Rod Light | August 27, 2020

LPU program directors, staff, and students are determined to maximize technology so they can continue their educational development for God’s glory in spite of a global pandemic. Nearly everyone has learned to create a virtual normal since the global pandemic physically shut down much of the known world. For virtual graduate programs that require in-person residencies however, an entirely new question surfaced this summer. The answer was far from simple.

Connection and interaction are two major values for the MASL and MATS programs. Students traditionally spend several days together interacting personally with each other and key staff and professors who will help guide them through their graduate programs. Building community is a key component in the success of LPU graduate programs.

Building community in a virtual normal required some God-sized creativity. LPU Online Admissions Counselor Linna Martz organized a series of pre-residency sessions utilizing Zoom and LPU Online Students and Faculty Support Coordinator Maria McCracken hosted and provided students with opportunities to connect and interact. Faculty also joined the sessions so students could get to know their professors outside of the courses and sessions of the residency.

Family members of students were also invited to witness portions of the virtual residencies, an opportunity that does not happen in the old normal. MASL Program Director Dr. Remi Lawanson says the outcome was positive as family members discovered firsthand the workload of the programs so they might be more supportive and understanding as students continue their graduate education journey.

For Remi and other program directors, the goal was to include everything in the virtual residencies that a student will need for success. He says students have responded with grace, understanding, and a sense of exploration making the most of their virtual residencies. “The adjustments students have made within the three to four months of COVID-19 lockdowns helped prepare them for a more positive perspective on the virtual residency,” Remi says.

Perhaps the idea of virtual residencies was easier to embrace considering many graduate students had been recruited for their programs during the pandemic utilizing online technology. Program alumni joined some of the early recruitment and shared firsthand experiences during videoconferences that helped prepare students for the program. 

“As with most programs and schools, the pandemic is helping us innovate and refine our programs and the experience for students in ways that we probably wouldn't have had to think about otherwise,” MATS Program Director Dr. Eric Lopez says. Fatigue from video conferencing is very real for most people but Eric says LPU students have responded with “admirable attitudes and perseverance. It is obvious that they are not going to be deterred from making the relational connections that ultimately are going to help them succeed throughout the program.”

Dr. Daniel Prieto, Director Maestría en Artes en Liderazgo (MA in Leadership - Spanish), says the virtual residencies allowed international students in the program to join their colleagues without the risk of international travel. Everyone appreciated the simplicity of logging on at home even if it meant missing out on the face-to-face interactions. “Though the shift to virtual residencies was sudden, we are grateful for the technology we have to meet with students from so many other states and countries,” Daniel says.

Additional benefits and accommodations that contributed to the success of the virtual residencies include: recordings of the sessions for future students, mailed care packages with gifts students would normally receive while on campus, and extended interaction times during Zoom breaks for students to personally share with each other.

Daniel recognizes the stress that most leaders are living with during the pandemic says the virtual residencies may have been especially difficult for second year students who were looking forward to being together in person with their cohort. The need to shift to online connections relieved the pressure for some students of leaving their ministries and work to travel to San Dimas.

The virtual residency format has given program directors “the opportunity to reconsider what aspects of a face-to-face residency must continue to be synchronous and what can be moved to prerecorded videos or some other asynchronous format,” Eric says.

Finding blessings and benefits during COVID-19 may be challenging, but Life Pacific University graduate students are gaining a clearer picture of how God can continue to work even in the midst of such confusion and turmoil. Terms like resilient, flexible, and adaptive describe the journey of LPU program directors, staff, and students who are determined to maximize technology so they can continue their educational development for God’s glory in spite of a global pandemic.

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