April 22, 2020
Laura Newton, Finance Partner in Speed School Business Center, said she must have had a premonition because in early January of this year she decided to set up her own home office. By mid- March, COVID- 19 had become a reality, and nearly all staff had moved to working remotely.
“Not having day to day contact with co-workers is the hardest thing for me,” said Newton. “It’s just been odd not having those conversations and camaraderie with the business center staff, or just being frustrated and being able to walk into someone’s office to vent,” she said. “Even just having lunch with coworkers – you just don’t realize how much you appreciate that companionship until you don’t have it.”
One positive that has helped her team stay connected is technology, especially the software Microsoft Teams, said Newton. “It’s the first time we’ve ever used it and the virtual meetings work very well with face to face and being able to share things on a screen and move through it,” said Newton. “I was even able to train someone virtually on how to do a travel reimbursement. I feel like, moving forward, we could use this as a tool to keep processes going.”
Newton, who has been with Speed School for 34 years, she is most concerned about furloughs the university is instituting for cost-saving measures, something she said she’s never experienced before. “I know people are already worried about it. What’s so bad is I feel we were really back on the right track with Neeli and then this happens,” said Newton, speaking of the course correct current President Bendapudi has embarked on to bring UofL’s reputation and financial stability back after the scandals of the previous administration.
Newton said the pandemic will bring some growing pains. “This will not be horrible in the long run, but in the short term, yes. Maybe it’s an opportunity for administration to see who and what is valuable. This is an excellent place to work and I’m grateful for what the University had done for me personally and for my family,” said Newton. In fact, she said every member of her immediate family has worked at UofL at some point.
“These are scary and unusual times but if you go back in history we are not the first people to go through something like this, and they made it through. We will, too.”
In the Speed Advising Office, Assistant Director of Retention and Assessment Natalie Oliner is working harder than ever, talking to students daily to help them work through all they are experiencing since the pandemic hit.
Keeping on top of policy changes and communicating important information in a timely way has been a challenge, said Oliner. “We can be a front line advising team for students if they have issues submitting work online, or having access to internet, or when they say my family been diagnosed with COVID and I’m taking care of them,” she said.
The unprecedented circumstances have created a maelstrom of issues for some students. “Even if it was only transitioning to online – students tell us they do not like taking classes online – take that hesitation then add in all the personal and general world anxiety,” Oliner said. “Policy changes might be helpful for students, but everything’s been thrown at them so quickly. They might ask, ‘If I change my class to pass/fail, what does that mean for my scholarship or academic plan?’ Every student’s situation is different.”
Oliner said one concern she has is Speed School students are used to being able to do it all themselves. “We work with a high achieving population and they are concerned about asking for help. I hope one thing that comes out of this is more students getting more comfortable with that.”
As for how she and the other advisers on her team are coping, Oliner said she is finding it tougher to maintain a work life balance. “There is a sense of urgency to make sure I am staying on top of changes. I’m responding to emails at odd hours. I never feel like I’m leaving work.”
But Oliner is keeping a positive attitude. “Maybe this is optimistic, but I’m hopeful people will become a little more compassionate and understanding of other people’s situations. We can have more gratitude of that in-person experience and not take it for granted so much. We can come together as a community.”
Travis Ross, Director of Technology Solutions, said he was just coming back from vacation Spring Break week when “everything” hit the fan.
Checking in with his team, he found out most everyone was preparing to leave their offices to work from home, and they had to support migrating everyone and setting them up for working remotely. “We had to figure out how to help people get their devices home and get connected,” he said.
His colleague, Taylor Smith, quickly put together a cheat sheet to help workers at home connect to VPN and have access to links to common resources. New software that the IT Department was waiting for the right moment to roll out to faculty and staff became an overnight sensation. “Microsoft Teams will now be integrated and part of our university ecosystem,” said Ross. “IT upgraded the Microsoft contract at just the right time to be available, and it’s great. It will be beneficial moving forward. It helps with productivity, connecting and managing projects,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Ross said his team has really embraced the new technology, with their own open channel in MS Teams, and they use it all day long to keep work processes – and camaraderie flowing. “At the end of the day, we might have 300 messages on there- some social, some work, a good mix. It’s similar to our original office dynamic. It gives the team an outlet to stay connected and feel like we are all still working together.”
