Pre-COVID-19: Dr. James Prather with SITC students
COVID-19 has brought changes and challenges all across the country, including the ACU campus. From the middle of the spring semester to the current fall semester, our faculty have continuously adjusted how they deliver their class material and how to interact with their students. We interviewed Dr. Laura Phillips (’88), associate professor of management, Clint Buck, assistant dean and instructor of accounting, and Dr. Don Pope, associate professor of management to hear about their experiences teaching during the pandemic and how they are working to overcome the challenges that it has presented.
What challenges has COVID-19 brought to the classroom?
Phillips: “My challenges were in the spring and Maymester terms. In the spring I was teaching two semesters of stats that were supposed to start the week after spring break. When we took that extra week off to regroup, I lost 14% of my semester. Also, since we’d never met in person, I didn’t know any of the students and we had not been able to create a class culture before shifting to online. My other class was supposed to be a one-week Maymester in Dallas with about 20 guest speakers and several field trips. That class went virtual as well, which was a huge shift.”
Buck: “FACE MASKS! While I understand the need for face masks, they pose a great challenge in the classroom. It’s hard to ‘read’ the classroom and see if concepts are making sense, if jokes are landing, etc., and it is also hard to teach while wearing a mask. Seeing people’s faces, sending and receiving smiles, and shaking hands are all actions relied upon in the past to establish and nurture connection and community – hallmarks of the COBA and ACU experience. The current realities are forcing us to rethink how we establish and nurture our community, which is very challenging.”
Pope: “The inability to talk with and help students face to face, along with reduced interaction with faculty and staff colleagues.”
Dr. Laura Philips
What did you do to overcome those challenges?
Phillips: “Lots of trial and error! We’d try some things for a week in stats, and if it wasn’t working, we’d make adjustments for the next week. My coworkers were all very supportive but since we were working remotely and everyone was scrambling, there wasn’t a lot of time to sit around and think philosophically about how we should approach our classes. My schedule didn’t always allow me to attend but the weekly COBA Zoom prayer times have been great! And throughout the summer, the staff in the Adams Center and the crew they assembled to provide resources and training for the faculty have been outstanding.”
Buck: “My teaching colleagues have been invaluable in navigating these issues, and they have also been helpful in the tactical aspects of the job (great suggestions for teaching online and in a distanced classroom, things to look for, things to avoid, etc.). My administrative colleagues have been very good to normalize the challenges we face. It is not easy to be a good employee, a good spouse, and a good parent while navigating a global pandemic, and I am grateful for their faithful demonstration of grace throughout this season.”
Pope: “Through the use of technology tools – online teaching in Canvas and Zoom, we carry on and push through. I would like to compliment the IT people in the background here who work tirelessly ‘below the radar’ and receive little thanks. I would also like to thank the educational technology support staff in the Adams Center and the Library. They are amazing.”
What’s different about the current fall semester?
Phillips: “I can’t really address this question because I’m teaching online this semester. I am taking German, so I’ve experienced the classroom as a student, but not as a professor.”
Buck: “Can’t shake hands or see smiles; can’t see if a concept or idea is resonating or not. Things I took for granted – like handing out printed material in class! – are very noticeable in their absence. Also, I used to enjoy having a very special teaching assistant in class at least once each semester, but my eight-year-old daughter (Lillian) is unable to do so this semester. :( EVERYONE is very sad about this.”
Pope: “My classes ended up all being online this semester, so obviously that is really different. But when I/we return to in-person classes again, I plan to utilize many of the recorded lectures and clarified teaching materials that have been developed during the pandemic. In the past, I relied too much on being able to verbally explain something, and now I see that some of my notes are not very clearly written. So, the current situation is an opportunity to see things differently and learn and grow.”
COBA’s vision is to inspire, equip, and connect Christian business and technology professionals to honor God and bless the world. How are you integrating the vision with your students when you can’t always be with them?
Phillips: “I don’t start teaching until October this semester so most of my interaction with students is coming through a community group I’m leading for some COBA freshmen and meeting with students about study abroad next fall. I’m trying to stay connected to students even though I’m not in the classroom. I guess right now I’m spending a lot of time trying to inspire them to spend a semester abroad. It is such a transformational experience but sometimes it’s hard for students to visualize themselves doing something so vastly different from their normal life. I’m also trying to help some of our freshmen connect in our small group. They have such a great attitude but I think it’s harder to get to know people with the masks and social distancing in the classrooms. I’m hoping that our community group helps them get to know a handful of their COBA peers and that they will have a few classmates with whom they have connected at a deeper level.”
Buck: “I’m working hard to use Canvas better so information is accessible and organized for students.”
Pope: “In terms of connection, I am trying to encourage more emailed thoughts about prayer needs, scripture, and other personal concerns. My wife has, for 20 years, invited students into our home for meals and we typically have had large groups. This fall, she is going to considerable effort to plan, prepare, and host multiple smaller groups in a safe manner.”
