“A year unlike any other.” “Unprecedented times.” “A new normal.”
Those terms ran on repeat throughout the past academic year. The challenges they encompassed were very real, forcing everyone to stretch outside their comfort zones and adjust even further to the unexpected.
Yet O’Neill students, staff, and faculty worked through those barriers to come out better on the other side, inspiring each other as they moved through the year.
While no one could have predicted how the spring 2020 semester ended, students who returned in the fall had a better sense of what the new semester would look like. Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, most classes were held in a virtual format.
“Attending graduate school amid a pandemic has been challenging,” admits Blaire Viehweg, an O’Neill student earning her MPA in May 2021. “While this was difficult, the O’Neill School was extremely supportive of students during the pandemic.”
Nationwide conversations about racial justice during the summer rightfully carried through into classrooms in the fall, providing opportunities for students to speak, to be heard, and to come to new understandings.
Students point to suffering from burnout, ZOOM fatigue, and even experiencing job losses as complications on top of a year already fraught with strife from political, pandemic, and social unrest.
Yet amid the cloud that hung over much of the 2020–21 academic year, there was more light than darkness, more progress than setbacks, and more successes than failures—and those should never be forgotten.
O’Neill Associate Director of Students Services James Eckerty acknowledges some students did struggle to adjust to the changes. Others had to decrease the number of credit hours they took or adjust the internship and similar opportunities they were completing. But he’s quick to point out many others students thrived amid the adversity.
“Many, many, many O’Neill students continued to excel in their classes, as well as in appointments with our advisors and career coordinators,” he says.
Faculty members saw the same scenarios in their classrooms—virtual and otherwise. They watched as O’Neill students blew past the barriers they faced and didn’t waver in their commitment to learning or service.
“I am blown away by the engagement my students demonstrated and by the quality of work they submitted overall,” says O’Neill Assistant Professor Jamie Levine Daniel. “Despite dealing with a pandemic, caregiving responsibilities, jobs, loneliness, racism, social justice pursuits, and things of which I am probably not even aware, they showed up. They were committed. They contributed to the learning that took place in class—their own, their peers’, and mine—and they did great creative work.”
Many students align their success with support, and credit family, friends, classmates, and O’Neill faculty and staff for being there to help them through the challenges.
“The faculty were very supportive and understanding of the personal and professional challenges that students faced while in the pandemic,” says Aaron McBride, an MPA student at O’Neill.
Civic Leadership major Beca Stockman adds, “Making sure I made time to talk with my friends and classmates—virtually or otherwise—helped me to stay motived and sane.”
As the academic year comes to a close, O’Neill students have persevered through the unexpected, adjusted when change was necessary, and have been steadfast in their commitment to making a difference.
“We still had students completing internships, doing research with faculty, volunteering their time to help the community, as well as winning campus awards like Top 100 and the Elite 50,” Eckerty says. “I am so proud of how our students worked through the obstacles and completed their semesters and experiences beautifully. I am so proud of everything our students have accomplished.”
That’s how we know they will continue to excel through adversity—they’ve done it time and time again and won’t stop once their diplomas are in hand. We’re all counting on it.