UWF Alumni Magazine: Argo Spirit Outshines COVID-19

The article below was written for the cover of the University of West Florida’s Fall 2020 alumni magazine, Connection.

Read the issue online.

Tubas, trombones, clarinets, flutes, saxophones, percussion.

For the 40 undergraduate students in the University of West Florida Symphonic Band, these instruments are meant to be played together, in an ensemble experience.

“It is all about learning to make music with other people, aligning your rhythms and having a concert experience,” said Brittan Braddock, visiting assistant professor of music education and director of bands.

“When COVID-19 hit, we suddenly were transitioning to remote learning in the middle of the spring semester, and I needed to figure out how to be there for my students and provide the best possible experience for them,” Braddock said. “Rehearsing, teaching and playing music with other people just doesn’t work on Zoom.”

With a lot of flexibility and creativity, along with support within the Department of Music and from Department Chair Dr. Sheila Dunn, Braddock was able to come up with a new plan for the spring semester.

Symphonic Band students would join a project led by Composer Ryan Williams, a musical arts doctoral student at the University of South Carolina. With remote support from Braddock, students learned individual parts for the original composition, “Mandatory Social Distancing,” and submitted a recording of themselves playing their pieces. Williams would then compile the submissions to create a massed, virtual wind ensemble.

In the end, 757 students submitted more than 800 videos, representing 27 colleges, universities and high schools across the country.

“It ended up being a really big deal, and our students were really proud, sharing the premier on social media,” Braddock said. “They got to experience something totally new, and we realized we could be more flexible than we ever thought we could but still maintain our quality and high standards. Everyone did a complete 180, and we figured it out. It’s been incredible to see.”

From wind ensembles to physical fitness, the Argo spirit continued to outshine COVID-19 across campus.

Dr. Amy Crawley, assistant professor in the Department of Movement Sciences and Health within the Usha Kundu, MD College of Health, was teaching Aging and Physical Performance this past spring.

Crawley’s 40+ students were paired with volunteer senior citizens from the community, allowing students to gain hands-on experience by individually prescribing, supervising and evaluating an eight-week strength training program for their partners. The pairs met twice a week in UWF’s Health, Leisure, and Sports Facility. Students had completed their initial evaluations of their senior partners and three training sessions when the University moved to remote education.

“Here we are working with a very vulnerable population – and one that isn’t always the most comfortable with the latest virtual technologies,” Crawley said. “I put the responsibility on each of my students to come up with a plan for what works best for them as a pair to continue to work together.”

The result was a myriad of solutions. Through texts, phone calls, YouTube, Facebook and Zoom, students trained with their seniors, using what was available in the home – furniture, their own body weight, wine bottles. A few students even dropped off essential supplies and workout gear to their seniors’ doorsteps.

“Our students demonstrated effective professional discretion, work ethic and care for their seniors,” Crawley said. “They developed confidence in themselves to adapt and be nimble and get through this. Those weren’t our original learning objectives for the class, but maybe they should be moving forward.”

The spring 2020 semester ultimately saw 1,728 courses move from face-to-face to remote instruction as a result of the pandemic. Dr. George Ellenberg, UWF provost and senior vice president, said that during the transition that happened “almost overnight,” he remained committed to prioritizing four focus areas: safety, quality of instruction, flexibility and creativity.

As one of the first universities in the state to advise students to stay home, UWF’s transition, overall, was a smooth one, aided by an early adoption of remote course delivery. The University launched its first fully-online program in the fall of 1998.

“One critical factor that helped prepare us was a decision made years ago – during hurricane planning – that whether a faculty member used our learning management system or not, we would create a shell for each course section, so the technology was ready and waiting,” Ellenberg said.

Dr. Pamela Benz, professor of chemistry and leader of the STEM Success program, noted an increased ease among students in introductory chemistry courses to ask questions and speak up about their academic and personal challenges in the remote learning environment, more so than they normally would in face-to-face classes.

“The feedback I’ve received was that students really appreciated having multiple ways they could ask for help,” Benz said. “Traditionally, chemistry professors don’t typically teach much in the online environment. But using the technology has really been beneficial to us and pushed us to use these resources, even when it’s not a crisis.”

Faculty, staff and senior administration recognized early on a change in the way their courses were delivered was not the only disruption the pandemic caused in students’ lives. UWF students faced a multitude of stressors because of the pandemic – from finances, to housing to family issues – and the UWF community rallied behind them.

More than 200 students were not able to return home during the spring semester and remained on campus. Housing and Residence Life worked with them to ensure they had on-campus housing, in addition to dining services and residence assistance. And any UWF student who needed a computer was loaned one so they could complete the semester.

A satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading option was implemented in the spring to aid in the transition to remote course delivery, and the Global Online Learning and Development team provided both students and faculty with immediate, high-quality support, training and resources to promote excellence and success in remote education.

Students facing lost wages, food insecurity or other financial hardships benefitted from a crowdfunding campaign that raised $150,000 for the Student Emergency Support Fund. UWF Cross Country Coach Caleb Carmichael pitched in to the effort, running seven marathons in seven days to raise money for Argo Pantry.

The UWF community also contributed to student financial support – and found some encouragement – for three weeks in June, during the “Songs of Impact” project. Argos could submit cover songs or original music, and members of the public voted on their favorite songs and donated to UWF initiatives that help students in need. UWF students Delaney Beal and Nathan Keeton won first place with 1,221 votes for their song, “Home Is Where The Heart Is.”

When Ellenberg, UWF’s provost, looks back on his four focus areas to navigate COVID-19 –  safety, quality of instruction, flexibility and creativity – he sees a UWF community that succeeded despite extenuating circumstances.

“Even though we had all this upheaval, we had a successful spring semester,” he said. “Students finished courses. Students graduated. Our deans, department chairs, faculty, staff and students, we all pitched in, and it was heartening to see it. We were poised and ready to shift, and we will move forward with that same mentality.”

Photo credit: University of West Florida