VCU instructor Jessica Lonnes is teaching her classes from a car parked outside a rural N.C. library

When her mother unexpectedly died, Lonnes found herself attending to the estate and living in a home without broadband. She's been teaching her four classes by tapping into a local library’s Wi-Fi.
jessica lonnes sitting in her car with her laptop open

Over spring break, Virginia Commonwealth University faculty member Jessica Lonnes traveled to rural Tryon, North Carolina, to be with her 83-year-old mother who wasn’t feeling well. Her mom had been in good health and was active, but was soon hospitalized and passed away unexpectedly a week later.

As Lonnes was dealing with her personal tragedy, the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to unfold and forced VCU to shift to online classes.

Lonnes, an advising coordinator and foreign language coordinator who teaches German for the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences, knew it would be difficult for any faculty member to quickly shift to online teaching. But she had the added challenge of needing to stay in North Carolina to attend to her mother’s affairs and lacked adequate internet service for videoconferencing with students.

However, Lonnes, who is teaching four courses, was undeterred. For the past few weeks, she has been teaching out of her car parked outside the local library, tapping into the free Wi-Fi.

“I am dedicated to the well-being of students, and try to be as supportive as possible,” Lonnes said. “As a faculty member, my responsibility is to inspire students, encourage them to continue through the ups and downs of every semester and what life throws at them, and to delight in the progress each makes. Learning a language is easy in your head, but reacting during discussion or working in small groups or pairs is an entirely different experience. I wanted to make sure that each student could still participate in discussion and interaction, despite being socially distanced and virtual.

“When I realized that the internet at my childhood home was less than sufficient for Zoom meetings, I sought the next best place to continue to teach. It just happened to be from the parking lot of the Polk County library.”

Lonnes' german 307 course on Zoom
Lonnes' GRMN 307 course on Zoom. Top: Holly Jung, Lonnes, Victoria Hart; middle: Danielle Cooper, Austin Pfaff, Courtney Latourrette; and bottom: Anita Schoen, Ana Bearley, and Daniel Nordvig. (Courtesy photo)

Lonnes teaches 15 VCU students in GRMN 307 German Conversation through Film; six students in a new course, GRMN 491, titled Mehrsprachige Freiheit (Multilingual Freedom); and also faculty and staff in two one-credit German conversation courses offered through VCU’s Office of Continuing and Professional Education.

The biggest challenge of teaching from her car, Lonnes said, has been sitting still, and not having a whiteboard behind her to fill with spontaneous vocabulary and information that arises during discussions.

“In the classroom, I never sit down, and always have a slew of markers lining the board for easy access,” she said. “Wow! Having to stay in one place, and then only using ‘screen share’ feels much more confining and mechanical.”

Lonnes’ dedication to her students’ success and to teaching — despite her personal loss — is an inspiration in trying times, said Mark Wood, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the School of World Studies.

“One way or another, [Lonnes] finds a way to connect with her students and to do all she can to support them as they continue their studies during this challenging time. What makes her dedication all the more impressive is that she’s in Tryon because her mother passed away just a few weeks ago. Yet despite trying personal circumstances and everything involved with shifting to online teaching, Jessica is committed to her students learning all they can and being ready to move to the next level of German in the fall,” Wood said. “Talk about innovative pedagogy and a commitment to success, what Jessica is doing is most certainly this.”

For Lonnes, making the best of any situation is something she learned from her mom and dad.

“This pandemic, and all of its effects on our daily lives, has made us stop, reconsider, revamp and deal as best we can,” she said. “I’m focused on encouraging students to not give up, being as resourceful as possible and finishing out the semester as collaboratively as social distancing and online learning allows. I have to admit, though, that I can’t wait to get back into a real classroom!”

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