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Ever Figueroa: 'My students have been wonderful'

Ever FigueroaDr. Ever Figueroa talks about how the pandemic has affected his experience as a new faculty member at KU. Figueroa joined the J-School’s faculty in the fall 2020 semester after receiving his Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. His main concern in regard to the pandemic is how it affects his Hispanic community back home in Texas. He said his parents’ jobs do not allow them the privilege of staying home and isolating, so the privilege of working from home is not something he takes for granted. Because his class was intended to be hands-on, which is difficult to do virtually, his workload has increased tremendously. 

Figueroa also said teaching entirely online has made it difficult to get to know campus, explore Lawrence, and establish relationships with students and other faculty. Not being able to meet with students face-to-face has been a challenge for Figueroa. Nonetheless, he said he is proud of his students’ work this semester and remains optimistic that KU will come out of the pandemic stronger than before.

► Listen to the audio version here.

Maddie Hall: This is Maddie Hall. Today is Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020. I'm interviewing Dr. Ever Josue Figueroa for the William Allen White School of Journalism pandemic oral history project. Welcome.

Ever Figueroa: Thank you. I'm happy to be here. I'm Dr. Figueroa. I am a new faculty member here at KU and I hail from the great state of Texas, and I got my doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin.

Maddie Hall: Cool. So going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic first hit?

Ever Figueroa: Back in March, I was following closely how it was spreading in China and the possibility of it coming here to the United States. Given the current political situation, I was not surprised that not only did the virus arrive here, but it started to spread. And I was a little bit concerned, but I was mostly concerned for my Hispanic community back in Texas. And the reason is because we are blue-collar workers. We are mostly essential workers. My dad has been a truck driver his whole life. My mom cleans houses and they were always, and still are, at the forefront of my mind when it comes to the pandemic. And the other thing that I did was I just counted my blessings because I am in the privileged situation of being able to work from home and being able to isolate and quarantine in my household. But my general feeling was one of concern. And I think my concerns were unfortunately validated.

Maddie Hall: How has this semester been different? So starting in August, comparing to last spring, meaning the way that the pandemic was treated back then versus the way it's being treated now while it's ongoing and not necessarily better.

Ever Figueroa: Yeah. I think collectively the United States for a moment there was treating it seriously. I think the shift to move online was messy. But I think at least Texas pulled it off fairly well. I think we adapted rather quickly in the fall, I think we're a little bit better, and it's because we had time to prep over the summer. For me personally, too, I do have prior experience teaching online. And so the adjustment wasn't as difficult for me once I got here to KU, but I do acknowledge that for a lot of other professors and colleagues, it has not been easy.

And this class [Media Writing] in particular has been challenging because it's been more -- it's a class that should be hands-on, a workshop style, one-to-one interactions with students in a classroom environment that hasn't mapped on so well into the online environment. So that's been the challenge for me in this fall.

Maddie Hall: What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to a new campus from UT to KU?

Ever Figueroa: I think that I haven't gone through that experience yet. So just a little bit more information about my situation here: So the only course that I'm teaching is online, and so it hasn't been so much adapting to campus as it has been just getting to know Lawrence. And it's something that I'm a little bit sad about because I did want to go through that experience of coming to campus, hanging out in my office, having students drop in and drop out answering questions, making friendships with the faculty here and faculty and other departments. So I don't think that adaption has taken place for me personally, but I'm looking forward to the day when things get better and I can start consistently coming to campus and teaching in person.

Maddie Hall: How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Ever Figueroa: Yeah, so I think for almost everybody, including myself, workload has gone up. I think it's because No. 1, you have to manage anxieties from students. So that means more emails, more questions, and more time that you have to spend, you know, addressing the concerns and the questions that students have about material in the course. The second thing is sometimes it -- because it's online, you have to give a little bit more information upfront than you would have in teaching in person. So for example students have wanted more clarity upfront about when assignments are due, how long they have to do them. And you know, and, and also making sure that you bake in a little bit of time to give them one-on-one feedback. Since the course that I teach is writing, that means that normally they would've come to lab and I would have walked around the room and, and help copy edit their work.

That's not possible. So that now shifts to me scheduling 15-minute intervals with students online so that they can get that one-on-one experience. But that time quickly adds up in a classroom of 20 people times 15 minutes for each one, you're looking at more than four to five hours for something that would have normally been allocated for about an hour or two and a half hours during a normal week. So that's -- those are the ways that your workload starts to kind of overwhelm you a little bit and you have to be vigilant about your time and make sure that you're managing expectations.

Maddie Hall: How has your personal perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you been emotionally coping with that?

Ever Figueroa: Well, personal perceptions. I think that for all the news that we see of people not following the rules, I have been personally humbled by seeing people have followed the rules here in Lawrence. I think that the community here has done an excellent job of wearing masks and practicing social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. That was something that was not happening in Texas. So personally, I feel a little bit safer up here in Lawrence when it comes to virus exposure. And can you repeat the other part of the question?

