Digital Orientation: Beginning Seminary in a Pandemic

By William Boyles, Sub Contractor

With the end of Summer, we experience the return of the Fall. Seersucker is placed back in the closet in favor of denim, the leaves begin to change, and football is back. More importantly, perhaps, the dawn of Fall means that students return to college campuses across the country. In the Seminary setting, this is a moment that many entering students have dreamed about for years. After years of discernment, students are leaving behind stable jobs, family members, and friends in the pursuit of ministerial vocation. Under any circumstance, moving to seminary is an unsettling time; however, this year is unlike any other academic year in recent memory. 

A thermometer lays atop a blue medical face mask on a dark wooden table.

Amidst the backdrop of COVID-19, seminarians are entering formation in a socially distanced manner. In practical terms schools, both large and small alike, are scrambling to figure out how best to address the demands placed upon them to deliver a quality education in a safe and healthy way. Even seminaries, those bastions holding onto tradition and classical means of education, are having to cope with these demands. Thankfully, in our contemporary context, institutions are able to lean into digital platforms to create hybrid opportunities for learning. 

I remember packing up all my belongings and driving across the country, to begin my Junior Year at Virginia Theological Seminary, and having the same fears and worries as beginning Middle School. Will I have friends? Will my teachers be nice? Who am I going to eat lunch with? 

A stack of books on the left of the teachers desk with a red apple on top, and a stack of letter cubes spelling “A, B, C

All of my anxiety was quelled after I arrived and was kindly greeted by upperclassmen, staff members, and professors to help me unload my belongings from my car. I settled into my dorm room, found some great friends to eat meals with, and over the next week found the swing of things under the direction of helpful administrators, professors, and staff in the New Student Orientation. While I was nervous to begin seminary, Orientation really helped prepare me for the formation that laid ahead of me. 

For students beginning or having just ended Orientation, many of them will have undergone a highly adapted version compared to other orientations in the past. Icebreakers and big group meetings, ice cream socials or other snack breaks, and even 1 on 1 faculty or staff meetings have to be completely reimagined. With Learning ForTE, we have been diligently at work creating and curating a completely new orientation experience for entering Juniors at Austin Presbyterian Tehological Seminary. 

We tried to the best of our ability to hold to three core objectives, just as any professor would in their syllabus for a class. So, while our model has shifted, the core objectives of establishing, nurturing, and integrating students as members of the community remained the same. Coincidently these objectives would still apply outside of the current pandemic context. 

A stained glass church door is propped open to reveal a chapel filled with pews, a chancel area, a crucifix hangs on above the altar. A single person sits alone in one of the pews.

The major shift in learning was moving from a one week, jampacked, intensive orientation towards a four week, asynchronistic experience. Having the learning modules be not bound to time constraints and each content item not building off of the one before it, allows the learner to meet the objectives at their own pace and also work remotely. This last note is obviously crucial with students needing the flexibility to work where they are amidst working multiple jobs and for some helping raise their families. One trepidation for some, when a hybrid model was proposed, was how the community would build those natural relationships and friendships that occur during the beginning of seminary?

 Well, with the gift of technology and the rise of digital community platforms, students were able to meet each other over forums and chat boards to their spiritual biography. Additionally, they utilized video platforms (e.g. Zoom) to have conversations about their mutual experiences of leaving the comfort of home to pursue their vocation. Whatever fear that many had moving away from the old model was easily quelled, and by all account this year’s orientation has been a smashing success. 

Wooden table with an open laptop, cell phone and notebook and blue pen. A small flower arrangement and full glass of water sits aside the work area.

It may not have been the beginning of seminary that many would have dreamed about; however, the central objectives were met and the response from the learners were thoroughly positive. I would encourage anyone considering a hybrid orientation to build out their objectives, and engage the learner just as they would during outside of the pandemic context. The technology available to the modern seminary easily allows for ample community building and well-oriented students, despite health and safety restrictions. 

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