The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way teachers teach and students learn. Online classes have become the normal means of educating. But this distance learning has its advantages, said Fr. Vasilly Fisher, acting dean of St. Herman’s Theological Seminary
“No matter where the student might be — at home, 100 to 500 miles away — they can still attend class as long as they are able to take care of their other responsibilities at home,” said Fisher.
Through Zoom meetings, the seminary is able to offer education throughout the Alaska Diocese, Lower 48 and other parts of the world, even to those who are not enrolled as students.
This way of education also makes it possible for seminarians to attend online classes taught by professors from other seminaries.
“Even though students can receive seminary training in the comfort of their own homes, they face challenges living in communities where the cost of living is high, (where they) try to feed their families, (and) live a subsistence lifestyle, whereas if they were here (in Kodiak), scholarships would cover their rent” as well as utilities, food and other necessities, said Fisher.
Beginning this semester, which starts on Jan. 14, the seminary will run according to a hybrid system in which classes will be offered online or in person.
Fisher, his wife Matushka Olga and their children came to Kodiak during the second week of September from their home in the Kuskokwim village of Napaskiak, where Fisher is priest for the St. Jacob Orthodox Church parish. The village is a few miles from Fisher’s native village of Kwethluk.
During their first days in Kodiak, the family battled the feeling of isolation. The kids missed home, where they had the freedom to be with their friends.
Since starting school, the children have had fewer battles with homesickness even though the classes are taken online, said Fisher.
Fisher is a 2007 graduate of St. Herman’s.
“When I was here, it was the most wonderful experience of community, of spiritual growth, having that togetherness,” he said.
Fisher said the vision of the seminary is to experience the “fullest meaning of being the Body of Christ. We should always see Christ before us … presenting Christ … the Servant of all, the Merciful One, the Forgiving One, the Loving One. We bring that (vision about) through fulfilling the one purpose our Lord Jesus Christ was here for: to do the Father’s will.”
Fisher said that in taking the position as acting dean, he gets to “prepare future clergy, choir directors, readers, sub deacons” for what he experienced as a priest.
Noting that the students must gain experience to prepare them for service in the church, Fisher said he’d like to see them pair up with parish priests who could teach them about parish life. One way of accomplishing that goal is to send out students to the different areas of the diocese so they can have parish experiences.
“The seminary is the central place where we can prepare clergy in the diocese and prepare youth for outreach. The seminarians can be working firsthand building up youth programs,” said Fisher, noting that Napaskiak has an active youth group that came here for the pilgrimage to St. Herman two years ago.
Thirty of the youths attended the All American Council in St. Louis, Missouri.
As acting dean, Fisher has the authority to oversee the school’s curriculum, manage the faculty and raise money for the seminary, as well as to communicate with students and applicants to the seminary.
He said his job is to make sure that teachers are “managing … so that the students can get the fullest experience they can with the limited capabilities that they have.”
Fisher said that his role as a parish priest has helped him in his position as dean.
“I have had lots of wonderful, good experiences getting hands-on work,” he said, alluding to the bishop’s liturgical prayer in which he asks God to “look at the vineyard which Thy right hand has established.”
Fisher said that this prayer allows him, as a priest, to see how he can help inspire those in the parish to participate in the growth of that vineyard, “reaching out with the youth, reaching out with the choir, reaching out with elders in every aspect of what that community is.”
Fisher also said the priest’s experience includes “very difficult times,” which is “like putting metal to the fire. It forms, makes priests stronger and establishes faith in those who will serve in the church.”
He said that it’s difficult for him to be separated from his flock.
“I especially miss being the father of the parish,” he said.