Illustration by Sharon Doucet (BA '78)

Woolsthorpe Manner

Springtime on Earth is always a special time in the universe. It was in the springtime of 1916 when Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity, a set of ideas that updated understandings of gravity and the cosmos established 250 years earlier by Isaac Newton. One of the first things Einstein taught the world was that, because the light we use to observe things flows at constant speed, both the time and distance of our observations change relative to one another. The idea that distance is relative is particularly meaningful for higher education in the springtime of 2020, as universities around the country like Nicholls work carefully and diligently during the current pandemic to deliver the best avenues of distance learning to their students.

Nicholls is no newcomer to distance education. In 1948, when Einstein was still dreaming of a grand theory to unify all the laws of physics, folks of the bayou region were no longer dreaming of going to college. The doors of Nicholls first opened in September of that year. Those doors, however, were not doors to a dormitory where students would reside during semesters of study. In fact, the campus would not see a dormitory for another 16 years. Nicholls would be a commuter campus, with classwork in Thibodaux and assignments and study undertaken at home from a distance.

The conundrum of getting students to campus from distant bayou villages along craggy, swampy highways was solved in advance by innovative local leadership. For the first time in the history of higher education in Louisiana, parishes would provide free transportation to college students to and from their homes. Beginning in 1948 in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes and continuing for almost four decades, school buses would carry hundreds of students to and from Nicholls every weekday — a model soon adopted by neighboring parishes and by other colleges around the state. Nicholls students would learn from professors on campus by day and then by evening continue learning at a distance from home. In between those times, the school bus served as a mobile student union, where commuting students could reinforce skills in English and math as well as card playing during rides that sometimes lasted two hours or more each way.


The concept of busing students to classes wasn’t the only innovation in distance education that Nicholls would offer. To accommodate the needs of offshore oil field workers in its oil-rich service region, Nicholls began its now well-known “7-and-7” program in the summer of 1973 — the first of its kind in the state and likely the entire country. With this program, students employed by seven-day shiftwork could now take double-length classes in alternative onshore weeks and complete schoolwork and study both at home and the rig during off-duty hours. This innovative program was supported not only by the oil industry but also by faculty across disciplines who specially accommodated these students in addition to teaching classes during the normal weekly schedule. Nearly 150 students enrolled for the 7-and-7 program in its first year.

Further, seven decades of tropical disturbances prepared Nicholls to deliver college education from a distance. In late August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina interrupted the lives and Fall semesters for tens of thousands of university students in Louisiana, Nicholls was well-versed in accommodating students from devastated communities, meeting needs both locally and distantly from the New Orleans area. Offices for enrollment, transfers, housing and faculty all extended operations to help displaced students continue learning and remediate lost course time.

In an historical parallel to today’s situation at Nicholls and around the country, Einstein’s predecessor in the arena of gravitation theory, Isaac Newton, was forced to leave Trinity College in London in 1665 to avoid contracting the plague, which had become epidemic. Sequestered at his farmstead home, Woolsthorpe Manor, surrounded by sheep and apple orchards, Newton took advantage of distance and spent time deeply studying and thinking through the undergraduate lessons of his professors. By the time he returned to campus, he had invented a new form of mathematics, which today we call calculus. By embracing the new opportunities that distance learning affords during these times, imagine what Nicholls students can invent from their professor’s lessons in a place where falling tree fruit — like satsumas or mespilus — is softer and less concussive! – Dr. John Doucet


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Woolsthorpe Manner

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