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Class of 2020 Faces Hopes and Hardships While Finishing Senior Year Online

Bethel’s 2020 graduates are experiencing many emotions as they finish their college journeys in a virtual instruction learning environment due to COVID-19. With the help of the Bethel community and their professors, they are striving to maintain community, overcome challenges, and complete many milestones of a senior year at Bethel.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

May 21, 2020 | 3 p.m.

Nathan Bajema ’20

Nursing major Nathan Bajema ’20 is one of the one of the 446 students graduating this spring from Bethel’s College of Arts & Sciences and finishing their degrees in a virtual instruction learning environment instead of on campus. Like many, Bajema has found parts of finishing his degree away from campus difficult, but he has also found comfort in the strong Bethel community and in a shared hope in Jesus.

When he left for spring break, business major Lucas Bentrud ’20, didn’t know he had already sat in a Bethel classroom for the last time. Today, he’s one of the 446 students graduating this spring from Bethel’s College of Arts & Sciences who are adapting to finishing their degrees away from campus. “I miss hanging out in the Brushaber Commons with my friends,” he says. “I miss talking to cashier Geetha Peters in the Monson Dining Center. I miss working out in the Wellness Center. I miss having the opportunity to just walk into my professors’ offices and talk about life with them. There are just so many things I feel I left behind without closure.”

Due to COVID-19, Bethel switched to a virtual instruction learning environment in March, and spring commencement will be held as an online celebration this week with in-person celebrations planned in August. Despite graduating during unprecedented circumstances, Bethel seniors have found ways to remain connected, adapt while completing final projects, maintain a strong community, and prepare for the next chapters of their lives. “Even though it is a bit of a disappointment finishing off college remotely, it is something that will, indeed, always be remembered and create memories of its own,” says education major Jessalynn Whitney ’20. “We will always remember the class of 2020, the year of the pandemic.”
Lucas Bentrud ’20

Lucas Bentrud ’20

Staying Connected

Organizational communication major Jessica Nafe ’20 says her parents tease her by noting she’s always talking to someone over a platform like Zoom. Away from campus, seniors are remaining connected in creative ways like online bingo, Bible studies, and Netflix parties. Psychology major Kayla Heilman ’20 visited a few friends while socially distancing, Hanna Dryden BUILD’20 is connecting over FaceTime and phone calls, Nafe’s study abroad team meets weekly meets over Google Meet for Tea Tuesdays, and Bentrud admits his Instagram and Snapchat usage drastically increased after COVID-19. “These are people I never got to say goodbye to,” he says. “It's nice to be able to engage with their posts and stories online.”

For many, it can be difficult to find closure, and Nafe often finds herself thinking Bethel is on an extended break before reminding herself of the reality of COVID-19. “I really miss the atmosphere of campus in the springtime,” she says. “Campus is just so beautiful when all the trees are budding and students start spending time outside studying or playing games. Everything seems to come alive!” Like many seniors, Nafe misses running into friends between classes, chatting while we waiting for coffee at Royal Grounds, or just enjoying the sunshine while walking. “It’s the little things that I miss the most,” she says.

Bentrud and Heilman ’20 admit it took time to find a routine and stay motivated without face-to-face classes and interactions, while biology major Kennadie Anderson ’20 especially misses the tangents, banter, and questions that are more likely to pop up in an in-person lecture. Dryden says finishing her last semester in a virtual instruction learning environment has been challenging, but she’s received help from staff and faculty and is still learning new things each day with her BUILD classmates. “What I am missing most about not being on campus is interacting with friends and professors each day face to face,” she says.

Kennadie Anderson ’20

Kennadie Anderson ’20

Milestones

The class of 2020 is also experiencing many senior milestones—such as capstone courses, final presentations, and internships—in a virtual environment. For her senior biology research project, Anderson studied the relationship between buckthorn, sugar maple root extract, and a fungus called Chaetomium globosum. While she is thankful she finished her in-person research before campus closed, she shifted to finish her paper and give a presentation on her research online. “I had never used Google Hangouts or other computer presentation tools before this spring,” she says. “I’m definitely learning the unexpected skill of not-public-but-still-public speaking.”

Nursing major Nathan Bajema ’20 feels fortunate he gained many of the necessary nursing skills through hands-on lessons prior to going virtual. He says moving online is difficult for hands-on programs like the sciences because it’s harder to collaborate. While online simulations provided by the faculty have been spectacular at fostering critical thinking, it’s a bit harder for students to bounce ideas and solutions off one another. “A big part of overcoming the virtual learning environment for me is becoming a stakeholder in my own education,” he says.
Kayla Heilman '20

Kayla Heilman '20

Heilman was not able to complete her senior internship due to COVID-19, but Professor Jason Li helped with options to complete the required internship hours. For Nafe, the transition was smooth since her internship at Gift Planning Services in Roseville, Minnesota, already largely consisted of remote work. But she’s faced a more difficult transition in her senior capstone course, where communication students work on large strategic campaigns for an organization of their choice. While Bentrud completed his internship hours remotely, he feels like he missed part of the experience by not being in the work environment and engaging with employees.

