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How the School of Education Helped a Student Recover From Disaster

November 07, 2017

Thelca Bedminster and her staff at the Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School.

Thelca Bedminster and her staff at the Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School in the U.S. Virgin Islands received supplies from Drexel's School of Education to help the recovery process.

Thelca Bedminster considers herself a hurricane veteran. Before Irma and Maria stormed into her community in the U.S. Virgin Islands, she had already been through three big ones. But nothing could have prepared her for the late-summer thrashing the island received, or for the task of running an elementary school in the aftermath of a natural disaster while keeping up with her coursework at Drexel University.

As she and her community waded through the physical and emotional wreckage in the weeks following the hurricanes, Bedminster, an online EdD student in the School of Education and the principal at the Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School, learned she wasn’t alone in her efforts. Her Drexel classmates and faculty — the people she now calls her Drexel family — came together to lend their support and their money to help ease the recovery process by donating more than $3,000 to buy supplies and get Bedminster and her school back in action.

As a generator whirred in the background — the generator keeping her school running and her students learning — Bedminster spoke of all she’s received from the Drexel community since the hurricanes.

“The support they gave, I don’t even know how to say how good it made me feel, how good it was to have them,” she said.

During and after the storms, Bedminster, worried about falling behind in her studies or missing a session, did her best to stay in touch with Drexel’s faculty. To alleviate concerns about her safety, she provided daily status updates to Kathy Geller, PhD, associate clinical professor in the School of Education and program director of the EdD in educational leadership and management, and Vera Lee, EdD, associate clinical professor and Bedminster’s supervising professor. Through an incredibly trying time, her professors were a source of comfort, reminding her to think positively and telling her they would modify whatever was needed in her courses to keep her on target to finish her three-year program this year alongside her cohort. A leave of absence wasn’t an option in her mind.

With power interrupted in her own home, Bedminster has used her cellphone to communicate with her classmates by lantern light. She has been receiving photos of readings and assignments on her phone and driving across the island to find an internet connection sufficient to upload her papers.

“She is without power, has minimal internet, and she has found ways to get the discussion boards posted and her papers submitted,” Geller said. “She has been doing all of this while cleaning up both school and personal property, and supporting her school faculty, the children and their families.”

Geller and Lee wanted to do what they could to support their student as she went to such great lengths herself, so at Convocation on Sept. 20 they gathered School of Education faculty and initiated a fundraising process. The GoFundMe they established brought in $3,050 in donations within one week, immediately meeting their goal, which has since been raised to invite further contributions. (It will remain open through the end of 2017, and any funds collected will go toward the Tuitt School and its 143 students between kindergarten and third grade.)

Shipping items to the island has been a challenge, but about a month after the hurricanes, Bedminster received a generator, in addition to a supply of batteries, canned goods, paper products, cleaning supplies and other essentials. She spread the supplies around to her 27-member staff.

“We have students everywhere around the world, and they are a vital part of our Drexel community,” Lee said. “When disaster strikes, we want them to know that we care about them and support them. For online students, it's easy to feel disconnected from the broader Drexel community. Thelca's classmates in the EdD program, faculty and staff have rallied around her during an incredibly difficult time, and we are happy to play a small part in giving her encouragement and comfort that she's not alone.”

Bedminster had tried a different EdD program before enrolling at Drexel. It didn’t work for her. She took a couple of classes but felt no connection. What she found in the School of Education was a revelation.

“Drexel’s online program offers that camaraderie, it offers that family setting, it offers that connectivity that, for me, didn’t exist in my first program,” Bedminster said. “I always questioned whether I could do the online option, because I enjoy the social interactions of my peers. And with Drexel I can honestly say I have not missed a beat. I have been completely impressed every step of the way, and this, for me, has been the icing on the cake.”

More than anything, Bedminster sounded grateful as she described the recovery process. For her fellow teachers and support staff, who returned to school despite the conditions. For her community, which is showing resilience in the face of adversity. And for her Drexel family, the faculty and students who may never have met her in person but pooled their resources nonetheless to help ease her burden.

“They showed their love in so many ways that I will never forget,” Bedminster said. “It really touched me and reminded me of the good that exists in people and that exists when we come together and we’re as connected as we can be."