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Our God Is Bigger



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LEADERSHIP IN AN AGE OF CORONAVIRUS

The first case of coronavirus on U.S. soil was confirmed in Washington State on January 21—a man recently returned from China. The world watched as the pandemic mushroomed globally through the month of February.

Person-to-person contact allowed the contagion to grow as many, who had been exposed to the virus but did not yet show symptoms, unknowingly infected others. Pandemic growth models alarmed politicians and the public, leading to strict “social distancing” guidelines.

February 29 marked the first coronavirus death in the United States.

As the crisis grew, LETU President Dr. Dale A. Lunsford and other LETU leaders kept a keen eye on the situation, meeting frequently to assess how the growing threat could impact university operations and the safety of students, faculty and staff. 

Lunsford’s first coronavirus message to campus March 4 established a tone of confidence that the university was closely monitoring the situation and that, while no existing cases had been reported in East Texas, health-related plans to serve the campus were already being discussed. He shared the official coronavirus websites for the Center for Disease Control, Texas Department of State Health Services and World Health Organization and told anyone feeling ill to stay home. He encouraged prayer for the sick and for medical professionals responding to those in need.  

The novel coronavirus, named COVID-19, gained significant global and national attention while LETU students and faculty were on Spring Break March 9-16.  Normally after Spring Break, LETU classes would resume on campus. That would not happen.   

The City of Longview reported its first case of coronavirus by the time Lunsford’s March 11 coronavirus update announced LETU canceled all gatherings of 100 people or more, including all LETU chapel services and Belcher Center performances. Campus Pastor Dr. Pat Mays later informed students that while Spiritual Formation Credits for the Spring 2020 semester were suspended, the university remained committed to student spiritual growth. 

University travel was canceled—especially to countries labeled by the CDC as Level 2 (Japan) or Level 3 (China, Iran, Italy, South Korea) hot spots of virus spread. A 14-day self-isolation was imposed on all travelers returning home, including over a dozen LETU students returning from a Spring Break trip to Mexico. Students and faculty sponsors self-isolated on campus in Penn Hall—which they quickly renamed “Penndemic Hall” for the isolation period. 

Communicating clearly and often, Lunsford shared CDC guidelines about frequent handwashing, using hand sanitizers, avoiding handshakes and face touching and cleaning work surfaces—all to help stop the spread of the virus.  Daily cleaning and maintenance efforts on campus expanded—especially in shared spaces and high traffic areas on campus.

Committed to prayer, Lunsford and other LETU leaders sought God’s guidance, not in fear but with confidence to make difficult decisions to protect the safety of students, faculty and staff.  By Monday, March 16, all LETU employees were told to work remotely from home.   As the virus continued to spread, LETU extended Spring Break for students into a second week, made the difficult decision for students to not return to campus and to close residence halls by Sunday, March 22, while adhering to social distancing protocols.

“This national emergency is an extraordinary opportunity to love God and love others,” Lunsford said in his March 17 update.  “I am seeing your love for God and for our community in your energy and your ingenuity as we address unprecedented challenges. Thank you for your patience as each day brings new government guidelines and the need to change the way we are operating as a university.”

Faculty worked quickly to prepare for all classes to go online on Monday, March 23.  LETU suspended in-person flight and maintenance operations at the Abbott Aviation Center and McKinney campus and field experiences in other disciplines.  

“We will provide our 3,000 students an exceptional higher education, but we will need to work very differently in these days to accomplish this,” Lunsford said. “The most loving thing we can do now is to remain with only online course delivery this term. We will not return to in-person classes this spring.  We will close our residence halls and postpone or cancel all significant events planned, including Homecoming and Commencement.”

Before Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a statewide directive for all Texans to shelter-in-place, LETU’s Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) had already been preparing for that possibility and advised employees to retrieve any critical work materials from their offices before the deadline.

We recognize the impact these unprecedented circumstances have on our work and personal lives,” Lunsford said. “Thank you for your continued commitment to the University mission, the incredible level of flexibility and agility, the focus on delivering a great LeTourneau education and for the support and love that you are providing others. We will navigate these circumstances together and continue to pray that God will help and protect those in need and that He will be glorified in our response and service to others.”

Communicating the myriad details each daily decision required was no small feat but was imperative to university leaders who provided clear and frequent—often daily—email messages that also were posted to the university’s coronavirus webpage.  Along with Lunsford, LETU Provost Dr. Steve Mason and Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Kristy Morgan also provided timely and detailed updates.

