Loyola Sellinger
Business School Blog

Support in the Classroom, Success in the Workplace during COVID-19

At the beginning of the semester, everyone involved in the Professional's MBA program—like all Loyola students and faculty—looked forward to a spring full of classwork and camaraderie on campus. In what felt like an instant, everything changed as March brought nationwide COVID-19 shutdowns, and Loyola transitioned to virtual instruction across all campuses and programs. The pivot to 100% remote learning was only one of the many major life changes that our MBA students had to weather, and one that had to happen quickly.

What could have been a crisis-within-a-crisis, though, turned into a rallying point for students and faculty alike. Everyone at the Sellinger School of Business came together to make the transition as swift and easy as possible, and students rose to the occasion with mutual support and a determination to make gold from that pandemic hay. That’s when something remarkable happened.

Not only were the students thriving and connecting in this virtual learning environment, finding humanity and compassion within the classroom, but their classes also suddenly became a lifeline that helped them navigate the challenges of their jobs’ upheavals and changes in the face of the pandemic. Suddenly, the MBA program was a resource for not just surviving but succeeding through unprecedented difficult times.

Coming Together Inside the (Virtual) Classroom

“For me, working in the healthcare industry, I was happy to see Loyola take this [pandemic] seriously right away and deal with it,” said MBA student Caroline Mueller. She, along with other students, pointed out that Loyola was already offering hybrid online and in-person classes for graduate students, which made the coronavirus pivot much smoother.

Matthew Badila, another MBA candidate, agrees. “The professors made everything clear and did a great job of translating our in-person experiences to a virtual format. We were already using online tools to do our small group work, and working online actually made it easier to schedule time together, instead of trying to make plans to meet in person.”

Still, students like Matthew chose certain classes because they wanted face time in the classroom, and there was a risk that changing to remote learning would leave students with an isolated and impersonal experience. That’s where the human touch came into play. Caroline describes taking Elizabeth Kennedy’s Business Ethics & Social Responsibility course, and how Professor Kennedy structured the types and length of class interactions to be mindful of the students’ home lives where they might be dealing with furloughs, homeschooling, or caring for family members. Matthew’s statistics class spent the first 10 minutes of every session checking in with each other about their personal lives and how everyone was holding up.

Rachel Shapiro talked about the value of small group work using breakout rooms in her classes. “It wasn’t just watching a lecture. Working in small groups preserved the sense of camaraderie and let us all get to know each other a little better. We could see each other’s pets and families. It was something I hadn’t used before.” She also felt that her professors worked hard to make themselves available to work through any issues and to check in with students, offering at least as much personal contact as they would have had on campus.

“My students were so positive,” says Elizabeth Kennedy, JD, associate professor of law and social responsibility. “Honestly, with so much going on in their lives, they could have just chosen not to do [the class] at all. Yet week after week, they really brought their all to the sessions. They were really listening to each other, having maybe even better discussions than they could in person. This is not transactional for them, just to get the credit and move on, this is really about building community.”

Something else emerged as well: These virtual classrooms became, as Professor Kennedy put it, “living laboratories” where the students were discussing real-world scenarios in class and using the tools they gained to act with leadership in their careers during this crisis.

The Rubber Meets the Road: Putting MBA Skills to Work Now

Regardless of whether their jobs fell within “essential” categories by pandemic terms, every Sellinger MBA student’s work life changed in March. Some lost jobs. Some found themselves working almost around the clock. Some had to adjust to telework for the first time. But there was a common experience among them—the realization that their classwork had immediate application to their work life.

It might have been as simple as learning best practices for time management and using online tools like Zoom, for those who were new to teleworking. On the other hand, some material became vital to students finding their way in uncharted waters. Professor Kennedy’s ethics class, for one, was not a mental exercise but rather became a space where students could work through the very real ethical dilemmas and decisions that faced them in their business roles. “Faculty are always looking for real scenarios to put in classes, and here there’s no better live case study than this pandemic for making ethical business decisions,” she said.

Discussions ranged from analyzing choices that specific businesses and industries were currently making, to the ethics of things like taking on additional debt to support employees or rationing in-demand products like ventilators. Students could talk through their own projects and the choices that they faced, and could see how a business’s mission and values statement guides the direction of the company in a time of crisis. They also cheered on a classmate who is involved in work to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I felt less alone trying to make sense of this in the world,” said Rachel Shapiro of her finance class, where she was able to study how the pandemic affects global markets. Rachel works in supply chain, and found that everything she took in at Loyola helped her to understand the decisions her company was making, as well as to appreciate the various perspectives of all the stakeholders whose work is affected by hers. She gained confidence to be agile and pro-active in her problem-solving and to understand the thought process behind cost efficiency measures.

Matthew Badila’s responsibilities in quality assurance for a food packaging plant skyrocketed when the crisis hit and he was deemed an essential worker. Now, his days start at 5:30 AM and go until “whenever,” as he puts it. He’s also the crisis manager for his team in the business continuity plan. Coincidentally, his classes included a section on business continuity that he was able to put into practice every day as he worked to change procedures for increased safety measures. “I spend a lot more time on the production floor now. I’m checking in with the workers and having empathy for what they’re going through. The lessons from the leadership course really helped there, and we were able to navigate a few situations to prevent conflicts.” Matthew also relied on his class time for the support and encouragement his classmates offered each other, and the time to share coping strategies and build community.

The effect of the pandemic on Caroline Mueller’s work life was immediate: She is a business development analyst for a healthcare startup called Ready Responders that provides at-home urgent care and reduces the patient load in ERs and urgent care centers. Her COVID-19 pivot meant becoming the project manager for the Maryland task force division of her company as the business model adapted in partnership with state and county governments to offer door-to-door mobile screening and testing for vulnerable populations including immigrants, the elderly, and those living in poverty.

“It’s been really intense,” she says. “I’m bringing in my leadership and management skills from school to manage a group of 16 people in a very intense situation, where all of them are responders who are putting their health at risk to work with these populations.” She points out that working with small groups in classes, with students of different backgrounds and professions, has given her the tools to understand different points of view and values and to work effectively with all of her stakeholders, be they management, her team of responders, or government officials.

Caroline also credits Professor Kennedy’s ethics class and Loyola’s Jesuit values as an institution for helping her respond quickly but without sacrificing ethics in her work. “Sometimes we have to slow down and think things through or make a process, and I have to have the confidence to do that. I don’t think I would have been able to do that six months ago. It’s great to be part of a business program that focuses on shaping ethical business leaders and not just a bottom line.”

Success through Mutual Support

“It’s important to know that Loyola wasn’t caught off guard by this [pandemic],” Professor Kennedy points out. “We’ve been pushing all along to innovate in online learning, so we had a lot of successes now because of that long-term vision. COVID-19 certainly accelerated the pace, but we were already excited about doing this.”

Supportive faculty, dedicated staff, and exceptional students—together, they’ve risen to the challenge of a national disaster to shine as the compassionate, mission-driven leaders that Loyola encourages them to be, forming a network that will endure long after the classroom work concludes. “This is not what I thought my last semester would be,” says Rachel, “but it prepared me for what the real world would be.”

For more information on enrolling in the Professional's MBA program in the Sellinger School of Business, please drop in on one of our virtual information sessions.