Dr. Don Pope
What are you excited about for this semester?
Phillips: “Getting to know some of our new freshmen, seeing students get excited about spending a semester abroad, ‘meeting’ my students – even though we will not be gathering in person.”
Buck: “Seeing how we expand our vision of community. We’ve relied on very traditional definitions and expressions of community (e.g. shaking hands, sharing a meal, attending a sporting event or attending the performing arts) for a long time, and the current moment forces us to rethink them. When things return to something resembling what we used to call ‘normal’, we will hold these definitions/expressions even more sacred and special than before.”
Pope: “‘Excited’ is probably not a word that we would use about this situation. But, I do think that we are all learning some valuable lessons about the human need to be with other people, to accept each other’s different perspectives on things, and live together in community. It will be interesting to see how family, education, business, and church are changed long term by this experience.”
While the ACU campus looks and works differently in 2020, COVID-19 hasn’t stopped faculty members from looking for ways to put students first. Echoed in the comments of each of our faculty members is the theme that is so central to ACU – community. We value our students and our relationships with them as faculty and staff. We will continue to strive to connect in the best ways possible this semester and we look forward to the day that we can see those smiles in the classroom.
Jenni Trietsch, Director of Administration
We want to give a warm welcome to Jenni Trietsch (’98), the new Director of Administration in the College of Business Administration. Jenni comes to us with a wealth of accounting and administration experience having worked as a CPA for the past 20 years. In this new role, Jenni assists and supports the COBA Dean and leadership in strategic and operational initiatives, and oversees COBA’s human resource functions, finances, building, and technology resources.
We asked Jenni what drew her to this current position in COBA: “My dad worked at ACU for 30 years, so I’ve been on campus most of my life. I graduated with a BBA in Accounting and Finance in 1998 and a Master’s of Accountancy in 1999. I’ve always loved the idea of giving back to COBA and ACU and, when the opportunity presented itself, I couldn’t pass it up.” Looking forward, Jenni says, “It is so interesting to me how higher education has evolved since I was a student. I’m looking forward to seeing that in action and learning how our faculty integrates faith and learning in the classroom in new ways.”
We asked Jenni to share a little about herself and she told us, “My family is very important to me – I have two nieces and spend much of my time and energy with them. I love to travel and explore new places. The art of Dale Chihuly particularly captured my interest a few years ago after a trip to Seattle. Something surprising [about me]: one interesting experience I had in a former job was visiting an oil production platform offshore in the Dutch sector of the North Sea.” Jenni was also one of the first students to enter the MAcc program at ACU.
As a product of COBA and ACU, Jenni is a living, breathing example of alumni that carry the vision of the college, to honor God and bless the world, into the workplace. We’re excited about the experiences and ideas that she brings to the college and look forward to the ways that she will contribute to our mission to educate business and technology professionals for Christian service and leadership throughout the world.
Brooke Lenz, a MAcc student from Lakeway, Texas has made the most of the internship opportunities available to COBA students. Last summer, she completed an eight-week internship with Harper and Pearson in Houston. This summer, she wanted to see how working at one of the “Big 4” accounting firms compared to her previous internship experience. Brooke recently completed a five-week internship with EY in Dallas and has been offered a position at EY post-graduation. We asked Brooke to share the highlights of her internship and to give some advice to current students who are looking at internship possibilities.
What were the greatest lessons you learned in the internship?
Communication is so important if you want to learn and succeed at what you are doing. Communicate when you have questions about things, communicate when you want clarity, communicate when you finish a task, etc.. It shows the person you are working with that you want to learn and you are willing to listen. Once you are given an assignment or shown how to do something, write it down so you don’t have to repeat any of your questions and so you don’t forget how to do something.
How has your time at ACU prepared you for this internship and for employment after graduation?
ACU has really helped shape who I want to be as an employee and co-worker. The professors do a great job of showing you that you can succeed in whatever you set your mind to all while maintaining integrity and high moral character.
What advice do you have for students who are preparing for an internship?
I would advise those who have upcoming internships to have confidence in themselves. Your grades are what qualified you for your internship, but how personable you are and how well you work with others is what solidified your internship. Be open to learning new things and remember to be yourself! Have fun, enjoy your internship experience, and bring a positive attitude to work everyday!
What’s been your favorite thing about your time at ACU and in COBA?
My favorite thing about ACU and being a COBA student has to be the relationships I have formed. I know that I would not have the personal connections and relationships I have with my professors at any other university. They truly care about you as an individual person, more than just your success in the classroom. They take the time to invest in each student and get to know them on a more personal level.
Cliff Crockett (’89), Partner at the accounting firm KPMG in Dallas, Texas, has been conducting interviews for accounting internships at ACU for the past twenty years. This year’s global pandemic proved to be a bit of a challenge. Yet, the social distancing guidelines moved them in the direction that many companies across the country are taking: adapting to virtual interviews.