Through the many changes, Anderson commends Bethel faculty for helping maintain a sense of normalcy, remaining passionate about their fields, and sharing in students’ emotions about the new reality this spring. “Being online, I still feel what I’ve always felt from faculty, that they really are our number one fans!” she says.
Jessalynn Whitney ’20

Jessalynn Whitney ’20

Unexpected Lessons

For some, COVID-19 led to unexpected learning opportunities. As Whitney student-taught English as a second language at Forest Lake High School in Forest Lake, Minnesota, this spring, the transition to teaching in a virtual environment proved to be a “blessing in disguise.” After teaching in a traditional classroom, she developed new skills creating and teaching online classes, while also utilizing technologies she wouldn’t have used otherwise. “I do see this as a very valuable learning experience,” she says. “Despite the disappointments of not being able to finish things in the old way, it is time to step out in new skills and new ways of doing things.”

However, after bonding with her students, Whitney has been saddened to know that many of their families are facing financial hardships during the pandemic. “While our school has been able to provide assistance to these students and families in need, my biggest prayer is that the Lord would draw ever near to them during this time,” she says.

Whitney feels fortunate that she followed the advice of previous student teachers and finished the Minnesota Teacher’s Licensure Exams and Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA) early before COVID-19 hit. Though many student teachers didn’t, Whitney says Bethel’s Department of Education is advocating for its students in many ways and has requested extended deadlines. “I have had such rest in knowing that I have fearless leaders fighting on my behalf and on behalf of my fellow student teachers,” she says.
Jessica Nafe ’20

Jessica Nafe ’20

Next Steps

Despite an uncertain job market due to COVID-19, Bethel seniors are following their passions and starting their careers. Bentrud will intern with 3M's Medical Solutions Division in Indianapolis, Indiana, and hopes it will become a full-time role; however, he is now starting in September instead of May. Meanwhile, Nafe accepted a role at Gift Planning Services, a company that helps charitable organizations and ministries with planned giving, and she feels fortunate for the opportunity in an uncertain job market. “It’s frustrating because the job market was so good before this happened, and now it’s just completely flipped,” she says. “No matter what, we can trust that God has prepared us well at Bethel and He has a plan for us to make a difference beyond Bethel some way, somehow.”
Nathan Bajema ’20

Nathan Bajema ’20

Despite high demands for ICU nurses due to COVID-19, Bajema says it’s a challenging time for new nurses. Many health organizations are financially strapped after halting non-essential procedures, leading to several hiring freezes. However, Bajema is looking to start his career in the ICU program at a university hospital. “I decided to become a nurse so that I could care for people. I just really wish I had my license already so I could go help instead of sitting on the sidelines, so to speak,” he says. “Hospital capacity plays a huge role in an effective response to COVID-19, so if I can add to that capacity and help, I want to do so as soon as possible.”

For others, plans are on hold. Dryden says BUILD helped her gain the skills to live independently and obtain a job, and she plans to eventually live in an apartment with friends and find a good job. But COVID-19 slowed those plans. For Heilman and Whitney, both will need to wait until travel restrictions lift before following their plans to do mission work abroad. “Unfortunately, along with everything else in the world, this pandemic has put our outreach plans for this year on hold,” Whitney says.
Hanna Dryden BUILD’20

Hanna Dryden BUILD’20

Commencement

Bentrud used to view walking across Benson Great Hall’s stage during commencement, shaking President Jay Barnes’ hand, and giving Vice President for Student Life William Washington “knucks”—a knuckle bump—as a symbol of crossing the finish line. But as he readies for this week’s online commencement celebration, he’s thankful that Bethel staff and faculty are working hard to make it a memorable experience. Though she’s sad not to be there in person, Nafe says commencement will be special no matter the form, and Anderson agrees. “I’m thankful for all of the people who are working hard to honor the 2020 graduates through online commencement,” Anderson says. “I know Bethel as an institution is excited to celebrate alongside us.”

Through it all, the class of 2020 continues to rely on their faith to overcome the ups and downs of COVID-19. “That mentality to lean on God has really been instilled in me while at Bethel and has prepared me for times such as COVID-19,” Bentrud says. While the news surrounding COVID-19 can feel hopeless, Bajema says the Bethel community continues to rally around a higher calling. “Bethel has taught me that it isn’t just physical proximity that makes us a community, it is a shared hope,” he says. “The Bethel community has been resilient during this pandemic and rallied around that hope: Jesus Christ.”

Whitney, like her fellow graduates, is trusting in God’s greater plan. “Although we have experienced disappointment, I know that the Lord is planning something bigger, better, and far more than we could ever imagine,” she says. “Proverbs 19:21 (NIV) says, ‘Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.’ This is a word for all of the graduating seniors who are uncertain about their future plans due to COVID-19. Our plans fail, but God’s plans and purposes are greater.”
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