Fall 2020 was not the back-to-school season anyone anticipated.
For schools across the Walla Walla Valley and around the country, concerns about the coronavirus pandemic paused carefully calibrated reopening plans from kindergarten to college.
As an institution that draws students from around the world, Whitman College felt a particular responsibility to protect not only the campus, but the wider Walla Walla community.
That’s why the college made the difficult decision to shift the fall semester back to remote learning.
But that hasn’t stopped the spirit of cooperation between the college and community. Despite the challenges, Whitman students, faculty and staff have leapt — or in this case, logged on — to action, along with long-standing partners such as Walla Walla Public Schools, the city of Walla Walla, Providence St. Mary Medical Center and many others.
From writing letters to pen pals at Washington Odd Fellows Home through the Adopt-A-Grandparent program to recording children’s books in Spanish through the Storytime Project, here are just a few of the ways Whitties are continuing the tradition of community engagement despite distance learning.
Over the summer, more than a dozen Whitties remotely participated in community research projects thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
These included an effort through Penrose Library and Northwest Archive to document the effects of COVID-19 in Walla Walla as well as a project with Population Health and First Aid Art Kits to boost the mental health of patients coping with stress, loneliness and depression.
A number of these participants are now involved in a new sociology class called COVID-19 in Walla Walla 2020: Community, Place and Organizations, in which students learn through conversations with community partners about important local issues such as health, business, faith, housing, food security and more.
“The students get to see Whitman and Walla Walla as a set of interrelated communities, including how they may see themselves engaging in these communities either virtually or in person when they arrive back on campus,” said course professor Michelle Janning.
Internships and volunteer work also play a major role in how Whitties get involved and stay connected. Since the pandemic, these positions have had to adapt, but the core element remains the same: Students bring passion and fresh perspectives in exchange for the chance to learn from experienced professionals.
Recently, the Community Fellows Program placed Whitman students in virtual roles with organizations such as the Sustainable Living Center, Pioneer United Methodist Church and Blue Mountain Land Trust.
Whitties are interning remotely at places ranging from the Walla Walla County Prosecutor’s Office to the Blue Mountain Humane Society.
“I am truly amazed and have so much gratitude for the relationships with our community partners,” said Mitzy Rodriguez Camiro, assistant director for internship programs in Whitman’s Student Engagement Center. “Their willingness to invite, support and celebrate our students goes beyond what I can say.”
In return, Whitties are working hard to preserve these partnerships. In a time of social distancing, sometimes it just takes some creative problem solving.
Yardena Meyerhoff, a junior at Whitman and program leader of Bilingual United, has been inspired by all the ways her peers have risen to the challenge.
Her club is collaborating with campus program Storytime to have volunteers record themselves reading children’s books in Spanish. They plan to make the videos publicly available on YouTube and Facebook.
“These recordings will hopefully provide parents with options for further enrichment for their children beyond their classwork,” Meyerhoff said.
Nomonde Nyathi, a sophomore and international student from Zimbabwe, leads the Buddy Program, which connects Whitman students to adults in the community with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The buddies now meet weekly online.
“What makes this work so valuable to me is being able to learn from the buddies and in turn sharing aspects of my life that may be new to them, such as my culture,” Nyathi said. “Being a part of this program teaches me patience and how to interact with those around me — skills that anyone can improve on at any point in their lives.”
Another group meeting is the Whitman Friends Program, which pairs college mentors with Walla Walla Public School students with support from the nonprofit Friends of Children of Walla Walla.
Junior Julia Hess, one of three Student Engagement Center interns for the program, said one benefit of the switch to online meetings is that mentors can keep meeting with the students once they get to middle school, instead of only as elementary pupils.
“Virtual mentoring gives them the opportunity to continue their friendship,” Hess said.
“Our goal is for these meetings to feel playful, positive and engaging. We plan to provide mentors with resources such as conversation topics, online games, puzzle ideas and collaborative activities like snack time, dress-up and show-and-tell.”
Meyerhoff believes that the unusual circumstances of the pandemic are all the more reason to build community.
“Part of what makes this work so valuable to me is the grounding feeling of being fully present in the space where I live,” she said.
“I came to Walla Walla to attend Whitman College, but location is a purposeful choice, and through my work with the Student Engagement Center, I have come to not only go to school at Whitman, but to live within the Walla Walla community.”