Preparing for Fall 2020

In the interest of having as much information as possible in the wake of COVID19, I put together this list of questions to ask the schools my son is interested in attending. 

Just as they are beginning to sort out and accept the grief of losing their senior year, new questions haunt the Class of 2020 and their parents – what do we do about next year? As May 1 approaches the class of 2020 should be busy buying merch from their future alma maters, scheduling summer orientation, meeting roommates, and getting ready to celebrate their next endeavor. Instead, while still wading through the grief of their lost high school experiences, these young people are about to confront the next difficult question – how will this impact their college plans? Many families, still processing an unknown economic impact of the pandemic have to navigate choosing schools or programs, making deposits, and securing housing, and they have to do it with a lack of information about how the situation may unfold both in the long and short term. Unfortunately, in many cases, the Class of 2020 does not have the luxury of taking a wait and see approach. Even where the deadlines have been extended, deposits are due (or have long been paid) and decisions have to be made. As a parent of a 2020 grad who has barely had 48 hours to celebrate his college acceptances, I have so many questions for prospective schools. As a professor at a small liberal arts college, I know that our colleges and universities are only in the early stages of designing the answers to these questions while also navigating today’s emergencies.

In the interest of having as much information as possible in the wake of COVID19, I put together this list of questions to ask the schools my son is interested in attending.

Emergency Preparedness and Response
We can learn a lot about a community by understanding how it responds to an emergency. As they talk with representatives of the schools, consider encouraging your student to ask these questions of admissions representatives, program directors, professors, and current students.

  • Can you still “sit in” on an online course in the program? If schools are having any live online course experiences using tools like Google Meets or Zoom, you may be able to attend just as you would have during a campus visit. If not, you may be able to get temporary guest access to a course in the school’s learning management system (e.g. Canvas, Blackboard) to see how the class is structured.
  • How would the representative rate the school’s and the program’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to closures? What did it get right? Where could it have improved?
  • For current students: How have your remote classes been this term?

Ongoing Learning Delivery
As a general rule, in the 21st Century distance learning can be a robust part of the delivery of a curriculum even for students living on campus and seeking for a residential college experience. The key is to determine whether the community to which we are sending our children (and our money) is in a place to offer quality education using virtual and online tools if circumstances should require time away from campus in future terms. Get perspective from current representatives about the issue. You should understand not only whether your school is focused on returning to residential curriculum, but also what plans they have in place should future terms require emergency measures, as they no doubt may.

  • What is your school’s experience with delivering online learning? Prior to this spring did your program offer any online, blended, or flipped classes?
  • What support does your school provide faculty to develop courses using virtual or online tools?
  • What percentage of your program’s curriculum is taught by adjunct or part-time faculty? While working professionals often bring expertise to a school, they may not be in the same position or receive the same support as full time faculty to develop and adapt course experiences.
  • Do you think all or parts of this area of study can be delivered remotely? What does that look like for your school/program/course? My son wants to study acting, and while my initial reaction was to wonder how he could possibly learn any of that online, I really want to hear from the experts -the people delivering this education- about whether they can deliver parts of it without him in the same town, and I want to hear from them about it.

Deferral and Merit Aid
In the event your family is considering postponing plans for college in the fall, or even if you just want to have the information so that you are prepared to pivot if necessary, you should understand the school’s process for deferral. Here is an overview about the process for choosing to take a gap year, and the impact on federal aid, but every school will have different policies about whether, how, and when they consider and accept deferral requests. Those rules may vary by program as well, so be sure to confirm whether the rules still apply if your admission is to a specialized school or program.

  • What/where are your policies for deferring acceptance?
  • Will my student still receive the same merit aid if acceptance is deferred?
  • What is the timeline for deferral? Can acceptance be deferred any time before the start of the semester? Can you get a tuition refund if you defer after making a tuition payment?
  • Can you defer for only one semester and/or to the following academic year?
  • Does the deferral prohibit me from taking college courses elsewhere during the gap year? (Note: Schools generally do not allow students to defer if they intend to enroll elsewhere).

While many of the answers to these questions may be online on the schools’ websites, changes may be under consideration, so check in with an admission representative to confirm whether the policies may change.

Drop and Withdrawal Deadlines for AY 20-21
Every school has a drop and/or withdrawal schedule indicating the dates during a semester during which you can drop a course or courses and get full or partial tuition refunds. Students tend not to pay attention to these deadlines until they need them, because they do not go into classes planning to drop. For next year, I suggest families add these dates to their family calendars.

Whether to proceed as planned will be a personal decision for families that will no doubt depend on a variety of important considerations. Even while we plan to move forward as intended and hope for the experience we had always envisioned, having as much information as possible will allow us to be prepared and flexible.

One last suggestion – give the young adults in your house a hug before you give them this list of questions. They are processing so much change.

Destined for Career Change

My pathway to becoming a college professor always reminds me of a speech I gave in an eighth grade oratorical contest.

People sometimes ask me for advice about changing careers or about how to make the switch from practicing law to teaching it.  This is the story of my journey and my advice to anyone considering making a leap.