While there may be an enhanced appreciation for technology these days, it is still one of those things no one notices until it’s not working, said Ross.
“The IT guys are really vital at this time,’” said Ross. “If you don’t have a problem, you don’t think of it. It’s easy to take for granted all the stuff that runs. That’s in part because people like Luke Smith, Taylor Smith, Brent Hudson and Mani Vangalur, (those four in particular) are ensuring everything is up to date and protecting us from cyber attacks,” he said.
In fact, according to Ross, cyber attacks are at an all-time high during this pandemic because of the volume of people online and vulnerabilities that come from everyone being at home and on VPNs.
“This team behind the scenes – these are the people who are extremely valuable right now –I’m just helping them make decisions and process,” said Ross. “They are anticipating all the things that could happen, and keeping them from happening.”
Ross said it’s hard to know what to think about the future when there is mixed information coming from the government, but he’s hoping that the fall semester returns to some semblance of normal for Speed School. “Its’s important for our leadership to keep a positive attitude, and when we do have information, to try to think strategically about what we’re going to do in the fall. If we’re back on campus, how are we going to do that? What can each of us do to make that as successful as possible? ”
Preparing Students for Careers in an Uncertain Economy
Ambiguity is a word we are hearing a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is an appropriate one for figuring out how to negotiate the challenges of Speed School Students and their co-op placements. With the business community suffering financial setbacks, Mary Andrade, Director of Career Services, has a tough road ahead at the Speed Co-op office.
“The biggest challenge has been the number of employers uncertain what their business is going to look like moving forward,” said Andrade. “Having so many people sitting in that place of ambiguity is difficult. Most employers are very supportive of the co-op process but are now under their own financial constraints. They have to figure out which positions can be managed face to face, and they have to continue to meet safety recommendations,” she said.
Another hardship for co-op students has been those who have lost their position, or had it end early, said Andrade. “It creates a financial strain for students who depend on co-op earnings to pay tuition or living expenses.”
The complex situations of students between the academic and work worlds has called for creative thinking. To help students seeking co-op, Andrade and her office put together a flow chart for them to understand their options. “For students graduating in the next three semesters – August, December and next May – If they cannot find a co-op, they can apply for a COVID-19 waiver to allow them to take a course instead of a co-op experience,” said Andrade.
The office has also built more flexibility into the program by letting employers accommodate fewer hours or later start dates to meet the needs of students and employers. As another fail-safe, if an employer has a late start co-op, but cancels too late for a student to sign up for classes, they can complete a set of newly created professional development modules in order to gain credit for a co-op experience.
Currently, the co-op office has placed about 45 percent of students seeking co-op, when at this time normally it would be about 70 percent. “The good news,” said Andrade, “is that the majority of employers are still trying to honor their commitments with their students, being flexible with hours or start dates.” Also, a surprising number of positions at co-op employers have been converted to remote work for students.
For Andrade and her team, keeping up with what’s happening with each of the students requires a lot of communication, and she doesn’t always know all the answers. “It’s dealing with that ambiguity, that insecurity of not knowing what’s going to happen next, that is hard for students – and us.”
One thing Andrade has found professionally interesting about this experience has been gaining familiarity with the technology that exists out there. “MS Teams has been super helpful. I have met more with colleagues in career services across the country than I have ever been able to do before. Getting together with peers to benchmark and look at how different schools are approaching this – it has given us good ideas to keep students moving in their professions,” she said.
Despite the current climate, the role of co-op will not be changing at Speed School anytime soon. “Mandatory co-op is a very important part of the Speed School brand and it continues to make our students far more competitive than the schools that don’t offer it,’” said Andrade. “We consider it a vital part of the student experience. But we are giving it some level of flexibility over the next few semesters to make sure we give as many students the co-op opportunity as we possibly can.”