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Heather Lawrenz: 'We really watch out for each other'

Heather Lawrenz on Zoom callJSchoolTech program director Heather Lawrenz has worked hard to ensure students, faculty and staff have the digital tools they need to continue learning and working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawrenz, the school’s the senior digital media trainer, usually spends her time at the J-Bar, a spot in the School of Journalism where students can get help with their technology needs. Now, the J-Bar is virtual on Microsoft Teams and Lawrenz also teaches instructors about how to transition their classes to an online format. 

To prepare for this semester, Lawrenz spent her summer working to ensure the School of Journalism had enough equipment and resources for students who needed them. 

Lawrenz has been very cautious during the entire pandemic. However, she also found creative ways to stay connected with her friends and family and enjoys working from home. With everything that she’s experienced in the last couple of months, she believes that this pandemic gives us all an opportunity to better ourselves, our community and our university.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Emma Bascom: This is Emma Bascom. Today is Nov. 10, 2020. I am interviewing Heather Lawrenz for the William Allen white School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. So, Heather, going back to March, what was your initial reaction when the pandemic hit? Where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Heather Lawrenz: So, I mean, if you go back to like, even January of last year – well, this year, I guess – there was still a sense that things were happening. You know, we knew in January and February that there was this pandemic, this thing out there. So, I think there was a sense of awareness, even though it hadn't, you know, “arrived” yet.

So, I was – actually, I had taken spring break off. Little did I know at the time that March spring break 2020 would be my last vacation for many, many months. And so, I was at home enjoying a little staycation when I realized we were having, you know, an extra spring break week and then we were going all online and that campus was closed. So, there was this sense of not really knowing what things would be like. 

And I remember it took like three, maybe four trips in March, April and May of going up to campus and getting stuff because it didn't dawn on me that this was going to be work from home life. And even during the summer, I didn't have that. You're going to be doing what you do, you know, from your kitchen and your office for the foreseeable future. I didn't have that awareness.

Emma Bascom: How do you think this semester has been different when you're comparing the spring semester with the pandemic to the fall semester with the pandemic?

Heather Lawrenz: I think we have a better sense of what we were getting into coming into the fall. When we went online in the spring, there was such a rush and everything was so hurried and harried and make do, you know, just kind of doing the best we could in such a short amount of time. And the learning curve was so incredibly steep for so many people and we didn't have that in fall. A lot of professors spent much of the summer getting materials ready, getting ready to go online. So, there was a lot more preparation going into fall. So, I think, you know, equipment wise, technology wise, we were just better prepared for things this fall.

Emma Bascom: What do you think has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Heather Lawrenz: I think, for me, it's simply not being on campus. I haven't worked from campus since the first week of March 2020. So, just not being there for me personally is strange. I think that, that, you know, the adaptation to change is so – it's interesting to me because, while we're all going through the same shared experience, which is in and of itself unique and you know, once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing where we're all experiencing the same thing individually, our situations are so very different depending on where students are housed or if they even came back to campus; professors who are all online or juggling hybrid or trying to have in-person experiences. So even though there's the shared experience, the individual challenges, I think, make that shared experience very unique.

Emma Bascom: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Heather Lawrenz: So I think that, you know, in some ways – It's very much the same. I mean, I'm still appearing in classes and teaching technology. I'm still leading workshops and small groups and all of my different programming that I do, I'm just doing it in a very different way. So that part really hasn't changed. My interaction and teaching with students hasn't changed. What has changed is I'm working with a lot more professors now, getting them experienced on editing lectures and different technologies and using Zoom and just exposure to different resources. That probably has been the greatest change, that I serve as, you know, a technology liaison and digital support to professors and staff as much as students now.

Emma Bascom: How has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Heather Lawrenz: I don't think my perception has changed. I have been – I would say I'm in the very cautious camp and I've remained in the very cautious camp. I immediately started, you know, ordering two weeks’ worth of groceries and having it delivered. I don't go out to restaurants.

