Celebrating the Learning Community in an Online Communications Masters Program

Celebrating Learning in an Online Communications Masters Program
Celebrating Learning in an Online Communications Masters Program

by Terri Reynolds

Terri Reynolds

Terri Reynolds is an academic advisor at Spring Arbor University Online. Her role as academic advisor follows eight years of experience as a student services coordinator. Terri is a graduate of then Spring Arbor College. She is married and has a 14 year old son and two small dogs. When not at her desk, Terri is probably with the youth group at First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Michigan, or sipping a tea latte and reading a book.
 

Each November and May the community of our online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership program manifests itself. At each commencement ceremony, every fall and spring, we host a light reception for our students and their families. In most cases, it is the first time any of us have met face to face, instead of by email, telephone or Zoom gatherings. A few receptions ago I confessed to two of our students that I often mixed them up in my head and always had to take an extra moment to sort out who was who when replying or emailing. They laughed because they had been close friends throughout the program and often called the other to relay what I advised — so before Tina got her email Christina had already used her reply to answer the question.

This was a reception or two after the one where Adam from Utah was Skyped in so that he could celebrate virtually with his classmates who, one by one, took the time to chat with him while the rest of us munched on bagels. And that reception came a year or so after the ceremony where footage of our student, Brad, serving in Afghanistan, received his diploma from a commanding officer, while his wife and family could cheer from California (and his classmates from their seats in the SAU field house). Last month we had a student fly from Tanzania for her commencement ceremony. Like many students, she was accompanied by her proud family members who encouraged and supported her throughout her graduate studies. Her other family members watched the live stream from home.

The friendships spill over onto social media where neighbors are a click away instead of across three time zones — late night posts about overwhelming responsibilities are met with good humor and encouragement. Final papers are lauded with memes and “likes”. Travelers find hospitality in new cities where classmates live. Prayers are offered. Adoptions are funded and celebrated, miscarriages mourned. New jobs create new networks between both our graduate student alumni and our undergraduate interns.

When I came to the program as a student services coordinator and later as an academic advisor, I worried that online learning would be sterile and cold without the camaraderie brought about by sitting in the same classroom and all the benefits of a campus setting, such as shared meals or late nights in the library pulling together projects. I underestimated the power of the discussion board and the required pause before a response when, instead of injecting an opinion into this slower conversation, the process required students to read and understand before replying. I have a privileged vantage point to hear our program faculty speak about particularly good threads on the discussion board just as excitedly as they do when coming out of a particularly good class on campus.

I am often cc’d (or bcc’d) on concerns about students, or asked to reach out to a student who seems especially overwhelmed or is slipping behind. I am the one who fields the call when a student calls from an ER with a sick child and concerns about a late post. My calls are forwarded to my cell, so I was the one lucky enough to hear from a student checking in after a second hurricane ravaged her area. I also got to be the one to tell a student to enjoy the rest of her honeymoon and relate how impressed we all were that she didn’t miss a post.

The world shrinks each time we meet someone new — our MSCL program community, filled with alumni and students and their experiences from all over North America, Europe, Asia and Africa makes the distance seem very short.  

Please contact us to find out more about Spring Arbor University’s online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership program.