In President Lunsford’s April 2 COVID-19 update, he acknowledged April would be a difficult month.

“Yet April is a month, with God’s grace, that we continue our work at LETU to give students an exceptional Christian polytechnic higher education,” he said. “Campus is quiet, but our faculty and staff are very busy and focused on serving students.  I am very impressed and very grateful for these professionals.”

The LETU Board of Trustees hosted its annual April board meeting virtually from across five time zones to help Lunsford navigate the university safely through this significant time. Lunsford said the board discussed contingency plans for a variety of scenarios for the academic year to come.

Messages of gratitude came to Lunsford from parents and students for how the university was handling the crisis.

“They know you are working hard for them,” Lunsford said.  “Thank you for the grace you are giving to each other as we learn to work and teach in new ways.  And thank you for living out Matthew 6:33, seeking God as we trust Him to meet our needs.”

FACULTY AND STUDENTS DEMONSTRATE FLEXIBILITY IN PANDEMIC

Making the transition to the online course structure presented its own set of challenges. How to handle lab components for some courses? How to continue to engage with students virtually? How will testing and grading be accomplished?

With true LeTourneau ingenuity, however, all courses were successfully transitioned to online learning and classes were able to resume.

Dr. Scott Anson, LETU engineering department chair and professor of mechanical engineering, said the faculty in his department had been thinking about transitioning to online before Spring Break. 

“We hoped it was unlikely and did not expect it to last the rest of the semester, but quickly bought into the decision,” he said. 

Victoria Davies, Mechanical Engineering junior, said that the COVID-19 season has both challenged her and made her grow, “If someone asked me if I wanted to go through this season I would have said, ‘no way’. But then, that is how God often works. Allowing me to walk through a time that I would never have chosen or asked for because He knows it will mature me.”

Dr. Jessie Wheatly, associate professor of nursing, said the nursing department was already using some online components.

“Our nursing courses already used a lot of electronic submissions, online discussions, online assignments and online testing via Canvas,” she said.  “I feel blessed that we had the opportunity to walk the students through their own technological hurdles earlier in the semester. There are challenges regarding how to get the clinical aspects of what we do online. Without the face-to-face interactions the challenge requires us all to think outside the box.”

The transition to online learning has not been without its challenges.

“The most difficult thing regarding changing was the short time frame that we had to get ready,” said Lois Knouse, department chair and associate professor for mathematics.  “I made videos of lectures for my students; it is very interesting lecturing to an empty classroom. However, it works well.”

Anson said there have been some frustrating moments. 

“I can’t see all of my students to assess their well-being and topic comprehension,” he said. “It seems that we are all working harder and longer, while getting less done.”

Even through the frustrations, students are still able to “see” their instructors and interact with them using several video conferencing platforms. This time has also presented the opportunity to think about teaching and learning in a different way. 

“I have received emails that students like my videos, and this experience has given me thoughts about Fall 2020,” Knouse said. “I am thinking about trying some part-residential, part-online hybrid courses.”

Davies said that being forced to communicate at a distance has made her realize how important communication is.

“After many sessions of online class, phone calls with friends, FaceTime meetings and chats with neighbors from six feet away, I have realized that absolutely nothing can replace face to face communication,” she said.

Anson said this type of learning environment has allowed him to meet students’ needs when dealing with the changes they have faced.

“This has really helped us to focus students’ efforts on core topics in core classes, so we could scale back the work to accommodate what we call increased ‘life load’ such as relocating, health concerns, internet limits, etc.,” he said.

In an uncertain time, flexibility, faith and collaboration are a few words that resound with many. 

“God has been very faithful, and my colleagues are incredible—they encourage me, help me see more sides of any issue we are facing and point each other to Christ’s unwavering faithfulness,” Anson said.

“I have spent a lot of time reflecting on how God brings His good and perfect will out of every situation.” Davies said. “I realized that all I really need is my faith and my family. My family is so precious to me and I know I can weather anything with them by my side,” she said.

One inspiration that can be taken from this time is that the learning at LeTourneau University does not just happen in a classroom or lab within four walls. The Christian Polytechnic University is anywhere our students are taking part and interacting with faculty. 

“Faculty continue to connect with students to speak hope and life in Jesus Christ,” Anson said. “This is a temporary season.  Students, faculty and staff will return to campus, learning will take place, praising and thanking God for all the lessons learned will happen. LeTourneau University will persevere and continue its mission of every workplace, every nation.”