“We have always done face to face interviews and much prefer them. So this was the first time to do Skype interviews on a broad basis,” Cliff explained. While exceptions have been made before to accommodate students out of the country on study abroad, in-person interviews are the ideal platform to allow interaction with the students.
“We typically have a pre-interview dinner the evening before the interview so that we can get to know them better. This also allows the students to ask a lot of questions to multiple KPMG employees to help them feel more comfortable and get to know KPMG better. The students also get to interact with our greeters right before the in-person interview, so they miss out on this as well.”
Students initially had their interviews scheduled for March 26th, but when the campus closed, they instead began to prepare for virtual ones. When asked if this changed their approach in preparing, sophomore Lacy Mayes explained, “I had to practice looking at the camera instead of the screen. It’s definitely a different approach when you can’t shake hands or look at them directly in the eyes.”
One of the main concerns for virtual interviewing is technology issues, from poor connections to glitches. “I think it is harder for students doing it this way than for the interviewer actually,” Mr. Crockett explained, as KPMG is accustomed to meeting virtually with clients and employees. He advised students to double-check that their technical setup was working well before their interview. However, even when issues arose, junior Mikel-Ann Terry said that the interviewers were very understanding of any issues encountered, saying, “I would encourage anyone thinking about an internship to interview with them, even if it is just for the experience!”
Even though face to face is the ideal platform for interviewing, going virtual is providing students with valuable experience – regardless of location. Senior Rachel Rankey shared, “I learned to speak with confidence so they know what you’re saying and why you were right for that position. I also learned that oftentimes, they just want to get a sense of who you are rather than grilling you with a lot of questions that might be hard to answer”. Junior Hannah Pinson said that she enjoyed the virtual aspect, once she grew accustomed to it.
Crockett concluded by sharing how much he loves being on campus and interviewing ACU students. He and his team look forward to being on campus as soon as they can. “ACU does a great job preparing their business and accounting students for the real world, so take full advantage of your education!”
On January 27th, senior chemistry major Claire Shudde entered the Improve ACU Competition and left with a cash prize of $500 and the opportunity to make her idea come to life. The competition was co-hosted by the ACU Student Government Association (SGA) and the Griggs Center for Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy.
Mindy Howard, the Student Engagement Coordinator for the Griggs Center for Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy explained why they chose to create this competition. “We wanted to try and reach a larger sector of the student body and engage them in entrepreneurial thinking. The prompt was simply what are your ideas to improve ACU? We had 139 total entries and the finalists and winner were picked by the SGA student team. There were several really creative ideas submitted. Some of the top ideas included a community garden, a low-cost food pantry for students, and a student led spirit team at the ACU basketball games. Our hope was that students would take a moment to look around and see how their ideas could lead to real change at ACU. Every successful business, initiative or service starts with a great idea.”
Claire told us, “My idea to improve ACU is to have selected accounting and business students help lower income citizens in Abilene file their taxes. Filing taxes isn’t always easy and for people who either don’t have the education or ability to file for themselves, it can be a daunting task. If students at ACU — ideally selected by faculty who have witnessed the student’s desire and ability to serve the community in this way — can help locals file their taxes, they can gain real world experience while also benefiting the community.”
Shudde gave credit where credit is due for the idea. “I got the idea from a friend who attends St. Mary’s University in San Antonio. Their school is situated in an impoverished part of town and the students intentionally work on reaching out and ministering to the community. As a Christian school, I think ACU could follow suit and reach out to the community in this way. There is potential for this to be an incredible ministry in Abilene, and while accounting/finance majors help people with money, other students can minister to the people waiting.”
Claire continued, “I think the best way to establish this would be to partner with ministries like Love and Care or the Mission that are currently working and established. As a senior chemistry major, I am fairly far removed from accounting and finance, so I doubt I could be involved in the actual functioning of the tax clinic. Rather than be hands on myself, I would love to brainstorm with those who are knowledgeable in this area and will be in Abilene longer than me. I think breaking the ACU bubble in this way will benefit both the community and the ACU students involved. My hope and prayer is that through simple actions such as helping a single mom file for a tax return, people can experience the love of God. Isaiah 1:17 says ‘Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, take up the case of the widow.’ While setting up a tax clinic does not fix all the problems in Abilene, I think it would be a chance for christians to live out this charge. I hope that in a few years I can look back and see ACU taking steps into the community beyond just a tax clinic.”
The ACU community often talks about the “ACU Difference”. Bright minded students who have a passion not only for ACU, but for making ACU and Abilene a greater place, are living, breathing examples of that difference. Congratulations to Claire Shudde on winning the competition! Want to learn more about the Griggs Center for Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy and how you can get involved? Click here to learn more.