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Monday, July 13, 2020

The graduate program adapts to virtual schooling

Graduate program faculty members struggle to modify their courses to fit the online classroom

Amanda Mckay’s work station while wrapping up her graduate program. // Courtesy of Amanda Mckay.

By Becca Dudek

The switch to online classes has affected all departments of Western. The graduate program, specifically, is finding issues such as grading policies and the Graduate Record Examinations testing requirement in their departments.

Megan Spiegel, program manager for Western’s Graduate Program, said the program is trying to adapt as smoothly as possible to online courses. Spiegel said graduate students that have individual faculty members to work with might find it easier to switch online than others.

“It’s really different depending on discipline,” Spiegel said. 

Spiegel said some departments in the program have waived the GRE. The College of Business and Economics is waiving the GRE for new applicants to the master of business administration program.

Michael Barr, Associate Dean for Western’s Graduate Program, said graduate programs are important for students who want to go further with their degree, especially those in the teaching department who might be trying to climb the pay scale.

“Ultimately, you’d go and get a graduate degree to advance your career and additional credential,” Barr said. “For some students, it’s a pathway to a terminal degree or a Ph.D. program.”

Spiegel said there were a lot of administrative decisions going on behind the scenes, including a decision on tuition waivers and TA stipends – which will be respected and given to the students who were supposed to be TAs this quarter.

“What we were able to do was ensure that students were still going to get their tuition waivers and TA stipend paychecks no matter what happened to their actual duties because of the change to an online modality,” Spiegel said.

Barr said the pass no-pass system is difficult for graduate programs as they require students to have a 3.0 GPA or higher every quarter. The graduate catalog also states students aren’t allowed to take pass, no-pass classes for credits towards their degree.

According to Barr, the Graduate Faculty Governance Council, a group made up of graduate faculty members across the state, discussed how to approach this issue.

“They needed to address what level of proficiency was going to be adequate for a pass and then come up with a policy relative to opting to a pass, no-pass situation,” Barr said.

Western’s Provost site states that “faculty will maintain rank grading (A-F) records during the quarter, with the default reporting of grades to continue as A-F for graded courses. Students have the right to convert to a P/NP grade, rather than their letter grade, in any graduate course except those specifically excluded in this interim policy.”

Huxley professor Ruth Sofield also mentors graduate students. She said in an email that her classes were relatively easy to switch over, as a lot of it was lecture or meeting-based which isn’t hard to do through Zoom. Sofield said one of her classes had already begun to switch online which helped her this quarter.

“That being said, it is a lot of effort to do this in the short period of time we had and I am glad I had a jump start on it,” Sofield said.

Amanda McKay is a Western graduate who finished her graduate program at Lewis and Clark College on May 4. McKay said the switch to online schooling at Lewis and Clark was relatively seamless for her as a law student.

McKay said she only had to go online for about a month and a half, but by the end of her studies, she wasn’t learning anything and it was getting hard to focus.

“I feel like everything that I learned from the time we went online to finals went in one ear and out the other,” McKay said.

McKay said she felt her transition was easy as law school is usually lecture-based and that she is concerned for other departments that aren’t designed for online work.

“I can’t imagine being a science student – like what are you going to substitute for a hands-on lab?” McKay said.

McKay said she was an out-of-state student, but if she were currently attending Western and fall quarter was determined to be online, she wouldn’t go. McKay said the campus and Bellingham, in general, were part of the experience. Without that, having to pay full price for online wouldn’t be an appealing option for her.

McKay also expressed concern for students or professors with children as her program had older students with children or people with roommates, making it hard to find a quiet place to attend class and study.

Haley Sefi-Cyr, a recent Western graduate and future graduate program student in fall, said her main concern for possible online classes in fall is TA stipends and tuition waivers. Sefi-Cyr said she only applied for graduate school after she learned she could get her tuition waived as it was too expensive for her.

Sefi-Cyr said she was also going to get a full-time job during the summer to save up money but is unable to find many full-time jobs and is worried financially.

“If they’re still charging the same tuition all next year even if fall quarter is online then they should pay their TAs the same – but if they don’t then I’m screwed. I don’t know how I’ll pay to live,” Sefi-Cyr said.

Sefi-Cyr is an environmental science major with an emphasis on toxicology, and the class she is set to TA for in fall is a lab. Sefi-Cyr said she has no idea what that will look like.

“I’m definitely worrying about it but I figured I shouldn’t – I’m trying to remind myself there’s no point in worrying about it because no one’s going to have an answer for me,” Sefi-Cyr said.

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