I haven't been back to my gym since March. So, personally, life hasn't changed as the, I guess, numbers have ebbed and flowed. I've just remained quite cautious with that. I think the emotional part for me, yeah, I'm in some ways quite fortunate because I just live by myself and I don't have kids. And so there's fewer stressors and interruptions and dealing with other people's emotions or things in my regular life.

So, I feel very fortunate. I have managed to, you know, friends that I used to go out and have dinner and drinks with, well, now we do that on Zoom. I'm using the phone a lot more, which is super strange, like I'm calling people up. And so that's definitely a change. I think that I try to be more aware of maintaining connections to other people in my neighborhood and, and with my friend groups, you know, we've done things like socially distant cocktail parties out on people's driveways and porches. So those things have helped me cope and change.

Emma Bascom: Can you talk a little bit about the specific issues that you and everyone else at KU who works with technology, I suppose, that you all faced during the transition to remote and hybrid classes, and I'm curious as to how you all resolved those issues.

Heather Lawrenz: So, I think that I was very fortunate because my background is in education and my emphasis in my education studies dealt with technology and instructional design. So, I was uniquely equipped to handle a lot of things.

The concept of online classes was not foreign to me, how to do that was not foreign to me. So, I felt very fortunate in not only having a good, solid knowledge base and experience base, but that allowed me to remain calm when others were very worried and were very concerned, and this was all very new to them. So, I feel very fortunate with that. I think that one of my direct concerns coming into fall was how to replicate what I consider the best parts of what I do. And I consider the best parts of what I do to be the things we do at the J-Bar. And how do I do those things and keep my labbies involved.

Wow. Some of just the logistical constraints, you know, like student Zoom accounts, I don't think they can have over five people. They can't go longer than 30 minutes. So, how do we, how do we replicate that? And that was one of my big challenges going into fall. And the labbies and I experimented with several different things, like how do we solve this problem? And we ended up creating what we called the virtual J-Bar inside of Microsoft teams. And, although it's not a perfect solution, I have been very pleased with how students have used it. So, we're still able to host workshops. My labbies can have office hours, they have students going in and visiting them getting help from them. Students have learned how to message us, or if they just, like, pop in and one of us is available, we'll jump in and help them.

So, it's as close as we can to get that equivalent of having a drop-in space. So, it's that drop-in space, but online and the things that, you know, I asked my labbies to do in building some programming and having these unique office hours and being digitally available, it was some big ask for them. But I couldn't be more proud of like how they stepped up and problem-solved and, and got their feet in there and established themselves quickly. So, I think that was a huge, huge success. I think for the larger journalism school, I think there was a lot of logistical things that we solved early on in the summer and Cade Cruickshank, who is my boss, really, you know, making sure people had laptops – and by people, I mean professors and students and adjuncts. Making sure that everyone had the equipment they needed, the resources they needed, wifi access, all of those access points I feel like we solved early on. I know that in March when we first – like, Cade was driving around town and checking out laptops to students, like basically on their front porches. So, I think that the school as a whole has done a really good job of using all the resources, both human and technology resources, we can to make this experience as smooth as possible for students, for professors, for all of us. And I think that that's, that's not always easy to do because everyone has such unique situations, but I think we did as good as, if not better than, can be expected.

Emma Bascom: How do you feel about the School of Journalism response to the pandemic as a whole?

Heather Lawrenz: I think we've done a really good – like the – I think the great part of the School of Journalism is, from the get go, at least from my perspective, we have been aware of: this isn't just an issue of educational issues. So, it's not just -- we're concerned about are students able to learn, do they have access to laptops, resources, things like that.

