Their interaction may have taken place across rows of digital squares on Zoom video conferencing, but La Sierra University’s former students from decades past laughed, exchanged memories and updates, congratulated honorees, gained new insights, and even shared dinner.
With the cancellation of the 2020 alumni weekend due to the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown and closure of the campus in Riverside, California, United States, the university’s Virtual Homecoming 2021 held April 16 and 17 was a particularly welcome opportunity for reconnection, even if confined to the digital world.
“We really missed visiting with our alums in 2020 and wanted to find a way that we could get together and catch up, meet family members, and engage with each other,” La Sierra vice president for advancement Norman Yergen said.
“While virtual events can’t entirely replace in-person interactions,” he added, “we were grateful that we had the technology available to us for providing a space where we could visit, see each other, exchange stories, and learn new things together. The virtual homecoming experience was invigorating and fun, and we are glad so many of our alumni were able to join us. We hope to see them all next year on campus for Homecoming 2022.”
In one unique platform called Gather.Town, attendees could take their online interactions one step further, literally: in caricatured avatars of themselves, they could walk around a virtual replica of the campus, complete with digital models of buildings, and meet and converse with each other. They could even “walk” into digitized campus buildings to attend some of the weekend’s presentations. The platform attracted 95 unique visitors during the two-day event.
La Sierra’s alumni office registered 265 individuals for Virtual Homecoming 2021 to attend a variety of online events. Activities kicked off April 16 and included a virtual fellowship dinner cook-along, followed by Rising Star and Honored Alumnus recognitions, all livestreamed from the home of university president Joy Fehr. She and chef Kristofer Malit, a 2008 psychology program graduate and a gifted cook, led viewers through the preparation of a stir-fry dish consisting of noodles, vegetables, tofu, and spices. The recipe was sent to registrants ahead of time and posted online so alums could make the dish in their kitchens while on Zoom and watching the cooking demonstration.
During breaks in the evening’s fellowship dinner event, Fehr presented the names of alumni who received Rising Star and Honored Alumnus recognitions from each of La Sierra’s schools, and the Alumni of the Year award, which was presented to Adventist educator Richard “Dick” Osborn.
The President’s Award was given to educator Norman Powell, who served as a professor and chair in La Sierra’s Department of Administration and Leadership and currently serves as director of the La Sierra Food Pantry program. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to have this sort of association with La Sierra,” Powell said during the Zoom presentation.
Saturday (Sabbath) worship the following day offered viewing options between livestreamed services by the La Sierra University Church and the Mt. Rubidoux Seventh-day Adventist Church in Riverside. Afternoon presentations and lectures were available via Zoom on a wide range of topics, including astronomical research, archaeological projects in Jordan, insights on ancient coins, and recognitions of key archaeology supporters.
That evening, La Sierra’s 50th- and 51st-year anniversary classes gathered on Zoom to celebrate and reminisce, while alumni from prior-year classes assembled in their Zoom group. Individuals were able to move between Zoom groups to engage in conversation. A video compilation of performances by various music groups and soloists from the university’s Department of Music capped the two-day lineup.
“Wow, what a great experience for me,” Jan Green, a former chemistry major and president of the Class of 1961, said. After La Sierra, Green earned a medical degree from Indiana University Medical Center and practiced urology in Indiana and California. “I certainly learned a lot about the advantages of Zoom and ‘Meet and Greet’ at an age when the learning curve starts to flatten out,” he said. “We have shown our resilience in a year of challenges and changes. I do think we are better for it. There are fewer from the Class of ’61, and we do miss those not with us. I personally thank all of my classmates for helping to make La Sierra so special for me.”