In late 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought about something strangely wonderful to many Walla Walla University students: school started two weeks early to account for a combined Thanksgiving and winter break. Because students started classes two weeks before school normally starts, there was enough time in the academic calendar for students to finish their courses and travel home permanently for both winter break and Thanksgiving break. This is opposed to the normal method of taking home leave for Thanksgiving break, returning to campus for two weeks of class and finals, and then again traveling home a second time.
This was initially done to prevent the spread of the virus as students would be unable to bring potential exposure to campus twice, but instead bring it back once. Even though this idea had been expressed before the pandemic, it gave the students a chance to experience a new type of break with previously unseen benefits. It had such a profound impact on the student body that ASWWU passed SR-2, a Senate bill in favor of this new break style.
Last week, I had the chance to interview Chaplin Handal and Dr. Cress about the possibility and viability of a combined winter break. Dr. Pamela Cress is the vice president for academic administration who has substantial power to finalize this calendar change. It is a big discussion, and she is weighing the pros and cons of this proposition, along with many of her colleagues in administration.
Dr. Cress told me that this change had many good opportunities. One of the biggest advantages she mentioned is the possibility for students to sign up for classes during the long break, which could encompass tours or intensive classes.
But the break has had three large cons. WWU hasn’t implemented it in the past because of Christmas traditions within the community, such as the University music program. She also said that students who take summer classes look forward to a two-week break. If school starts two weeks early, it will cut off these students’ summer break.
Another challenge is retention and enrollment. Many students decide not to attend WWU after any vacation, but especially winter break. If they are given more time, it could lead to more students leaving the school. However, she admits this could have the opposite effect. Many students might decide to stay if they are given time to rest over a longer break.
Ultimately, no decisions have been made. At the moment, academic administration is weighing the opportunities and challenges of implementing such a change.
Albert Handal is the WWU chaplain and is a big advocate of a combined winter break. He said that many other Adventist schools have been considering this proposition. Oakwood University has already adopted the break as an official policy. Southwestern Adventist University is also seriously considering the break.
He said, “It’s definitely something that other schools are considering, and we should be leading because those two schools are semester-based schools. We’re a quarter-based school so we actually have more flexibility to move our schedule.”
Travel costs are also a big consideration. Prices for gasoline and airplane tickets have skyrocketed in recent months, which creates a burden on students. Our campus is largely isolated, as compared with other Adventist campuses like Southern Adventist University, Andrews, and Union College. Students on those campuses are able to travel home relatively easily or catch a cheap flight from major airports in the area. Walla Walla University students don’t have that opportunity, which is causing a growing number of students to forgo traveling home for Thanksgiving break and instead opt to celebrate with friends on campus.
Handal said, “I think to move to an option like this would be a very compassionate, deferential consideration for the needs of students. It would reflect an awareness on how times have changed.” He also mentioned it would “provide a greater degree of care to our residential life staff because there [are] hundreds of students that stay in the dorms.”
Handal also agreed with Dr. Cress on the possibility of study tours and mini-sessions, and added that these small sessions could bring extra revenue for the University because students from other colleges might choose to attend these short courses with their free time.
I asked Handal how Christmas programing would be affected with this new schedule. He mentioned that this notion assumes students want to participate in the WWU Christmas programs and are uninterested in participating in Christmas programs in their own communities.
He said, “We’re really talking about one department that really wants to put on Christmas programming, who wants the resources and audience to put on that programming. That’s valid, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a value that outweighs a combined benefit for everyone else if we did something different.”
Ultimately, the students have voiced their support of a combined break through the passage of the ASWWU Senate bill last school year. It is now up to the administration to decide if a combined break will become a permanent part of our campus or will merely be another odd experience during the COVID-19 shutdowns.