But we were very aware of the emotional toll that the pandemic was taking on our students and the financial toll – you know, our students lost jobs. Our students needed those jobs to pay for school. So, being able to provide resources great and small, resources, financial resources, I know that that has included resources for food, for gas. I know that there were some housing concerns that students had early on, and I think that's one advantage of our school is that we're a bit small. So, it's easier to help, I think when it's a small group, but I think it's also a reflection on students and professors are very open with each other, and we're lucky that our students feel like they can come to us and say ‘I have this going on in my life and I need help.’ And I think that's the, of what we do at the journalism school during pandemic and non-pandemic times is that we really watch out for each other. And we've done an excellent job at responding to that.

Emma Bascom: How do you think the pandemic has changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU?

Heather Lawrenz: I think it really remains to be seen how we're going to change. You know, I drive on campus and it's like the life blood of campus, which is the students, are just not there and they're not in force. And I think that has changed. I think, you know, again, small things and personal things, where my space is in the journalism school, one of the things I miss the most is students just stopping by the J-Bar to tell me how their internships went, what happened over the summer, they got a new cat, here's, their dog has grown. All of those little things are missing. And I think that removes an emotional connection. And I think for freshmen, they don't have that connection. Like they don't know about the couch in the resource center. They don't know about having lunch at the J-Bar with Heather.

They don't know about taking naps in the Clarkson on the bean bags. And that's just in our building. I think that it's all of those little things that maybe our underclassmen don't know about that are going to create changes. But I think the other side of this is that, if there is an opportunity to rebuild culture and rethink about how we do things, we have a good opportunity to do that. You know, I think that we've seen that there are some advantages of online classes for students’ schedules. There are some advantages and opportunities for asynchronous learning that help our students. You know, that like – the kind of old ways of both industrial education and workforce isn't really the way things work anymore. So, how can we use this as an opportunity to get away from that concept of 8 to 5?

Emma Bascom: So, that leads quite nicely into my next question, which is how do you think KU will be better from everything that's happened?

Heather Lawrenz: Yeah. I think that there's going to be an expansion of online learning and not just in the undergraduate sense. I think there's a lot of graduate programming, a lot of people who may have said, well, graduate school isn't for me, or I can't do this online stuff, who were forced to figure it out for work, for kids, for whatever. And now their eyes are kind of opened to, well, maybe I could do this. I think it changes our idea of where you have to be, to be a part of campus. And where do you have to be to be a professor or a staff member on campus? You know, I think there's a lot to be said for rethinking how we do time and space, which sounds a little woo woo. But I think it's an opportunity for cultural change. I think it's an opportunity to sit down and talk about, like, what are the best things that we've learned from pandemic life and what do we want to take with us going forward?

And I think for a lot of people, it's that idea of flexibility. It's the idea of, you know, maybe I don't have to be on campus every day for an in-person two-hour class, which, for some of our students who, again, have to work to pay bills or want internship opportunities, opening that schedule up changes what they can do, which changes their future. I think there's all kinds of things that you can do about almost those little logistics of life that are our benefits that we've kind of learned in this work from home that we can change and I think would be wonderful going forward.

Emma Bascom: What advice would you give to someone a hundred years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Heather Lawrenz: Oooo. Get stock in whatever, Zoom or whatever first. I think that, like, whatever you love of your life pre-pandemic, find ways to bring that into your pandemic life and keep at it. So, if it's working out and your gym is closed, find a way to keep working out. If it's, you know, art and creativity, find new ways to do that.

And to challenge yourself; if your favorite thing in the world was going out to restaurants with friends, well, what would it be if you all tried to make the same recipe and, you know, Zoomed with that or made cocktails together and, and, you know, got online with each other with your cocktail making? I think just doing those things keeps a sense of normal in your life. And then I think that there's a certain degree of being compassionate, give – being compassionate with yourself, with others, recognizing that this is such a unique time. And it's unique to each person. I think you just need to bring compassion and awareness to that. I've been thinking a lot about how, in many ways, a lot of people feel like, you know, if you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, some of their basic needs aren't being met during this time. And so, if you can, you know, if you have privilege to help people to be extra kind, to be extra compassionate, I think that's the best way to deal with a pandemic.

Emma Bascom: This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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