CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — Penn State Lehigh Valley Instructional Designer and Adjunct Lecturer Eileen Grodziak is always looking for unique ways to engage students in her First-Year Experience (FYE) courses. Turns out, the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be an surprisingly appropriate catalyst.
During the Fall 2020 semester, Grodziak and students from her Fall 2021 FYE course collaborated with Associate Research Professor Laura E. Cruz of the University’s Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence on a research project examining student resilience in the face of the darkness and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. The resulting article, “We Belong: A Collaborative Reflection on First-Year Student Engagement under COVID-19,” was recently published in “Transformative Dialogues: Teaching and Learning Journal.”
For the article, the student authors — Kasie Bloss, Matthew Bonner, Daniel Bracey, Steven Bronzo, Matthew Cascioli, Grace Hambly, Daniel Kobrin, Ian Langsdorf, Tyler Lindsay, Tyler Mahr, Adriana Perez, Angi Sayid, Jacob Szajkovics and Jia Qian Zheng — shared their firsthand insights, with analysis by Grodziak and Cruz sprinkled throughout. A few of the students even had the opportunity to present their research at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ 2021 Conference on Diversity, Equity, and Student Success.
“The project was a great experience, and it was amazing to have an instructor who wanted to do research on the mental and social obstacles faced by students during a global pandemic,” said Hambly, who was among the students to present at the AAC&U conference.
The project’s origins came out of the unusual circumstances Grodziak and the FYE students found themselves in at the start of Fall 2020. The group met in person on campus, which at the time was extremely light on activity due to the safety measures put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Given that, Grodziak feared the students would have trouble gaining a sense of belonging in their new environment. Always one to stress the benefits of undergraduate research, she eventually had an epiphany.
“I thought, ‘Well, maybe it would be good to get them writing about their experience,’” Grodziak said.
With that, Grodziak turned to Cruz to assist her in formulating a research project. For the qualitative study, the students were challenged to research strategies to strengthen their sense of belonging as new college students during the extraordinary time of the pandemic, as well as identify factors that contributed to their sense of belonging, both to each other and the institution, despite their limited in-person interactions.
From there, the students were able to share their findings in their own words through the journal article. For Grodziak and Cruz, this proved a great way to demonstrate the significance of integrating student voice into teaching and learning scholarship.
“I was pleasantly surprised that the students were able to identify aspects of their early college life that gave them a sense of belonging, which in turn inspired me,” Grodziak said. “Through seeing what the others were writing, they were able to see that they were feeling a lot of the same emotions.”
Likewise, Cruz was extremely impressed with the students’ commitment to the project.
“It was one of the most magical things I have ever seen. The students just told their stories, and it was phenomenal, because it was so powerful,” Cruz said. “The power of their voices really came through in their writing.”
The students themselves took away plenty from the project.
“As a first-year student, I found it very engaging and welcoming,” Bonner said. “Like the project’s title, it made me feel like I belong here.”
“We had such a similar experience, yet a complex and diverse set of circumstances that influenced the way we handled ourselves,” Cascioli added. “This truly was an enormous test of our resilience as students and people coming into our adult identity in such unprecedented situations. I believe our story is one of many that we will look back on with a clear lens as time goes on to really understand what it was like during this time.”
Looking down the road, Grodziak said she wouldn’t hesitate to undertake similar projects in future FYE courses.
“I think the students were looking for meaningful engagement, and I was happy to provide that for them,” she said.