Photo provided by Fiona Hill
As college degrees of all levels are becoming more available online at universities and colleges nationwide, Franciscan University of Steubenville has been expanding both its undergraduate and graduate programs and building an online student life presence.
Franciscan offers online master’s degrees in catechetics and evangelization, business administration, Catholic leadership, theology and Christian ministry, education and Catholic studies. But it also offers online undergraduate degrees in psychology, philosophy, theology, catechetics and management.
Lindsey Schrock, director of online student life, said the university is seeing growth within its online program as more students straight out of high school opt for an online education. This semester, the university has 886 online students.
Many students choose online learning because circumstances in their lives, such as financial or health difficulties, prevent them from actually going to Franciscan’s campus, Schrock said.
Fiona Hill, an online student from Orange, Virginia, is financially unable to attend Franciscan in person since she is working full time to support her son. But she still wants to be able to have some part of the Franciscan experience as she pursues a degree in psychology.
“My favorite thing about being able to study online with Franciscan University is the flexibility,” Hill said. “Being able to get my bachelor’s degree online is extremely helpful for me because I am able to work full-time and avoid a large loan.”
After an experience with a coworker going through trauma, Hill decided to study psychology so she can help people going through difficult moments in their lives.
“It was really just providential that Franciscan offers psychology online,” she said. “I plan on finishing the whole degree online, as it will provide me with the accessibility to be able to continue working and growing my resume to help me in pursuing a career in counseling or law.”
Schrock said the university wants students who are unable to physically experience Franciscan life to still have the opportunity to be a part of the university family virtually. This is why Franciscan has worked in the last year to build up its student life online, something that is not common with other educational institutions.
“To have an intentional office that is strictly dedicated to online student life, online student faith formation, is not something that we’re seeing in other universities, Catholic or non-Catholic, at this point,” Schrock said.
What makes the Franciscan online program unique is its faith aspect.
“There’s a lot of online degrees you can get but very few are going to give you that authentic Catholic witness, teaching that is true to the magisterium, teaching that truly upholds the Catholic faith in a way that is very integrated into the courses,” Schrock said.
Franciscan Life online strives for community formation and faith formation through virtual events that include small group meetings, weekly rosary, Bible studies and livestreamed lectures. They have recently launched “Friarside chats” with friars getting on Zoom calls to discuss various theological topics. Plans are underway to launch an online version of Pints with Professors.
“We’re … really intentional about making our students feel seen and loved from afar,” Schrock said.
Every online student is called on their birthday by the online student minister and about 20 members of faculty and staff form a prayer group to pray for 10 students weekly. Additionally, every new student receives a welcome packet in the mail with a decal, prayer cards and their own personalized Franciscan ID card.
Schrock said, “We try to show them in these little ways that we really love them, that they matter to us, that they’re part of the family and that they’re really connected to the university.”
Small efforts at personal interaction are often what make a student feel the most valued.
Hill said having Zoom meetings with her professors helps her to build relationships with them that could not exist via email. She also appreciates when professors personalize their class videos and take the time to send small announcements, even if it’s simply a “Good morning.”
“Little things like that can help make us students feel connected,” she said. “For the most part they do make it easy to contact them and they respond pretty quickly. Some of my professors have been very active in discussion posts and that can help build a relationship with them as well.”
Participation in online student life started out small but has been attracting interest in the past two semesters. Schrock said while the first small group in the fall had only 15 participants, sign ups for the first small group this semester reached around 40.
Schrock said her favorite part about her role in the program is meeting the students. The online students are incredibly diverse, ranging in age from 16-83 and coming from 19 different countries.
“A common thing we hear in our small groups is they have a closer relationship in their small group than they have with people in their own networks at home,” she said.
Schrock said she knows some students who met their best friends though the online student life small groups, and said one woman invited her entire small group to her wedding.
“You could just study online at Franciscan and get your degree and leave … and have a wonderful educational experience,” Schreck said. “But you really get out of this what you put in. And so you can either come for an education or you can come for an experience.”
Schrock said she encourages all online students who really want a life-changing education to participate in the online student life program.
“We’re offering something that other universities aren’t,” she said. “We’re giving them an opportunity to really engage in that encounter and to reach beyond the screen and keep it from a one-way education to really entering into the experience and making it into a two-way kind of dialogue with the university.”