Ally Bacon was looking forward to spending her summer in Brooklyn as an intern for the merchandise company twelveNYC. She is among the more than 80 percent of Indiana University Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design apparel merchandising students who participate in at least one internship while pursuing their degrees.
But the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in most summer internships being canceled, leaving students scrambling to come up with alternate summer plans. Bacon was especially worried because she'll graduate in 2021. She knew that the way she spent her final summer as a student could have a big impact on her career prospects.
"I wanted to really focus on retail and keep generating ideas, as well," Bacon said. "I know that for sure recruiters in the fall will be asking, 'What did you do during this time period that pertains to fashion or the retail industry.'"
So she enrolled in a new class that was offered by Dana Olsen and Janis Shaffer, co-directors of the Center for Innovative Merchandising, after they heard from several students in similar situations. The Retail Virtual Externship meets four days a week via Zoom, and most days features a guest speaker who is working in the industry. Students have heard from the former CEO of Finish Line and a senior account executive at Marc Jacobs. Many of the guests are IU alumni.
"When COVID happened and internships were canceled and students were obviously not going to go to New York or L.A. for the summer, we were hoping that this class would still get them ahead come fall," Olsen said. "They're getting this kind of live experience from all of these different successful alums."
Olsen said their goal is to give students an experience similar to one they would have in an internship -- helping them connect what they've learned in the classroom to the real world. They're also tasked with doing weekly reflections, and taking on projects that include analyzing selling reports and conducting case studies.
One recent project required students to develop three initiatives to help drive traffic into stores. The Monday after the project was due, several news outlets ran stories on how retailers were addressing that very challenge in the wake of the pandemic.
"When they're in an internship, they have to learn how to better their business," Shaffer said. "They're doing that now with these projects."
The virtual externship is one of many ways faculty and staff in the Eskenazi School have used their creativity to pivot to virtual instruction. Many of the typical course offerings involve hands-on instruction and studio time, which aren't easily replicated via Zoom.
Jennifer Riley is an associate professor of architecture and taught a foundations course in the spring that met for five hours twice a week. Students would typically spend a lot of time at their easels, drawing what they observe. That became much harder when the class started meeting virtually.
Riley walked students through setting up makeshift studio spaces where they could work, and also started meeting individually with them to make giving feedback easier. She gave out her phone number so students could get her input in real time, as they were working on a project.
"The big challenge was with technical things, when they were exploring new things technically," Riley said. "I could demonstrate; they could see me do it. But it wasn't the same as them watching me, me watching them."
The focus hasn't just been on instruction. Faculty have been mindful of what students are experiencing mentally and emotionally during this time. It led Bryan Orthel, interior design area coordinator and associate professor, to set up a weekly Zoom call where students and faculty from the program could enjoy dinner together. There was no agenda for the conversation, just a chance for everyone to catch up and see familiar faces. One week all the participants introduced each other to their pets. Orthel said the dinners gave students a chance to connect as people.
"For me it goes back to the root of what I think we do as both educators, but also as designers," Orthel said. "As a designer, I'm not designing for me, I'm designing for other people. So I'm looking to support people in ways that they don't always know that they need supported, but that they can recognize and take value away from."
Faculty said their experience in the spring is helping prepare them for the combination of online and in-person instruction planned for the fall. Bacon said many students appreciate all that faculty and staff are doing to support students during this time.
"My teachers are a huge part in why I took the virtual externship class over the summer," Bacon said. "In my three years being at IU, they are super motivated and determined to help students become successful."