When University of Redlands Professor Renée Van Vechten offered to coordinate the second annual Western regional Pi Sigma Alpha conference, she had no inkling she would have to do so in the midst of a pandemic.
But, with this year’s conference scheduled for March 20, the possibility of an in-person event began to wane as university campuses began to close and students began to attend class online. Instead of canceling or rescheduling the event, Van Vechten and U of R’s Pi Sigma Alpha students decided to host the conference virtually.
“We had to press ahead,” says Van Vechten. “Students worked so hard to prepare for this event and to see their work dissolve under these uncontrollable circumstances would have been too disappointing. We decided to turn the lemons we were given into lemonade.”
Founded in 1920, Pi Sigma Alpha is a political science honors society with over 700 chapters on college campuses nationwide—the University of Redlands chapter has 20 members. Designed to facilitate research and encourage students to engage in discussions about political science, the organization hosts an annual national conference where students present their work, network with members of other chapters, and develop their skills and resumes.
To help make the experience of attending a professional conference more accessible, Pi Sigma Alpha Director Sean Twombly established regional conferences to supplement the national gathering. In 2019, the first Pi Sigma Alpha Western regional conference was held at California State University, San Bernardino.
In the days leading up to the 2020 event, Van Vechten collaborated with U of R Jones Computer Lab Supervisor Iyan Sandri '08, '15, '22 to ensure that students would be able to display and discuss PowerPoint presentations on WebEx, a video conferencing platform.
“For some of the student participants, this was the first time they presented a paper at a conference,” Sandri says. “At this time of stress and upheaval, it’s important to maintain options and opportunities for students. Because this event proceeded virtually, these students are able to add something to their resumes.”
During the event, which spanned just over three hours, five students from five different campuses presented on a variety of topics and three panel discussions were held. Throughout, Erik Dain ’14, the event’s discussant, offered constructive and collaborative feedback to students who submitted research materials.
Edison Forman ’21, who presented on the War on Terror, says that receiving feedback from faculty members, staff, and fellow students was a highlight. “I know a lot of people put a lot of work into [planning and preparing for the event], so it was good to be able to hold it in some form,” he says. “Being able to get feedback on our work was really helpful for those who want to present research at other events in the future.”
Kendall Billings, a student from California Baptist University, originally thought she wouldn’t be able to attend the virtual conference because she was embarking on a 16-hour drive back to her hometown after moving out of her residence hall. But Billings stopped at a Starbucks on her way, logged into the conference, and delivered her presentation about Mexican immigration.
While Van Vechten feels that virtual communication isn’t ideal, hosting the conference online gave participants the chance to learn a new set of skills by adopting online tools.
“This set a good precedent and shows that other conferences can be held this way,” she says. “The ability to be agile and flexible and accommodate unexpected circumstances is a valuable skill. This gives us a chance to exercise that ability and to stretch ourselves. We don’t have to stop our lives—we can meet challenges and overcome them.”
Story by Katie Olson