A Semester Like No Other

Published: Dec 16, 2020
(Male student performs a lab experiment while wearing a surgical mask and latex gloves)

The first half of UMBC’s academic year may have looked different from years past, but Retriever pride remained steady as the community pulled together to make the best of a challenging situation and continue to offer an exceptional learning experience for our students. 

Teams of more than a hundred staff and faculty worked through the summer to plan the “Retriever Return” to campus, placing the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community at the forefront of all decision-making. With 91 percent of courses fully online and 7 percent hybrid, just 2 percent took place in-person this fall. Extensive monitoring of symptoms for those on campus helped to keep the campus safe while learning and working.

“I have been amazed by the level of talent and commitment, compassion by everybody involved in the planning…Everyone has shown an unbelievable dedication to the UMBC community,” said UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski. “We have stepped up to the plate and supported our students and each other, and we should all feel inspired by this.” 

A campus pivot

While the number of people working and living on campus may expand slightly in the spring, the focus will continue to be on distance learning and the safety of the community as instructors draw upon what they learned about how to best reach students remotely. Through the new Planning Instructional Variety for Online Teaching, or PIVOT, program, hundreds of faculty spent the summer training to create robust, high-quality remote classroom experiences. Many also embraced ways of making classes more personal by incorporating pets, leading group cheers, and building scientific labs in their own basements.

“I can’t wait to be back in a classroom with students…It’s my favorite thing to do. But this is a global pandemic…so how do we use the tools we have and the innovation UMBC is known for to make the best learning experience possible for our students?” said Kate Drabinski, principal lecturer in gender, women’s, and sexuality studies.

Students also took advantage of the Fostering Online Learning Improvement and Opportunity, or FOLIO, program, which offered an extra layer of asynchronous tools and support for students navigating the world of online instruction for the first time. 

“My professors are being very accommodating,” says senior geography and environmental systems student Hugh O’Connor. “They all make sure students feel welcome to have a video call with them almost anytime in lieu of office hours and post recordings of lectures to help students stay on track. Some professors have even decided not to require textbooks because they know financially times are tougher for some students due to the pandemic.”

Resources for students

The cost to attend UMBC will decrease 22 percent compared to last fall for in-state undergraduate students registered for courses offered by the main campus. Since March the Stay Black & Gold Fund has distributed more than $270,000 in emergency funding and continues to assist students in need, especially those who are not eligible for funding from the federal CARES grant and have exhausted their financial aid options. Although the Retriever Essentials Food Pantry had to close for in-person visitors, organizers worked with UMBC Police to create pre-packed bags of nutritionally balanced nonperishable food and travel-sized toiletries for community members in need.

While UMBC’s incoming undergraduate students didn’t get to experience some of the firsts of a typical semester this fall, they all received a special box of swag to mirror some of the special traditions they would have experienced on campus, said Nancy Young, vice president of student affairs. Those living on campus also enjoyed Friday night bingo, Saturday night movies, and other special socially-distanced get-togethers.

“We wanted to convey the traditions to our new students and make them feel welcome,” said Young, who invited students to decorate their rooms at home with the Retriever pennants and posters they sent. “We surprised them, and it was a huge hit. They were all really excited.”


Capturing the moment
Whether working from home or studying and playing (carefully) on campus, community members joyfully chronicled the strange semester in a variety of ways. Photos courtesy of Melissa Penley Cormier, M.F.A. ’17, Cindy Greenwood, Amanda Knapp, David Hoffman, Ph.D. ’13, and Marlayna Demond ’11.

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