A few weeks ago, I participated in a virtual meeting where the presenter was asked to speak about leading in a crisis. He began by stating, “I have had the opportunity to be heavily involved in guiding communities through three previous pandemics. That experience coupled with the degrees I have in pandemic response and recovery gave me exactly the skills I needed to guide Riverside County through the challenges of COVID-19…. Absolutely NOT! No one in leadership, certainly not me, has lived through a pandemic. You, just like me, are doing the best you can with the information you have at the moment.”

And he is absolutely correct. Several times over the past few months, I have been asked, “Did you expect to be guiding La Sierra University through a pandemic when you became president?”  But like everyone else, I had no idea how my first year as La Sierra University’s president would unfold.  

To say there have been challenges would be an understatement. We have moved from restricting international travel on February 27, to encouraging faculty to wrap up their Winter quarter courses a few days earlier than usual, to moving almost all of our operations off campus and into the online environment literally over the space of the March 14th> weekend. And here we are, at the end of June, 15 weeks later, still working from our homes.  

Approximately 30 students (25 international and 5 domestic) remained in our dormitories because they were unable to return to their homes. A skeleton crew of residential life and cafeteria staff as well as our security and facilities staff continued to work on campus in order to support them and maintain our campus facilities, but the rest of us, from staff to faculty to myself, have been working from afar.

I am incredibly grateful for the strength, fortitude, ingenuity, and wisdom of every member of our campus community. What together we have been able to accomplish has been nothing short of remarkable. Almost 2,000 students were able to continue their education throughout Spring quarter thanks to 266 faculty and instructors and 205 staff.  

President Joy Fehr greeting students at the 2020 Drive Through Graduation Celebration

One difficult decision we needed to make early on involved graduation. This celebration of our students’ achievement is a highlight not only for us but more importantly for our senior class and their families. The realization that we could not enjoy our traditional June graduation weekend was painful. In consultation with the Class of 2020, we decided to plan for Commencement on September 13. However, as the end of this academic year approached, we knew we could not let our seniors go without some recognition of their success.

Thus, on Sunday, June 21—the day we would have hosted Commencement on Founders’ Green—we held a drive-through celebration for our graduates. Each senior with their family members came onto campus in one, often creatively decorated, vehicle. I, accompanied by our Interim Provost, Ms. Cindy Parkhurst, met each family at the security kiosk on Yaeger Drive. We handed them a gift bag with a mortarboard and tassel. They then made their way up the drive cheered on by faculty and staff wearing masks, socially distancing, and holding signs of congratulations and encouragement. At the foot of the Glory of God’s Grace fountain, we photographed each graduate/vehicle as a memento of their achievement. 

In the midst of the celebration, I was reminded of what we do and Whom we serve at La Sierra. An SUV pulled up to where I was standing. Through the open driver-side window, I asked who the graduate was. The driver pointed to the passenger in the front seat. “She is,” he responded. She told me she was graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work and that she was thrilled to have her spouse and children with her in the vehicle to celebrate her achievement. I was reminded of the many mothers who studied with me when I, a mature student, earned my undergraduate degree. I know how much work I put into my studies and told this graduate how proud I was of her, that her success was all the more remarkable because she had achieved with all of her additional responsibilities.

2020 Drive Through Graduation Celebration

As the family joined the parade of vehicles up Yeager Drive, I noticed the message our graduate, Jamie, had written on the back window of her SUV: “My Story is filled with Broken Pieces, Terrible Choices, and Ugly Truths. It is also filled with a Major Comeback, Peace in my Soul and a Grace that Saved My Life! La Sierra University 2020. BSW 2020. Be the Change!”

Tears welled up in my eyes—they are welling up in my eyes days later as I write this. This is what we do at La Sierra. In the midst of the challenges of COVID-19, we are doing more than the best we can do. We daily enter God’s story, and, in so doing, we are privileged to become conduits of the grace that dramatically changes others’ lives, others’ stories, others’ families, and others’ worlds.  

We are truly blessed beyond measure to be a part of God’s story in this place at this time.


—Joy A. Fehr