Maddie Hall: Yes. So how have you been emotionally coping with everything during the pandemic, you know, having to isolate and just overall changing your routine. Is there a way that you emotionally cope with that?

Ever Figueroa: Yeah, emotionally, I try to maintain social virtual gatherings with friends from back home in Texas. I try to talk to my parents more often. And I do live up here with my partner and my dog, which have been great resources for just keeping me company and having that emotional support while isolating in a home. And, and just the other thing that I do is just try to remain optimistic and not, not be cynical and, and trust the community around me. And, and most importantly, trust that my parents back home are going to be OK and that my sister is still there to help assist them with any issues that might come up in their life in terms of the pandemic.

Maddie Hall: I know you said you've taught online previously, but can you describe the level of participation among students this semester with learning in comparison to in-person learning?

Ever Figueroa: Yeah, so I think my labs have gone pretty well. The level of engagement is lower than I would like. But I think students are going above and beyond to ask questions, to want clarification from me and to discuss the topics that I bring up every week. They make a really good effort. The thing that is difficult is when you don't see feedback in terms of being able to see people's faces or their body language, which you would get in a classroom environment. I do not require my students to have their cameras on. I believe that if they're going to be at home it is their personal space and I do not have the right to ask them to let me into that space. It has to be a voluntary consensual thing that they do. So I don't require them to turn on the cameras. On the other -- on the flip side, it's hard to teach sometimes when the only thing staring back at you are black screens.

Maddie Hall: Hmm. What do you wish that students would understand about professors’ experiences this semester or for you specifically as a new faculty member?

Ever Figueroa: I would just hope that they realize that we are going through a lot of the same anxieties that they feel. If they are unclear about something, chances are that we are also unclear about it, too. I try to be empathetic of my students. Deadlines have been extended. If a student says they're sick, I don't ask for a doctor's note. I trust them and I hope that that same level of trust and empathy and patience is given back to faculty, especially new faculty. That being said, my students have been wonderful and they have been patient and very empathetic of the situation. And I think it's because I have been openly expressing that -- those same virtues to them.

Maddie Hall: How do you feel about the KU School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Ever Figueroa: I think it's been good. They were one of the most proactive departments from what I know when I accepted the offer to come here at the end of February. I have been kept in the loop. I was treated as if I was already here and any developments and updates were conveyed to me rather quickly. So I think their response has been wonderful and, and the building, I haven't been to the building much this semester, but it's well-managed, it's clean. I think the signage that they put up is great. Faculty have access to resources to keep themselves safe while in the building. Students are easily able to navigate and social distance on the premises as well. And in terms of flexibility, they have been excellent at making sure that professors that were not completely comfortable teaching in person like myself were accommodated. So I have nothing but great things to say about the department.

Maddie Hall: How do you think the pandemic has changed the Journalism School and KU? Well, I know this is your first year as a faculty member here, so if you want to talk about how it's just changed the way universities function in general. But yeah, how do you think the pandemic has changed the university?

Ever Figueroa: Yeah, I think that the pandemic has kind of opened our eyes to the importance of that in-person college experience when it comes to journalism. One of the things that I feel a little sorry about given the situation is that the students are not going to get that hands-on personal experience that you get reporting. They can't go to city council meetings. They can't go to the courthouse and pull out affidavits. They can't go to events and cover them. And I am saddened that they can't do that. And I think it's unfortunate. On the flip side, it has also made us realize the value of having those experiences and how great that is for a young journalist or a young PR and strat comm student. It's made us realize how important those experiences are for them in terms of their educational environment.

Maddie Hall: How do you think KU will be better from everything that's happened?

Ever Figueroa: I think that at the faculty level, I think that good discussions about mental health, work-life balance and procedural protocols, those discussions are necessary. And I think the pandemic kind of pushes that forward a little bit. But I think from, from the faculty level, we'll come out of here better for it. Students -- I hope that students realize the value of that classroom environment. I jokingly say this, but I really hope that from here on out, a student will think twice about skipping a class. I am not generalizing the student body. I'm sure all of you come to class every day. But I think the pandemic will make a lot of students realize or think twice about maybe sleeping in every now and then I think they will realize the value of the classroom environment.

Maddie Hall: My final question is what advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Ever Figueroa: My advice would be to realize that the best way to handle a pandemic or a highly infectious disease that's spreading through a community is to practice social distancing and to listen to scientists. A hundred years from now, that advice is still going to be the same. The other thing that I would tell somebody 100 years from now is that I isolate here in my home during this pandemic not for me, not to keep myself safe, but to keep others from experiencing any harm from my own personal reckless actions. And so my advice is to just always think about how your actions would affect your neighbor or your parents or a brother or a sister. And, and to be mindful that it's a sacrifice to stay home, but it's for the greater good.

Maddie Hall: This is the conclusion of this oral history.

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