Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Our discussion with a 2020 MBA candidate and higher education professional. They offer a unique perspective being on both sides of MBA student life during the coronavirus pandemic.
As concerns grew for the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff during the COVID-19 outbreak, business schools and universities around the world worked around the clock. Administrators worked to effectively transition campuses to a virtual environment, facilitate emergency student storage, housing, and mail and devise entirely new operations for essential campus business overnight.
As schools, governments, and the private sector figure out the path forward, people are coming together in unexpected ways to innovate and problem solve. From school leadership to facilities management, professors, admissions, communications, social teams and more, the task at hand is great, and it’s important to remember that everyone is figuring this out as we go.
We often discuss the value and importance of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, in a number of scenarios. But what happens when you’ve wearing shoes on both sides of MBA student life during the global coronavirus pandemic? We spoke to a 2020 MBA grad who is a full-time employee in the university’s operations team. They have the unique perspective of experiencing the challenges of being a part-time MBA during COVID.
MBAchic: When did you and your colleagues start to take COVID-19 concerns seriously? At what point did school leadership contact you about contingency planning?
I work on the University’s Operations team, which reports directly to the Chief Operating Officer. We had been monitoring the situation as it developed in Asia in January, and began adjusting student international travel policies in February. By the end of February, there were daily meetings about varying levels of contingency planning. Undergraduate students went on spring break in early March, and before they could return, the decision to transition to a virtual environment for all students, staff, and faculty was made.
MBAchic: At what point did it register that COVID-19 was going to be truly disruptive to your business school experience and MBA student life?
As a part-time MBA, I was taking a two week in-person class over the undergraduate spring break term. By the end of the first week, we were alerted by our professor that he was required to offer a virtual option for students feeling uncomfortable coming to campus. Just four days later, we began receiving emails from our Dean insisting we do not return to campus.
MBAchic: What were some of the conversations like with your colleagues and school leadership at the start of the pandemic? How did those change? WHat about with your professors and classmates? How did you liaise between the two?
The conversations in February were much more centered on about protecting student safety abroad. It didn’t feel real yet that COVID-19 would be part of daily life, much less lead to campus-wide closures.
By March, it’s safe to say that our team, fellow students, my professors, and other administrators were partially in a state of shock at the escalation of the situation, but also aware of the urgency to make a decision. Ultimately, the concern about the contagion increasing with undergraduates returning to campus from spring break, as well as neighboring school responses, led to a decision to move to a virtual environment for at least a few weeks. By the time the state announced the closure of all non-essential businesses, we decided to remain virtual through the end of the spring semester.
MBAchic: What was it like as a professional? Can you share what you and your colleagues were doing? How often were you meeting with leadership? What guidance did you get? What insights do you have into the actual decisionmaking process around closing campus and getting students safely home?
There were multiple calls a day, both internally among multiple departments, and externally with other universities in the region.
We were constantly communicating with our tech team about infrastructure to support moving to a virtual environment, as well as how to support faculty in adjusting to a new teaching style.
Once the decision to switch completely to virtual classes was made, we then needed to (1) determine how to close the moving pieces of campus, (2) how to eventually re-operationalize services needed by essential campus workers, and (3) how to make the process as smooth as possible for our students who could no longer return to campus, those who needed to move out quickly, and the ~100 students who were approved to stay.
Each of these elements resulted in our team being present and working almost 7 days a week during the entire month of March and April, often on campus.
Now conversations have turned to how to best position the school for a potential fall re-open.
MBAchic: What is it like as a student in your final year, missing out on so many major milestones? How are you and your classmates managing through? What support are your professors and school administrators providing?
As students, it’s still shocking to have “missed our victory lap,” as a classmate put it. I think even more so, there is concern about the long-term effects on the economy and employment opportunities. Our Career Center responded by providing access to additional services through the end of the year for graduates.
Student government ran an entire month of virtual contests, trivia nights, social media hashtags, and creatively adjusted to provide a sense of community virtually.
Our cohort has come together to design a virtual toast with commemorative videos and ways to celebrate.
Faculty have been particularly empathetic, given their own fears and adjustments to new technology.
Our MBA Administrators have held multiple town halls addressing questions and concerns. Even our annual awards ceremonies were adjusted to be video skits and lighthearted recordings, demonstrating how they are putting in extra thought about how to make our end of year experience special.
MBAchic: How have you personally been managing through this time of rapid change and uncertainty? Broadly, and even specifically… are there certain rituals, podcasts, virtual events that help?
I jokingly told a friend that I’ve been through every possible mood during this quarantine. What has helped keep my mood up is prioritizing connections with family and friends with regular Zoom game nights and work out routines. There is so much outside of our individual control, and sometimes it can feel daunting. Adding some endorphins to the mix definitely helps!
MBAchic: Having both perspectives, what do you wish more people knew?
Personally, I am proud that discussions about minimizing costs to the students were held early on, and discussions about mitigating costs to the university came much later after the dust began to settle.
University staff truly gave their best efforts on the ground, even at their own health risk, to provide amazing service:
- No longer charging for meals for anyone on campus. Our dining hall continued to run (with safety precautions for workers) to serve 3,500+ free meals for students and 8,000+ free meals for staff.
- Bringing in a third party to help the student-run storage company on campus generate over $100,000 in revenue while not putting student employees at risk; facilitating 1,600+ boxes in summer storage.
- Facilitating move out and clean up, especially for students who felt unsafe to return. Every dorm was opened, checked, recorded, packed if necessary. It took over 3,000+ man hours.
- Digging through 3 email inboxes and picking out 130+ essential mail packages with passports or medications from among thousands of mail items. Even if a student couldn’t come back to campus, we found a way to forward urgent items.
- Ordering microwaves and nonperishable food items for students who needed to remain on campus.
- Providing thousands in terms of refunds for student dining and housing plans.
MBAchic: What advice or message do you have for current students, and new admits heading to school in the fall?
To students who are wondering if they should return or start school in the fall, please know that school administrators are having conversations daily about how to keep students safe on campus – even down to details such as how to keep students six feet apart while walking through doors.
For those questioning the experience and value if your fall is virtual, as a fellow extrovert, I feel for you. It would be foolish to call it the “same.” However, faculty and staff will have the practice and will be able to incorporate what they’ve learned into fall classes. As incoming students, you won’t be alone in wanting to bond with your classmates. Your entire cohort is embarking upon a unique experience together. You will find creative ways to get to know each other via Zoom, social media, and new initiatives.
Society is going to be shaped by social distancing practices and virtual learning and work environments for at least the next two years, given the most recent surge models. Delaying your education will only set you back in your achievement timelines when the world needs trained decisionmakers who can solve the challenges we will face as a result of COVID.
Excellent insights from someone with a view to both sides of MBA student life. Thank you for sharing your experiences and advice with those of us in the thick of things. Great to see how schools are approaching campus decisions when time is of the essence, and the stakes incredibly high.
COVID-19, from both sides of MBA student life