Education and Community—NNU Continues to Thrive in Face-to-Face Community…Carefully

Education and Community—NNU Continues to Thrive in Face-to-Face Community…Carefully

Northwest Nazarene University
Feb 1, 2021

By Grant Miller, Director of Community Life, Class of 2010

Months ago, on what initially seemed like a normal Friday night on campus, our sophomore class council was getting ready to put on Mr. NNU, an annual comedy show featuring our students competing with one another through comedy skits and videos to entertain the student body. As director of community life, I was excited (and as always, a little nervous) to attend and see what our students had put together. Little did any of us know that the email we would receive that night, just minutes before the show opened, would send all of us off campus the following week.

As we all remember, that would not be the first piece of surprising news we would receive; eventually, what was supposed to be an extended spring break became a semester finished online.

I think all of us were unsure and a bit uneasy about what the future would bring. Over the following months, there was anxiety about what would happen in the fall. With news that other colleges and universities were planning to go fully online for the year, my colleagues and I began to receive questions from students.

“Will we be moving online?”

“If we are back, will we be able to do events?”

“How are we going to keep the community going if we all have to wear masks?”

Ask any student what makes the NNU experience better than a typical college experience, and it is more than likely they will reply, “It’s all about the community.” This response has become so commonplace that it has almost become a running joke within the student body. 

It is hard to explain this sentiment to someone who has not been on campus and lived through the transformational experience of doing life together in a communal rhythm, moving from residence hall to chapel to classroom in a wonderful current of life and learning. Every place on this campus is special in its own unique way, from that corner in the library that is just for you, to the way that your group of friends pulls their chairs around a table in the dining hall, to the fields where we have played frisbee, volleyball and held events.

Now, let us be clear on this point: Students primarily choose to come to NNU because we offer an amazing education. Our programs are taught by incredible instructors, and our graduates experience great success in their fields when they leave. The education students receive at NNU can truly set them up for success wherever they go, and we make sure that the hallmark of the NNU experience is a high-quality education.

In addition to that commitment, you will often hear a line from our university mission statement that NNU is all about “transformation of the whole person.” We recognize our educational offerings are diverse and excellent, but we also believe that a college education will be most effective when it is bestowed on a student who has also been developing healthy habits of heart, soul, mind and strength.

How does NNU engage students to grow in these ways? It all comes down to how our communal experience complements the fantastic academic preparation. While we have full confidence in our academic offerings and our faculty’s ability to train students in a virtual setting, we also believe that our students choose to come to Nampa with the recognition that the education they receive will ask them to consider the learning process a lifelong experience that does not end when they leave the classroom. The NNU experience is all about a broader atmosphere of growth and holistic development.

With that in mind, I was incredibly thankful when our NNU administration announced that we would be doing everything we could to come back together on campus fall semester.

While other schools were closing shop and shifting online, we recognized that our best offering for students would be to gather for classes face-to-face. Things would not necessarily look the same, but the beauty of our community is that it is borne out primarily through being in each other’s presence, and while programming might be a little different, the spirit of this place is extraordinary and resilient.

And so, we regathered! We held events with everyone wearing masks, we sat in the dining hall with seats spread far apart, and we gathered in smaller groups for simulcasted chapels. We have modified our entry and exit patterns, taken part in saliva screening to help identify cases of illness, and adjusted class rhythms to accommodate one another. Above all, we have been physically present with one another—enduring significant changes while remaining committed to caring for one another.

In many ways, this season has been extraordinarily difficult. It has been hard at times to engage in adjusted events with the recent memory of how things were just a year ago. The choice to wear a mask is not always an easy one. Not being able to pull up an extra chair for a newcomer in the dining hall is heartbreaking. Worshiping together in smaller groups across campus feels much different than it does as one large group in the Swayne Auditorium. Having no student-athletes to cheer for has left some evenings feeling a little too quiet.

However, that same spirit of community that provides for an enhanced educational experience has simultaneously been on full display, despite our challenging circumstances. Faculty and students alike have shown incredible flexibility and adaptability when students have had to shift to online classes for a week or two. Student volunteers have stepped up to deliver meals to their peers who are in quarantine. Our student leaders have shown a new level of ingenuity and creativity in planning events for their peers that meet all our safety protocols and help our community to continue to thrive. Our student-athletes have continued to practice and work hard in hope and preparation for future seasons whenever they come.

And while our students have embraced this challenge and worked hard to flourish, our NNU faculty and staff have also embraced the challenge to keep this place healthy and open. Our Health Services and Wellness Center have worked relentlessly and exhaustively to screen our community for symptoms, identify potential issues and limit campus illness and exposure. Our resident directors have been constantly engaged with their residents to promote healthy practices and offer unparalleled care to those students who might be asked to temporarily quarantine in their rooms. And, as mentioned before, our faculty have continued to strive to offer a superior education by taking on the extra work of scheduling and delivering their content in formats that are accessible for students both in person and online.

In some ways, all the changes that we have made to be together in person have occasionally felt like a fight where a spirit of innovation and invention are our greatest weapons. When we had to cancel our annual Jazz on the Lawn event during our first week of classes because it did not align with our safety protocols, our students pivoted to a whole new event, calling it Slip on the Lawn. We purchased hundreds of feet of tarping and gallons of high potency soap, creating several massive slip-and-slides on our front lawn. While masks had to be swapped frequently to account for wet cloth, our students showed up in force and enjoyed a whole new event that we might have never created. Rather than cancel an event and give up, our students decided that our spirit of community was worth fighting for and innovated brilliantly to protect it.

While the storms surrounding our campus have seemingly blown and blustered without an end in sight, we here at Northwest Nazarene University have the distinct privilege to continue to lean into our community in person. Motivated by love and a deep commitment to a transformational educational experience, our community has sought to thrive by protecting those things which make us a unique place. We have not forgotten where we came from, nor moved on from the way things were, and we are so looking forward to a time in the future when we can reinstate all the classic NNU traditions and rhythms that we have been forced to adapt for the present. However, we have also committed to learning well during this season and recognizing that tough times can refine and improve us in ways that we were not expecting. No matter the external circumstances, we know that when we commit to love one another by dwelling together in community, it is a good and pleasant thing to the Lord. We hold to that hope above all else.