Kendall Raymond hasn’t left her Chicago apartment since March 12th except to walk her dog, a rescue mutt named Mike. As it did for people worldwide, the scope of her life suddenly narrowed to a very few rooms as the coronavirus outbreak metastasized into a pandemic.
That doesn’t mean life has stopped for her. Raymond had to quickly transition to online life for her work as the Director of Learning and Development for third-party logistics provider Coyote Logistics. She had to do the same as a graduate business student. She is one of 39 students in the University of Notre Dame’s Executive MBA-Chicago program, a 17-month program that meets every other week on Notre Dame’s downtown Chicago campus.
ADVERSITY MAKES “PIONEERS”
The Class of 2021 cohort was less than three months into the program when Notre Dame president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., declared that all classes would transition to online as a safety precaution. The EMBA students come from six different states and various career backgrounds including food and beverage, insurance, technology, health care, and transportation, among others. And now they would need to get acquainted through the less-than-personal auspices of Zoom.
Not only that, but they would become pioneers of a sort: Their Economics of the Firm course, taught by Kristen Collett Schmitt, was the first Mendoza class to go online at the University.
“My initial reaction was disappointment,” said Raymond. “We had bonded quickly and genuinely grew to enjoy each other’s company. To not have the social interaction with each other, the staff, and our professors was heartbreaking. We have had to quickly find our new normal and have felt different emotions throughout that process. I am proud of how quickly we have adapted and leaned in to help each other and our community.”
“It’s a weird time in the world, but at the same time, we all feel immense gratitude to be part of a community that we weren’t part of just months before — the Notre Dame community,” she added.
BRINGING A COMMUNITY TOGETHER
The faculty also needed to make adjustments, but quickly learned the new normal offered some benefits. “I knew the predominant feeling of students in my classroom on that first day would be disappointment, so I leveraged their bond with each other and their strong ties to the Notre Dame community in the spirit of continuity,” said Kristen Collett-Schmitt, associate teaching professor of finance at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. “I encouraged students to treat the class as a typical classroom and teach each other the Zoom tools, reminding them that it didn’t have to be perfect. They didn’t miss a beat.”
The students quickly began to help each other out with workplace issues and to provide much-needed comedic relief. As the adjustment to online learning progressed, the cohort was determined to make the most of the experience, implementing theme days for each day of online residency — wearing all white, dropping in vacation destination backgrounds, decorating their “classrooms” with favorite holiday props.
They implemented virtual happy hours and started each class session with a show-and-tell where members of the cohort can share pieces of their lives — their homes, families, pets and so on.
DECIDING TO TAKE ACTION
They even held an online bridal shower for classmate Tricia Stamatakos, whose wedding to Notre Dame alumnus Takashi Yoshii was postponed due to the pandemic.
Beneath it all, there emerged a more serious theme to their interactions: gratitude and a desire to help.
“Some of us were chatting about how fortunate we felt in these unfortunate times. We quickly identified that would not be the case for everyone,” said Raymond. “It was difficult to hear of the closure of Chicago schools, knowing many children rely on the school setting for meals, safety, love, and their development. We decided to get something started — together.”
The cohort settled on the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a community effort to supply food to people in Cook County through a network of more than 700 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, and other programs. Like many neighborhood food pantries, the depository has seen a rapid escalation in need due to the massive layoffs and other effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Raymond said they didn’t start out with a specific funding goal; she and her fellow students just sent out a request for donations to family, friends and their Notre Dame professors via email and social media. It became known as the “5X5” campaign: They asked people to donate $5 and pass the request along to five friends. “Donations spanned ND professors, ND staff, friends, family, co-workers, social networks and of course, our extraordinarily generous cohort — what a powerful reminder of all the good that surrounds each of us.” said Raymond.
As of Friday, March 27, donations totaled $5,335, enough to provide 16,020 meals to Chicago residents.
“Many in our group have children and know that there are children whose only meals come from those provided through the school system,” said Teddy DuBois, who lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and two daughters and works as a business development account representative for Halliburton Energy Services.
“We decided to try to raise money and honestly expected to raise a couple hundred, maybe a thousand dollars,” he said. “The fact we have raised over $5,000 has been extremely humbling. We have been supported not only by friends and family, but also the greater Notre Dame community and we cannot thank them enough.”
FROM STRANGERS TO FAMILY
“You feel a little helpless cooped up at home,” adds Raymond. “We hope that by banding together with and for our community during these times we can live out the Notre Dame Mendoza mission and make a small difference in the lives of others. Good news amongst all the chaos in the world is so important.”
The 5×5 campaign also reflected Mendoza’s commitment to service and impact. “During these times, the natural default is to hunker down, take care of yourself, your loved ones and employees, and forget about those affected even more,” said Walt Clements, associate dean of Executive Education at Mendoza College of Business. “The leadership and compassion shown by Kendall and her Class of ʼ21 members are powerful reminders to us all of our connection to each other and those in need. They are of great value along with the money we are raising for a great cause.”
“As a cohort, we have had the unique opportunity to lean on each other to share our stories, the challenges we are facing — both personal and professional — and how to proactively help our companies and communities in difficult times like these,” said Stamatakos, who is the director of marketing at Mediafly in Chicago (and the classmate whose wedding was postponed).
“It’s crazy to think that a few short months ago, we didn’t know each other. Fast forward to today, we are each other’s support system as people face personal and family illnesses, layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. I truly don’t know what I would do without this amazing group of people who have a heart of gold.”
Carol Elliott is the director of communications at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Previously a business writer, columnist and features editor for a daily newspaper, Elliott has received several journalism awards and recognition from the CASE Circle of Excellence Awards and the Higher Ed Marketing Report for magazine publishing.