The puck was supposed to drop at the start of a men’s hockey playoff game at Lake Forest College in mid-March. It never left a referee’s hand. Foresters junior runner, Tianna Beilke, was having the time of her life around ovals, her track times steadily melting in chilly temps. She had to stop running, competitively, in mid-March.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted all sports on campus for the rest of the spring.
But forward-thinking Lake Forest College President Stephen D. Schutt and the school’s driven faculty and staff have been zipping at a sprinter’s clip throughout their response to the health crisis since that sudden STOP sign screeched hustling student-athletes and forced all students to complete the semester remotely.
“I was traveling in Louisville, Kentucky, during spring break, right before everything was about to change, before we had to send so many people home,” Schutt, LFC’s president since 2001, recalls in mid-June. “I sat in my hotel room that day and thought, ‘I need to end this trip now. I need to return to campus.’
“We pivoted quickly,” he adds. “We’ve been in almost constant planning mode since then.”
Schutt laser-focused first on the college’s 1,500 students and their families. The student body’s health ranked first, second, and third in his mind, followed closely by the collective financial concerns of the students and their parents. LFC offered a free, credit-bearing course to all members of LFC’s classes of 2021, 2022, and 2023. They could take the course in May or in June or in July. A thrilled and appreciative Beilke, who majors in psychology and neuroscience and lives in Vernon Hills, completed the free course in May.
“Parents were losing jobs and experiencing financial upheaval in April,” Schutt says. “We came up with the special initiative after asking, ‘What can we do to give students something of real value?’ Hundreds of students have signed up for a free class. The initiative showed them how much we care about them and their families.”
Similar care blanketed and comforted LFC’s graduating Class of 2020. LFC partnered with the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management to launch an initiative heavy on development—specifically leadership and business skills. The cost of each session: $0. Another invaluable college resource, the “Foresters CAREer 2020 Initiative” (the CARE portion of “career” written in all caps to convey the warmth behind the initiative), connects seniors with select members of the Forester network, including alumni and friends of LFC, for video calls or phone calls. These calls provide seniors with support and career advice, tips for success, and referrals. A stranger’s voice becomes a mentor’s voice, just like that.
By late May, more than 90 LFC alumni and other Forester Community members had conversed with 125 recent graduates. Scores of young folks in the latter group probably trembled briefly before the interactions because of the pandemic-related hiring freezes from coast to coast.
“We asked our alumni to call our recent graduates,” Vice President for Career Advancement and Athletics Jackie Slaats says. “They told them, ‘I’m here for you.’ They asked them, ‘How are you doing?’ A young woman from Chicago, interested in marketing, heard from an alumnus in New Jersey. The alumnus then connected the young woman to his marketing contacts in Chicago.”
At least one student from nearly every state in the nation attended LFC in the 2019-20 academic year. Founded in 1857, the liberal arts school is United Nations diverse, its enrollees hailing from 80 countries. Listen attentively from one end of the 107-acre campus to the other and you’ll hear 40 languages. Schutt thought of every young Forester—plus the school’s entire faculty and administrative staff— when he formed three summer planning teams to zero in on nothing but the fall semester, scheduled to start August 24.
The crews have addressed appropriate testing protocols, contact tracing, occupation limits, and new traffic patterns in all buildings to ensure safety, and isolation places if students were to test positive for the coronavirus. In fact, LFC and 4Med have collaborated to offer students an Intro to Contact Tracing certification course. Faculty members will be ever-ready to pivot again should they need to resort to remote instruction at any point in the fall.
The Complete Book for College Presidents in Pandemic Times hasn’t been published yet, but that’s only a matter of time. Start that first draft of the foreward, Mr. Schutt.
“The safety of our students, faculty, and staff is paramount,” Schutt says. “But there’s something else that we, as a community, want to assure our students when they return to campus. Given all the upheaval that occurred in Minneapolis [following the death of George Floyd at the knee of a policeman] and other areas in our country, we want to assure our students that they will feel welcomed here.”
How Beilke, a 2017 Lake Forest High School graduate, felt upon learning she’d have to turn in her track togs and learn remotely from mid-March until early May: sad.
“My track team was closer than ever,” she says. “My teammates and I just accepted that we couldn’t do anything about our season ending early. We’re looking forward to our cross country season in the fall.”
Taking online classes bothered Beilke initially. They were time-consuming, hard. Marathons. But “26.2 miles” eventually became “800 meter” strolls behind screens for Beilke, thanks to the patience and professionalism of her professors.
“They appeared calm at all times and were just as available as they had been on campus,” Beilke says. “I am nervous and uncertain regarding the fall, but I know Lake Forest College truly has all of its community members in mind and wants the best for all of us. I am grateful for the school’s support.”
“I’m also confident the school will continue to work with me every step of the way, no matter what happens.”
For more information about Lake Forest College and to read its COVID-19 update, visit lakeforest.edu.