For many Boston College students, faculty, and staff, March 11, 2020 was the day that the COVID-19 pandemic became real to them. When the University announced it was moving classes online, students frantically packed up their belongings and bid their friends goodbye for the semester, and faculty questioned how to best support their students during such a bizarre time.
Jennifer Erickson, an associate professor of political science, was one of those faculty members. Erickson clearly remembers that Wednesday evening and the days that ensued.
“It was just such a weird experience,” Erickson said. “That last week on campus was so fraught and stressful. In every class, people were wondering what was going to happen.”
Erickson had previously scheduled a midterm for both sections of her Introduction to International Relations course on March 12, but after the announcement, Erickson immediately shifted gears, prioritizing ensuring the well-being of her students rather than their coursework completion.
“We had a review session scheduled for that Wednesday evening,” Erickson said. “After receiving Father Leahy’s email, I told my students that I’d come to the review session anyway, and that they could come and talk if they wanted to, and a bunch of people did.”
Erickson said that she and many of her students spent the evening trying to wrap their heads around the pandemic and their new reality of remote learning. Following Wednesday’s meeting, Erickson scheduled office hours for that Friday, and told her students that they could come in if they were interested.
“I ended up having a whole group of people in the hallway, talking to each other and to me about what they were worried about, or even just trying to figure out how to get home at the last minute,” Erickson said.
It was at this point, Erickson said, that she began to realize the toll the coming months would take on her students—a realization that only strengthened her commitment to them.
As campus emptied out, Erickson sent a survey to her students asking them where they would be living and what their preferences were for the format of her class going forward. Students decided to finish the course in an online synchronous format in which the group continued to meet over Zoom at its regularly scheduled time.
After a few weeks of Zoom sessions, Erickson sent all of her students individual emails to gauge how they were doing amid the pandemic. Their responses, she said, were varied.
“It was just such a weird experience,” Erickson said. “I think everybody struggled with it in their own ways, but everybody worked really hard to get through it.”
Through these email exchanges and at office hours, she and her students began to talk about more than just international politics. With the end of the semester looming, Erickson noticed a common thread among her students—anxiety regarding summer plans.
Erickson would come to play an important role in easing these concerns.
From a young age, Erickson had her own share of academic summer activities. She grew up in a small town in lake-country Minnesota, seemingly far removed from her realm of expertise in international politics. She credits much of her interest in international politics to her parents, who forced her to attend a Swedish language immersion camp run by Concordia College following fifth grade. She attended the camp for seven years.
While much of Erickson’s family history traces back to Sweden, her parents felt disconnected from their Nordic heritage, she said. Erickson’s grandparents grew up speaking Nordic languages, but her parents never learned the languages themselves, so they wanted Erickson to do what they did not. Despite her reluctance to attend the camp at the time, Erickson said she is grateful for her parents’ foresight in that area.
“I was not happy that they were sending me, but actually, I loved it,” Erickson said. “The immersion camp was really important in broadening my horizons and my way of thinking about the world, with regard to international politics and all of the global changes that were happening at the time.”
Years later, Erickson received an undergraduate degree in political science from St. Olaf College in 2001. After graduating, Erickson took two years off from school to work before beginning her Ph.D. program in government at Cornell University, where she specialized in international relations. Then, right before everything “fell apart” due to the 2008 financial crisis, Erickson said, she entered the academic job market.
Despite the state of the economy at the time, though, many universities were still looking to hire professors. Out of several offers, Erickson accepted a position at BC as an assistant professor in the political science department and was jointly appointed to the international studies program.
While BC is a big research university, Erickson said, she was drawn to its liberal arts feel.
“Because of my undergraduate experience, I felt that the teaching side of my job would be very important to me and something that I would put a lot of time into,” she said. “I wanted an institution that would value that, but would also value me as a researcher and a scholar. Boston College is a place where I can be both of those things.”
Ten years later, Erickson found herself adapting to an unprecedented year of online learning and helping her many students adjust to the rapid change.
“I was talking to a lot of students who were struggling to find summer internships, and I started wondering what I could offer that would be interesting to undergraduates without being a burden on them,” Erickson said.
She ultimately came up with the idea for a summer workshop for international studies majors, which built from Introduction to International Relations, a required course for all sophomore international studies majors. She opened applications for the workshop and selected 14 students to participate.
Erickson held hour-long meetings once every two weeks over Zoom in which she tied in six different topics covered in Introduction to International Relations to contemporary debates in international politics.
Daniela Vazquez Loriga, an international studies major and MCAS ’22, was one of the 14 students who participated in Erickson’s workshop.
Following the virtual conclusion of her sophomore year, Loriga found herself without any summer plans. Everything had fallen through because of COVID-19, Loriga said, so when Erickson reached out to Loriga and her peers regarding a summer workshop, Loriga jumped at the opportunity.
“I was just very excited to be using what I had learned throughout the year and to be getting more experience,” Loriga said. “Professor Erickson was very helpful in making sure that our brains were still working.”
In between sessions, Erickson sent out a number of readings to serve as a basis for discussion. These texts ranged from historical background readings to academic analytical texts, along with contemporary news articles to distinguish modern debates. Students discussed the assigned readings in each workshop session, responding to questions posed by Erickson as well as to their classmates’ points.
“I was encouraged that they were so engaged in each session for the whole time,” Erickson said. “They were really interacting with each other, and not just with me. I can only do so much, and they put a lot of effort into making the workshop good.”
Loriga said that the workshop was a positive experience and that she was grateful for Erickson’s willingness to volunteer her time and resources that summer.
“I wasn’t surprised when Professor Erickson emailed us with her idea for the workshop,” Loriga said. “She is such a caring professor, and you can tell that she really wants her students to succeed.”
In a year of both an unprecedented election and a pandemic, Erickson worked to foster ongoing dialogue with her international studies cohort, engaging her students with pressing international debates during the fall semester. Following the presidential election in November, Erickson held a discussion for the summer workshop group to delve into the election’s implications for international politics.
“I’ll ask them if they’d like to get together again to talk through what they’re thinking and what they’ve been reading. And I hope they’ll do it,” Erickson said. “I think it would be nice to come back together again when we have a momentous event.”
Erickson said that she would consider offering her workshop again in the summer of 2021 if enough students expressed interest.
Erickson used a setback to propel her students’ learning, an approach which she says was successful due to the commitment and interest of her students. She feels lucky to teach at BC, she said, because of the caliber of students that she has encountered there.
“I think I’ve felt that since I started here, but it’s been especially evident in these last couple of semesters,” Erickson said. “They’ve shown me how great BC students can be.”
Photo Courtesy of Jennifer Erickson