Silver linings emerge once in a while during the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of them is at Ursuline Academy. Or, at least, virtual Ursuline, where staying at home has allowed an already established program to expand.
The school has taken its alumnae speaker series to the next level, welcoming graduates from outside the Wilmington area to its classrooms via Zoom meetings with current students. Previously, the speakers would come to the school to discuss what they had done after graduation.
The idea to expand the initiative belonged to Joanna Arat, a 1999 alumna and the director of alumnae relations.
“I had the alums coming into the classrooms, coming into the clubs, the community times,” she said. “When this whole pandemic started, I thought, well, you know what, these alums are saying, ‘How can I help?’ This is my opportunity to let them have a Zoom call with these girls. It’s been really nice.”
Ursuline graduates “meet” with students about once a week. Recent speakers have included Rebecca Byrd, a lawyer and lobbyist in Delaware who graduated in 1998, and Hilary Kenny, a research associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago. She is a 1994 alumna. Byrd said she is a member of the school’s Alumnae Board, which was asked if any of them had things they could share relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic. Byrd is in regular contact with state officials, which gives her insight into their thinking.
“While I’m not on the front lines, I am privy to how leaders are making decisions, what things they are considering, and how so many of my clients have been impacted,” she said. “I know that I have a job that either people don’t understand or malign, so I’m always interested in talking to people about what I do and how it isn’t as nefarious as it may seem.”
Ursuline has the technology to bring alums into the school virtually, but before the pandemic, the school had not gone beyond the local area, Arat said. In addition to expanding the number of alumnae and their professional fields, meeting through video conferencing allows the current students to see the graduates in their work setting.
“This is great because it’s connecting the alums that aren’t local. It’s nice for the alums. I think they enjoy getting to see the girls and connect with them,” Arat said.
Byrd said she was able to engage with the students, although she would have liked to see their reactions and have a more free-flowing conversation, which is easier in person.
“But they definitely seemed interested and had good questions,” she said. Byrd definitely would keep the virtual visits as a way to let the students see how the “real world” works and how what they learn in school applies to that.
Two more alums were scheduled to meet with students today (April 30). Sheila Grant, a member of the Class of 2004 and Gov. John Carney’s chief of staff, was scheduled to talk with a leadership class about an initiative to help the homeless, and Erin Gerber Davidson (Class of 1999) was slated to meet with an advanced-placement statistics class. Davidson is the actuarial director at Martin and Co. in Newtown Square, Pa. Others will be scheduled.
The VirtUAl Alumnae Speaker Series is not the only way Ursuline connects its students with those who came before them. The school has a career and discovery program that matches students with graduates in specific fields. When a student approaches Arat and says she’s interested in a certain profession or college, Arat tries to find an alumna. But the onus is on the student to do most of the work.
“We put the ownership in the students’ hands. I share the email address with the student, and then I say, ‘You’re responsible for making the contact. I’m not going to do it for you,’” Arat said.
“Ursuline is such a small school, so everyone feels like family,” she continued. “Even if they didn’t know them while they were at Ursuline.”