Seminary’s Remote Learning Offers ‘Semblance of Normalcy’

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Classes are continuing at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, Dunwoodie, thanks to Zoom and enthusiastic instructors and students.

Instructors have taught all seminary classes remotely through Zoom to the 248 students, including 59 seminarians, since March 16, when the seminary was closed due to the coronavirus crisis. 

“It has really worked,” said Father Kevin O’Reilly, academic dean at the seminary since 2006. “The picture and sound are clear. Students say it’s a very fulfilling experience.

“We miss (the students) terribly,” Father O’Reilly told CNY. “They’re enthusiastic and lively. They’re the future to bring the Gospel to people. You can see the Spirit working in them.”

Zoom, an online video conferencing platform whose popularity has exploded in the past month, was installed at the seminary last year and has been an option for students who could not attend a class in person or were participating from campuses in Douglaston, Queens, Huntington, Long Island, and Somers in Westchester County.

Instructors send students an invitation to participate in the class. When students accept the invitation, they’ll join classmates watching their teacher instruct the class from an empty classroom, office or the teacher’s home.

Teachers will see all of their participating students simultaneously in small squares either on a television screen in a seminary classroom or on their computer screen. If a student unmutes their device to ask a question or make a comment, the student’s photo will become bigger and come to the forefront on screen.

Father O’Reilly said the classes have been helpful “spiritually and emotionally” for students and instructors during a difficult time.

“It gives hope, a semblance of normalcy and a sense of balance,” Father O’Reilly said. “It’s good for us to have that constant. We’re fulfilling a need.”

Father O’Reilly added that the college would continue to use Zoom during its summer session, which will offer five classes for six weeks, beginning June 1. The seminary offers a seminarian program for priest candidates, diaconate program for deacon candidates and a master’s program for religious and lay persons.

Jennifer Gentile, 43, is a student in Father O’Reilly’s class on the Trinity, which is offered Wednesday nights in Dunwoodie and linked through Zoom to students in Huntington and Somers. She is a wife and mother of two sons, who teaches theology at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle and will graduate this spring with a master’s degree in theology.

Mrs. Gentile, who has used Zoom to participate in a Trinity class she could not attend in person, said it was a “seamless transition” to online learning.

“It’s clearly a blessing, especially since it’s my last class,” she said. “What’s really exciting is exploring what this opportunity offers. It makes the whole program accessible.”

Mrs. Gentile is writing her thesis without being able to access the seminary’s library in person.

“They have a phenomenal library and library staff,” she said. “There are a lot of resources online, and the librarians are helping us access library material.” 

Savio Paul and Anthony Barranco Jr. are seminarians from Yonkers who are now back home with their families. Paul said he heads downstairs to an area to attend class and continue his formation work as a seminarian. 

“It definitely took time to get used to being online and not physically with the class,” said Paul, 26, a third-year seminarian at Dunwoodie.

“Technically speaking, we’re getting the material we need. The whole experience of distance learning is so different.”

Barranco works in his bedroom at his family home. “It was fortunate at the seminary we started transitioning toward the possibility of doing Zoom,” said Barranco, 23, a second-year seminarian. “It hasn’t been difficult. We’re picking up where we left off at the seminary. The workload is pretty much the same.” 

Both look forward to returning to the seminary as soon as it is safe to do so.

“I knew I’d miss it,” Paul said. “I didn’t realize how much I would miss it...The familiar faces that are part of your life are no longer there. I miss that environment of prayer with men who are just like you.”

Barranco added, “I’ve been in the seminary for five years and I miss the guys and faculty a lot. It’s a bit rough, but we’re still in the grace of God.”

Information: dunwoodie.edu

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