The Atlantic Union Conference Office of Education looks forward to hosting the annual Academy Connect—a time for teens to connect with each other and to Christ. Last year, the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing social distancing regulations dismantled their plans and left many students disappointed. Earlier this year, a student from Bermuda Institute commented to Jerrell Gilkeson, Education director, about how much he missed Academy Connect and getting together with other schools. Gilkeson took this heartfelt sentiment back to his team and planted a seed. On Friday, April 16, the Office of Education hosted the first virtual Academy Connect.
“At its peak, 321 devices were connected [to Zoom], and by the end, more than 200 devices were still participating,” said Marlene Alvarez, Education associate director. “We were so happy that so many students engaged [with us] and stayed engaged.” Through an invitation from Alvarez, students from Maranatha Academy located in Turks and Caicos also participated in the event. While not being able to engage with each other in person, Alvarez pointed out far more pros than cons from having the event online. More people were able to participate on a virtual platform, including many junior academy students, school principals, and teachers who usually would not be able to attend due to scheduling conflicts.
Typically a weekend event, this year’s Academy Connect provided a jam-packed morning on Zoom filled with music, games, prizes, as well as a chance to connect with each other throughout the day. Each of the seven academies within the Atlantic Union—Bermuda Institute, Greater New York Academy, Northeastern Academy, Pine Tree Academy, South Brooklyn Academy, South Lancaster Academy, and Union Springs Academy—provided a video presentation as part of the day’s program. Student representatives from each academy also submitted a five-minute “Spoken Word” based on Jeremiah 29:11. Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, an Adventist licensed counselor, also led out in an interactive presentation on “Ten Ways to Survive a Pandemic: Digital Bullying, Internet Addiction, and Anxiety.”
Students attended a virtual college fair with representatives from Andrews University, Kettering College of Medical Science, Oakwood University, and Southern Adventist University. At the close of Academy Connect, students could visit breakout rooms hosted by school representatives to ask questions, receive information, scholarships, and school memorabilia.
No Academy Connect would be complete without the mass choir performing during the grand finale. This year, David Hunte, Atlantic Union Conference IT director and professional musician, coordinated the details for the students to participate in a virtual mass choir. Students recorded themselves singing “Trust in You,” and Hunte edited the submissions and prepared a video that was shown to close out the day’s events.
“When Dr. Gilkeson came back to us with what the student had said to him, we were determined, by God’s grace, to not let another year pass without an Academy Connect—even if it had to be virtual,” Alvarez said. At the conclusion of this year’s virtual event, participant reviews and messages left for the Office of Education team included: “Wow! [The virtual] Academy Connect was wonderful! Hats off to your team!” and “Our students had a great time.” It seems that the Office of Education accomplished its mission.