How Alumni Mentorship Is Part of RISD’s Plan to Adapt to Distance Learning

RISD Museum of Art Chace Center entrance on South Main Street.
(image via Wikipedi

While art schools across the world are continuing to adapt to the global pandemic that has forced students and instructors to retreat into their homes while moving classes online, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has launched the RISD Network in order to connect alumni to each other as well as current students at the Providence, RI-based school.

Over 1,500 alumni and 600 students have already registered on the digital platform. The hope for the network, RISD says, is to offer alumni and students opportunities to connect and learn from each other and bolster career and professional development. The digital resource will assist in matching alumni interested in being mentors with students and fellow alumni seeking career guidance. While the digital platform was not devised in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, its roll out during the pandemic might just prove why it is necessary, as the RISD community navigates digital learning and communication.

Sara Park, an undergrad senior majoring in graphic design, also launched an unofficial fundraiser that collected over $130,000 for low-income and immigrant students. RISD alumni, including Kara Walker and Jenny Holzer, were among its contributors.

Back in January, RISD shuttered its Italy-based program before most other institutions woke up to the reality of the global pandemic, but the school didn’t close its main campus until March 13 when, according to RISD President Rosanne Somerson, there were approximately 12 cases in the state and the state offered clear information about the virus and its impact locally.

Since closing the campus on March 13, just over 5% of the student body of 2,500 is still on campus, while 60 to 80 employees (out of a staff of 684) are working on campus at any given time. “Anyone who is supporting students on campus is essential. And we have students that couldn’t go home for various reasons, either personal reasons or travel reasons. So we still have about 160 students living on campus. So the staff that support them and feed them are considered essential,” Somerson told Hyperallergic. All are practicing social distancing, according to the college president.

“We also allowed some of the students who were from countries that we were getting wind of additional travel bans, like our students from India,” Somerson explained. “We actually gave them permission to leave earlier without any class penalty because India was threatening to close, and they did. So the students from India, we worked with even ahead of that to get them safely home.”

“Meanwhile, the school created extension software to allow students to use programs that typically only operate on RISD servers,” Somerson explained. “One of our animation faculty made a cardboard box pop up animation stand so that students could do animation filming where they were. And we sent students who needed them, home with cameras. We loaned out a lot of equipment for students to use. We also sent students, in areas where they could prefer to purchase materials, e-cards that had balances on them, so that they could use them to buy materials with certain vendors.”

RISD also loaned laptops to 31 students who didn’t have them, and they’ve been consulting with other art schools to coordinate their responses. They’ve also held a public town hall to field questions from students and others and sent out regular “COVID-19 Update” emails to the RISD community. While the school isn’t going to refund tuition, they did refund prorated housing and dining, which President Somerson says, “was an impact on our budget of more than $5 million.” The school also hired an outside company to sanitize the academic facilities so that faculty can continue to use them, with the proper social distancing, if required.

The RISD Museum has also adapted to this peculiar circumstance while the institution is closed to in-person visitors. To support K-12 schools during distance learning, the museum is offering activities, prompts, and guides, while also working with teachers to develop plans for virtual classroom connections, including hosting virtual visits to the museum over Zoom, the popular video chat platform. One Boston art historian, who Hyperallergic reached out to, explained that the RISD Museum has also been helping those working at home with virtual access to material through video channels that would be otherwise impossible to see under the current conditions.