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The Year at Smith

Responding to COVID-19

How Smith supported students and businesses during the pandemic

When COVID-19 hit Canada in March, the country, and the economy, came to a halt. Thousands of businesses had to close, while many others sent employees home to work as government-mandated shutdowns took effect. It was an unprecedented time. But the country came together to flatten the curve.

Universities had to step up, too. At Smith, many students on campus needed to get home. But classes still had to go on. Within days, Smith was transitioning to virtual teaching, with students across programs learning from their homes—across Canada and the world.

Staff and faculty were able to move quickly in part due to Smith’s expertise in remote learning. Smith was a pioneer in virtual teaching and has a state-of-the-art remote teaching studio inside Goodes Hall. This platform has been used for more than a decade in Executive MBA programs. In addition, Smith has long run blended learning format programs that allow working students to participate from their home city for a significant portion of their schedule. Once social distancing protocols were implemented, Smith staff and faculty were able to use the technology and experience they’d already developed to make the move to virtual classrooms.

For example, the Centre for Course Development worked with faculty to transition classes and assignments to virtual delivery, following best practices in instructional design. And the centre’s staff supported faculty in adapting their content for online learning. The goal was to deliver an exceptional remote education experience for students, no matter where they were.

See how Smith School of Business is leading in remote learning, with state-of-the-art technology that lets students be in the classroom from anywhere in the world.

As the pandemic took hold, students needed support in a number of other ways too. One example: Smith has partnerships with 128 schools around the world, and each year many Commerce, MBA and Master of International Business students go on exchange. At the same time, international students come to Kingston to study. When global travel advisories were issued, more than 570 exchange students were looking to return to Canada or to their home countries. As international borders began to close, staff at Smith’s Centre for International Management, along with their Queen’s University colleagues, worked tirelessly to guide 349 Smith students and up to 224 international exchange students through their travels home, all while continuing to ensure they could secure their academic terms. It was an enormous undertaking, and as part of that effort more than $323,000 from the Dean’s Innovation Fund at Smith was used to reimburse travel expenses for students coming home from exchange.

As the pandemic continued and students transitioned to online learning, staff and faculty found ways to make the process as seamless as possible so that classmates were engaged and connected. Smith’s Professional Graduate Program Services supported students in several important ways. For example, Slack was provided to students, making it easier for students to connect and build an online community virtually. A number of programs also offered successful “virtual residential sessions” in lieu of traditional on-campus gatherings. Students came together for academic, co-curricular and networking activities supported by the school’s Career Advancement Centre and Fit-to-Lead groups. The goal was to re-create as much of the in-person experience as possible.

Amidst the sudden shift to working remotely, Jana Raver, professor of organizational behaviour, led program workshops for students centred on developing best-practice strategies for working collaboratively in virtual teams. And a summer enrichment program—called “Management Under Fire: Surviving and Thriving in Turbulent Times”—was started for master’s students. The three-week elective examined the effects of a crisis from a number of different perspectives, and outlined strategies to adapt, react and thrive during turbulent times. This course was unlike any elective offered at Smith, as it brought together six school faculty from various disciplines to teach in a modular model (five modules in all) against the backdrop of COVID-19.

To ensure students could continue with their degrees, a variety of financial supports were offered. These included bursaries as well as payment plans for graduate students to help them finance their degrees. The school also turned to the Dean’s Innovation Fund to provide health and wellness support and emergency financial relief for students, paid business strategy internships, and investments in teaching and learning technologies to support remote instruction.

COVID-19 upended the work world as well, making it tougher for students and graduates to find jobs. In response, Smith’s Career Advancement Centre started the Career Accelerator Program in April. CAP sessions comprised of virtual career education, curated links to conferences, internships, job leads, subsidies and industry information. Topics included “Networking virtually during uncertainty”, “Winning at virtual/video interviewing” and “Maximizing your online identity”.

A steet view of downtown Kingston, featuring historic limestone buildings

In spring, Smith teamed up with the City of Kingston and Kingston Economic Development to provide support for local businesses during the pandemic.

Smith also worked to support businesses. Locally, the school partnered with the City of Kingston and Kingston Economic Development Corporation to form the Kingston Region Business Support Network. It offered a number of free services. Among them: the time and skills of Smith undergraduate and professional master’s students to help companies and non-profits with research, strategic planning, website development, sales and marketing, e-commerce development, writing government grant applications and more. Run through the school’s Centre for Social Impact, 18 Smith faculty were involved in this initiative as advisors, and some 40 undergraduate and graduate students worked on 24 projects for businesses and non-profit organizations.

Through the Kingston Region Business Support Network, Kingston-area businesses could also tap into the expertise of Smith faculty via free coronavirus-themed webinars on topics such as dealing with cash flow and how to plan for changes to business models as a result of the pandemic. These sessions were on top of a series of helpful weekly webinars created through Smith Business Insight, the school’s thought leadership platform, which saw an average of 1,100 registrants per webinar. These faculty-led webinars touched on topics like how to lead virtual teams and decision-making in times of crisis.

With organizations and individuals everywhere challenged to function at the top of their game during the crisis, Queen’s Executive Education at Smith stepped in to fill the need. Programs that had previously been done in person were quickly reworked into shorter remote learning formats with fees lowered to recognize the financial impact of the pandemic on so many people, combined with the importance of staying invested in professional development in response to the crisis.

To address the urgent challenges created by COVID-19, a number of new Executive Education programs were also introduced, including “Building resilience when it matters most”, “Leading through crisis”, “Coaching remotely” and “Maintaining motivation through the pandemic”. Queen’s Executive Education’s five-day Execution program, meanwhile, was revamped and moved to a remote format to help organizations reset their strategy and emerge from the crisis while avoiding post-pandemic drift.

Finally, Smith alumni pitched in during the pandemic, with many business leaders and entrepreneurs contributing—from producing masks to supporting health-care workers. Among these: Joanna Griffiths, BCom’05, founder and CEO of Knix, launched a GoFundMe campaign to provide front-line workers with masks and gloves. Lauren McGuire, MBA’20, a former Canadian World Cup speed skater, created Community Helpers, an online platform that connects at-risk individuals with people in their neighbourhood willing to lend a hand with everything from grocery shopping to prescription pickup. And three current Smith students– Talia Bell, Joshua Sofer and Abbey Rehaut, all Comm’22, launched Canadian Face Masks, which produces non-medical-grade masks for sale online, donating one in every 10 sold to community organizations.

Donations of masks also came from China via Smith’s partners and alumni. Members of Smith Business Club China, which connects the school’s growing alumni in that country, donated 6,400 masks to the Kingston Health Sciences Centre. Another 2,000 masks came from Guanghua School of Management at Peking University in Beijing, a Smith partner school. And first-year Commerce student Cindy Liang arranged a third donation of masks after seeing a tweet from KHSC regarding personal protective equipment (PPE) donations. She worked with a group of former peers from her high school (Beijing’s Keystone Academy) to have masks delivered to Kingston.