After law school, I went to work practicing law at a large law firm. I represented clients in litigation and jury trials. I worked on cases involving sexual assault, discrimination, real estate – a wide array.  I loved it. I loved the counseling and advocacy work of representing clients on both sides of the litigation process. I loved depositions, mediation, and trial. I loved learning from other skilled lawyers. I loved clients: People are nervous about the legal process, and I made them feel more comfortable.  Legal concepts are confusing, and I helped people understand. I discovered that I had a knack for simplifying the complex. I loved the work. But then I looked up one day and found myself with three kids under the age of four. (Seriously where did they all come from)? I got nervous. I pictured 90 hour weeks in trial, and children sitting alone on the stairs -just like in the scene from the movies- because I forgot to pick them up at school. (This may or may not have ended up happening anyway, I’ll never tell.) So, I broke Sheryl Sandberg’s big Lean In rules, and I jumped off the partnership track in search of a new way.

Being a college professor seemed pretty cool. I had visions of my lazy summers at the pool with the kids. (Have you ever been to a public pool with young children?This vision was based on a lot of false information from the get-go). I pictured school years where I would float around a beautifully manicured campus in my Birkenstocks while having deep conversations around the water cooler about philosophy. Of course, I had absolutely no idea how to get a job as a college professor, no real experience teaching, and, as it turned out, the wrong degree. None of this slowed me down. I applied for tenure track jobs anyway.  I said things in my cover letters like “I am a super good lawyer, so for sure I can probably do this, too!” Oddly, none of the schools responded.

Undeterred, I stayed the course. While practicing law part time for one client, I taught classes in early online programs that were outside my comfort zone for less pay than I would have made at McDonalds. I developed continuing education and training modules that I gave largely for free. I wondered about teaching at law school. I learned that most law professors went to Harvard. (Hyperbole, but barely). I researched the models of legal education that exist outside of law school. I kept digging for any hint that it would be possible that a liberal arts college would ever hire a lawyer. I considered whether I wanted to get a PhD – maybe in political science, I guessed.  I applied for the one highly-selective program in my geographical area. I submitted a mediocre application based less on my interest in political science and more on my desire for a new career. They denied me. I felt relieved. This was telling; maybe this is what people sometimes feel like when they discover they are not pregnant, I wondered. (I’m not sure – see above, I was always pregnant.)

As I am writing about all this, I recognize that this soul searching time was a privilege afforded to me because I was lucky enough to have a supportive partner with a good job and health insurance coverage. I did not have to “keep my day job” to protect myself and my family as so many people do during transition.

Keeping at my research, I found a handful of legal studies programs hiring professors with JDs. Only one of them was close by…. and they had an opening in the legal studies department for a tenure track position.  I had dinner with my favorite college professor, Max. Max had the kind of easygoing, thoughtful manner that made him everyone’s favorite college professor. He also had the most endearing Texas drawl. (This slow-speak especially intrigued us in Fargo-Moorhead, where I went to school). Max advised me honestly.  He said, “academia is a tough nut to crack.” “What you gotta do, Leo” he encouraged, “is ya gotta talk about the liberal arts in your cover letter.” Good advice. I applied. I wrote about the importance of embedding professional skills in the liberal arts – and vice versa, a concept about which I became, and have remained, fully invested. Context and history, I had decided, do not have to come at the expense of skill nor should skill be marginalized at the altar of higher learning. I was really proud of my letter.

They hired someone else.  I did not even get a call.

It would take another retirement at and a first-choice candidate turning down their offer before, by a stroke of good fortune on the right day, my resume would fall out of the stack of dozens of disgruntled lawyers seeking career change and catch the eye of the department chair – and not for my thoughtful and compelling understanding of the liberal arts at all, but because I had done some administrative work that would make her life easier.

My pathway to becoming a college professor always reminds me of a speech I gave in an eighth grade oratorical contest. (I was the coolest.  I had curly hair and big red glasses, and I looked just like Sally Jessy Raphael). The topic was “Destiny: Choice Not Chance.” I don’t remember anything about the substance of my speech really. My first line was something about choosing what we have for breakfast, like toast or bacon. But I remember my last line – because any time you give a speech you know you have to pause and slowly, dramatically drop that last line like you are revealing the truth of the Universe. You loudly dangle your conclusory line like is the most important thing a person on earth has ever uttered.  This method was especially true of junior high school orators in the late eighties.

“In the end,” I said, “it turns out, Destiny is not one or the other, but … instead it is [pause here, wait for it…] a unique combination of two parents: Choice AND Chance.”  Boom.

Obviously, I had it all figured out.

I did not win.  I used note cards when everyone else memorized, my dad chastised me for my lack of memorization effort, and I may have gotten second place.

This is what all of this taught me, and the advice I can now give career-seekers:

  • Do your research
  • Capitalize on your networks and ask people for their input and opinion; people want to help you
  • Follow the good advice of your mentors when they give it to you
  • Rejection will inevitably come, let it refine your path, not eliminate your goals (I really like this one, imagine me rolling it out slowly, eighth grade oratory style)
  • If your dad thinks you should memorize the speech, you probably shouldGood Luck!