In mid-March, my administrative team and I sat around a conference table to address a challenge we never could have predicted. At that time, none of us could have guessed it would be the last time we sat around a conference table together, in the same room, to make important decisions and implement action plans that aim to help Kankakee Community College navigate a health crisis that effectively has shut down our physical campus locations.
But it hasn’t shut down a college that means so much to the community it serves. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Since those days in mid-March when we announced KCC would close physical locations to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, I have witnessed KCC’s faculty, staff and students rally around our mission and our goals to help students achieve great success as they progress on their educational and career pathways. It’s not just KCC’s employees who have risen to the challenge of moving our instruction online so students can complete their courses from the safety of their homes.
This community’s donors have stepped forward with generosity, making donations of laptops, Wi-Fi devices and emergency funds that place technology and other resources into the hands of our communities’ neediest students when they had no other way to access it.
Truthfully, it has been the students of KCC who have demonstrated the most courageous and resilient response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have been so easy to simply walk away from their education rather than rapidly adapt to an entirely new way of learning and demonstrating skills. But KCC’s students did the opposite; in fact, our student services staff noted fewer student withdrawals than the college has seen in a number of years. In the face of crisis, KCC students leaned into a challenge that still seems insurmountable. In addition to the knowledge and skills they’ve learned from KCC’s professors, this year’s students have learned about overcoming challenges. If they can complete an academic program successfully, even during a crisis like we’ve not experienced before, there’s nothing that will get in the way of any goal they set for themselves.
A highlight of long days at home during this shelter-in-place order is the many encouraging social media posts. Of course, my favorites include the pictures and uplifting messages KCC students and staff have posted alongside the hashtag #StrongTogether. These images and words illuminate the power of community, a power that refuses to be weakened even amid periods of isolation. Students, staff, faculty, donors have managed to make meaningful connections. The strength of these connections will endure this crisis; indeed, they will make us a stronger community after all.
Each year, the month of May brings with it commencement season, and we are planning to celebrate the achievements of our Spring 2020 graduates, even if it means celebrating those achievements in a very different way. We’ll invite our faculty, staff and the community to join us online as we honor the many graduates who will be watching the ceremony on laptop screens, tablets or smartphones from the safety of their homes. They will be inspired by a commencement address from Judge Imani Drew and receive commendations from our board chair, Mr. Pat Martin. We hope they will choose to wear their gowns and move their tassel from right to left at just the right time. We even hope they will toss their hat in the air when it is finished and take some selfies to post on social media.
It won’t be a traditional commencement, but we hope it feels special to them.
Knowing these students finished a college degree successfully certainly will feel special to the many of us in the community who empathize with the challenges they have faced. More importantly, though, I hope it inspires so many others in the community who will see in these spring 2020 graduates a stubborn refusal to be victims of circumstances, an example of what we can achieve when we support each other and a leading indicator of what Kankakee and Iroquois counties’ next generation workforce will be able to achieve in the near future.
None of us planned this. This was not how KCC’s faculty and staff hoped to support students through this semester. But they did it. This is not how the spring 2020 graduates hoped to finish their academic program at KCC. But they did it. My hope is we all can learn something from their achievements and the way they accomplished them.
As we enter May, we do so knowing we have at least four more weeks of shelter-in-place. We also enter the month of May with many questions on our minds about what the future holds for each of us and how this pandemic will change the way we interact with each other, how we do our important work and how we learn new knowledge and develop new skills in an era of social distancing and online learning.
A few things, however, remain certain. We are in the midst of rapid change, and this community college’s successful shift to online instruction and remote learning is surely an indicator of that change. The college already has shifted our summer schedule to online and remote learning, and we are working on some pretty big plans for fall so we can support so many students whose short-term career and academic plans might look very different than they did just a few short months ago.
We also can be certain Kankakee Community College will continue to serve and strengthen the communities we call home. The way our students enter and complete programs might begin to look very different, but the strength and resilience our faculty, staff and students have shown in the spring of 2020 demonstrate the Power of Community. Now more than ever we will need to look to our future, as individuals and as a community. As it has been for more than 50 years, KCC will be a firm foundation on which we can build a great future.