The dynamic duo: father-and-son academicians share best practices in distance education

Jim and Jason DeMello smiling at cameraDr. Jim DeMello and Dr. Jason D'Mello, B.B.A.'06

During the uncertainty of the pandemic, the comfort of relationships—friends, colleagues and family—can be one of the constants that allows us to embrace the opportunities in the uncertainty, gives us the support we need and lifts us over the hurdles we face.

For Dr. Jim DeMello, chair of the Department of Finance and Commercial Law, and Haworth College of Business alumnus Dr. Jason D’Mello, B.B.A.’06, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Loyola Marymount University, their relationship as father-and-son academics has given them the chance to serve as each other’s sounding boards as they try out new approaches at a time when higher education is facing critical challenges.

Though business curricula often focus on the skills needed to navigate change, the pandemic has introduced a new idea of what change can look like for many students and faculty.

“There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the future of our three majors, course coverage, course schedules, impacts to staff, voluntary retirements, student retention and student learning efficacy,” says Jim. “This pandemic has disrupted the traditional higher education model, and our ability to adapt in the face of the unknown will be more important than ever.”

“I see COVID-19 as an opportunity to practice what we teach,” says Jason. “In entrepreneurship education, we emphasize a growth mindset and often use constraints as ammunition in our design challenges for innovation. I tried to think about our new format for delivering courses with an entrepreneurial mindset. First, I had to empathize with students’ situations. Many had to move out of their homes on campus with just a few hours to collect possessions, and several had to find emergency flights home to their families throughout the world. This was a traumatic experience for many, so I made space when we resumed classes to simply listen to their challenges.” 

Jason brought in a friend who teaches police and firefighters how to manage their breathing during moments of crisis to teach his students some exercises to deal with anxiety. His next speaker was an entrepreneur from China in his third month of quarantine who shared his experience and advice for coping with isolation and challenges. These experiences set a positive tone for students. Jason hosted 20 different entrepreneurs from outside of the LA area, where his campus is located, and students were able to hear stories of resilience in real-time.

Back in Michigan, Jim was thinking about how to work with faculty teaching a very different discipline, which is highly technical, with many professors who had not taught online in the past. 

“With almost 60% of our departmental faculty at or nearing retirement age, many of our professors learn new technology and then learn how to teach with it with much more notice than we had. I was concerned about how we as a group would adapt to offering distance education so quickly. But judging from student feedback and anecdotal evidence, I am proud to say that my colleagues rose to the challenge and delivered the content very effectively! In fact, when I surveyed my faculty to see which course delivery option they would be willing to adopt for the coming fall semester, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that almost all of them offered to do their courses either in a hybrid format or online as either synchronous or asynchronous courses.” 

In addition to working with instructional methods in the virtual classroom at the university level, both Jim and Jason teach financial literacy programs to youth in middle and high school age groups. These programs are being offered online this year, and father and son often share ideas for how to structure the interactive portions of their finance camps.

Jason appreciates being able to touch base with his parents on all things, including his career.

“My parents have always been in my corner to support my work whether it’s advice (solicited and unsolicited), or proofreading my manuscripts and giving honest feedback. My father has helped me in maximizing my success as an academic, drawing on his more than 30 years in the field. He’s the most patient person I know. We often talk about our work and have both been involved in our colleges’ adjustment to COVID-19. In some ways it feels like we are a family business. I have a lot to learn, but I also appreciate that my father is humble enough to ask me for advice and listen to my thoughts on topics related to his work. I certainly don’t have as much to teach him as he has taught me, but it is rewarding to be able to positively impact the work he does. I was really proud to be able to listen to his speech at the grand opening of the Sanford Center for Financial Planning and Wellness in person last year when I was visiting home during my sabbatical.”

Jason in graduation regalia with Jim standing nearbyJim always nurtured hope that his son would pursue a career as an academic. “I still remember vividly the day, about 10 years ago, when Jason told me that he wanted to get into a Ph.D. program in entrepreneurship. I could have turned cartwheels. This was a kid who I had never thought would be interested in academia, although I had suggested it to him and secretly wished that he would pursue it, because of his skills and aptitude. Jason is a great storyteller and has a way with words, and I always knew that he would be great in the classroom.” Jim notes that one of the most meaningful moments of his life was when he was able to hood Jason for his Ph.D. at commencement.

As Jason notes, this is a time for faculty to lean into the crisis, be optimistic and push to be the very best teachers they can be in the online space. Jim notes how rewarding it has been for him to be able to brainstorm ideas with Jason throughout the pandemic. With this father-and-son team providing leadership at their respective institutions, students are getting a richer experience at both Western Michigan University and Loyola Marymount University.