we are willing to make these concessions – wear a mask properly, practice social distancing, wash your hands – all those things,” he said. “It’s not just students on campus, it’s the faculty and staff and the families they’re going home to. It’s about the common good. We’re all in this together, and let’s all get through it together.”
With most people affected one way or another by the pandemic, Vischer said he understands everybody is going through their own journey of anxiety. We’re all part of a story bigger than ourselves, he said.
It’s not my job as a dean to tell people what they should think,” Vischer said. “My job as dean is to help them understand the reality that we face. In whatever position they’re coming from, I do believe it’s my job to help stretch them to grow in their empathy for someone who may be coming from a different position. And that’s going to be based on the context that we’re talking about. For the pandemic, some of our students or colleagues may not be anxious at all about their own personal health because they don’t think it’s a real danger to them. But they need to understand that there are many who are deeply anxious about their own health risks or the health risks of a loved one.
“St. Thomas is trying to form lawyers who are not just excellent lawyers in the traditional sense, but who are deeply infused with moral sense and commitment to the common good,” Vischer added. “I think our mission matters now more than ever.”