Professors wave virtual goodbye art

Once COVID-19 began to make its way through the United States, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s on-campus classes were abruptly canceled.

Many students sat in their last class of the semester without knowing. Professors, too, dismissed lecture halls and wrapped up lessons, not realizing they wouldn’t return to campus for the remainder of the school year — and the seniors they might have grown close to left without a formal goodbye.

For Amber Messersmith, the idea of not being able to see some of her students again is heartbreaking.

Messersmith is a lecturer in UNL’s College of Business. She said she was able to cultivate relationships with many students in her business writing and management classes this year. Many of Messersmith’s students will graduate in May, she said, and she can’t help but wish she could have given her seniors a meaningful send-off in person.

Though Messersmith said she’s been keeping up with her students through email and plans to send some encouraging final words, she doesn’t feel a virtual goodbye will have the same effect.

The farewells don’t just apply to graduates, either — each relationship with her students is shrouded in unknowns. Messersmith said because the College of Business is larger than most, she also finds it hard to keep up with underclassmen. The reality is, Messersmith said, she has no idea when she’ll see any of her students again.

“I was incredibly sad to not be able to say goodbye to these students,” Messersmith said. “Just because they’re not graduating doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to see them again. Our schedules might not match up.”

Had Messersmith known, she said she would have planned other final activities, given students extra advice and finished the year in a more climactic way. Messersmith used to wrap up each year with reflective exercises and meaningful discussion panels to finalize each student’s experience, but now she believes the end of the semester will come suddenly and seem like a drab conclusion to an exciting class.

“Wrapping up, it’s not going to have the same feeling of accomplishment to submit their last assignment. I think it’ll be a bit more uneventful,” Messersmith said. “It’ll be a winding down of, ‘Oh, I don’t have to check Canvas every day.’”

Across campus from the College of Business, UNL’s dance program also finished its spring semester without a proper parting.

Hye-Won Hwang, a dance professor in UNL’s Glenn Korff School of Music, said the dance program is tight-knit and personable. It’s this type of environment, Hwang said, that makes goodbyes so difficult.

“Our program is very family-oriented. We get to know our students more through rehearsals, individual projects. We see them from freshmen to seniors,” Hwang said. “We are very close to each other. Not seeing them … that part is really hard.”

Seniors in the dance program had been preparing since September for a recital that would have showcased their athletic and artistic talents. Each student auditioned to create their own choreographed piece, but this show never came to fruition.

Rehearsals for the show began at the beginning of the school year, Hwang said, so it was devastating for many to put in months of practice only to have their show canceled shortly before its performance. As challenging as this season is for her and her students, Hwang said there are some positive implications to losing an emotional farewell.

“I’m glad I didn’t really have time to say goodbye because I don’t think this is the end of our relationship,” Hwang said. “It’s the beginning of our new relationship. Not having a formal way to say goodbye makes space for us to have a meeting in the future.”

While Hwang looks forward to building new friendships with former students outside of a classroom, she encourages her pupils to take advantage of this unusually slow pace of life. In the quiet, she said, they can find inspiration — as artists and human beings.

“Watching anything around us — the smell, the spring, all the things we miss out on because we are too busy — I think it’s giving us time to focus on rest,” Hwang said. “It helps us grow in this challenging time and really value the rhythm of life … we all need our time together … this gave us time to really value that.”