ALUMNI SHINE IN ‘EVERY WORKPLACE, EVERY NATION’ DESPITE PANDEMIC

LETU alumni in workplaces around the world have continued to find opportunities to serve and love others during the global coronavirus pandemic.

One 1971 mechanical engineering alumnus Randall Matthewson and his wife, Alice, who live north of Seattle both tested positive for COVID-19 early on, and both have since recovered.    

 1996 mechanical engineering alumnus Matt Knighton, who lives near them and works for Boeing said in mid-March that his mother and her best friend also tested positive.  His dad is recovering from open heart surgery and three of their church members have also tested positive.  

“We are in step 10 of a 12-step protocol that could see the borders of the state shut this week,” he said.  “All non-emergency travel outside the home could be curtailed for weeks, if not months.”

The pandemic is having its effect on Boeing, where he serves in a leadership role.

“We hold the livelihoods of 70,000 Washington-area workers in our hands,” he said.  “May God grant us wisdom, because no one is prepared for this.”

A 1989 computer science and technology alumnus Paul Norton in the Seattle area also shared in mid-March that his community is nearly shut down.

“Restaurants are closing,” he said.  “The zoo and aquarium have closed, and Seattle is eerily quiet. . .  So much uncertainty really has people shaken. They need us to be the salt and light we are called to be . . . even if we do it over the phone.”

LeTourneau University alumni continue to make an impact for Christ, whether near the campus in Longview, or across the globe in hard-hit Italy, where 2004 English major Bethan Bassett and her husband live in Milan, where they run Bassett Biomechanics, a biomechanics training and support business.

As life in Italy began to shut down, and the government encouraged people to stay home, many continued their normal activities.  She reported that as things continued to get worse in Italy, she developed a fever and difficulty breathing on March 18. 

“We've been following every single rule that the government has issued, but when I reviewed my movements over the 14 days before my symptoms began, my heart sank,” she said. “I'd been to the grocery store and the mall and the dentist and my daughter's orthodontist. We'd had a total of eleven people over to our house.”

“I potentially came into contact with hundreds of people,” she said. “And yes, I washed my hands frequently and tried not to touch my face, but I picked up a bug from someone, and I potentially passed that bug on to others, possibly to others whose symptoms could be life-threatening.” 

While she rebounded, she reflected on the impact that COVID-19 had on the community around her and what she would have done differently.

“I wish we had made the choice to self-quarantine before we were required to,” she said.  “I wish I had taken this situation more seriously even when I felt completely healthy. Now, Italian officials are unanimous: Stay at home! But three weeks ago, some were still encouraging people to go out and support local businesses or to try to go about life as normally as possible. In hindsight, I wish I had erred on the side of caution.

“I also want to add my voice to a growing chorus of people all over the world who have COVID-19 symptoms but haven't been tested,” she said. “The true number of cases is probably much higher than we know.” Indeed, while the numbers of known infected is now over 2 million, experts agree the actual number is much higher. 

A LeTourneau engineering alumnus is using his ingenuity and skill to support frontline healthcare providers around the world by meeting the growing needs for personal protection equipment (PPE).

When the pandemic began, LETU alumnus Jonathan Palmer, a 2007 mechanical engineering graduate, reached out to a local hospital near his company’s global headquarters outside Sacramento. He spearheaded an initiative to replicate a face shield the hospital was already using and delivered 700 face shields and 1,000 eye shields to the hospital within days.

Palmer is president of Autometrix, a manufacturer of cutting solutions for rolled goods—from fabric to carbon fiber.  Founded 40 years ago by Palmer’s father, John, the company is committed to family, passion and innovation, using the latest in digital technology and automation to make products for use around the world with distribution centers in South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

To enable other manufacturers to make N95 masks, face shields, disposable gowns, Autometrix made the design files and resources available free on its website at www.autometrix.com/ppe.

LETU alumni working around the world rely on these kinds of personal protective equipment every day.

Rachelle (Warfel) Davis, a 2015 health sciences alumna, is one of many LETU alumni who are serving in the medical field on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

She said the last two weeks of March were quieter than normal at the hospital where she works as people rescheduled elective surgeries and shelter-in-place orders were implemented. However, by early April, she saw patient numbers increase.

“Half of my patients in the last two shifts were respiratory patients,” she said on April 2.  “This makes it more challenging to get work done quickly as we have to go through the tedious process of gowning up and then removing everything before seeing our other patients.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges on many fronts, cancelled events, changed how students learn but one truth remains constant; God is in control and will see everyone through the difficult times.