When Dr. Natalie Grecu strode into her Nonverbal Communication class a couple of years ago, she observed a weird difference with her students. They were all sharply dressed in blazers, a bizarre occurrence for the final day of class. Little did Grecu know, this had been planned in advance.
In an attempt to match Grecu’s signature look, an entire class of students doned shirts with various puns on them and paired it with a nice blazer or suit jacket. She hadn’t noticed until the end of the hour that her students were imitating her.
Grecu looks back on that day fondly. Adding in a pun or corny joke somewhere in the lecture is a classic move for the professor; student responses to her off-the-cuff riffs make her happy.
“I love blazers. I love horrible puns. It brings joy to my heart to get a groan or a head shake in the classroom. I tell my students I have not done my job until I get a daily head shake,” said Grecu.
Zach Dobbs, senior mass communication major, knows this ritual all too well.
“Every day I found myself shaking my head at her jokes and laughing along,” said Dobbs.
Now, those daily headshakes are a thing of the past. In the wake of the campus closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Grecu finds herself sitting behind a computer screen instead of standing next to a projector screen.
While professors and educators all over the country are grappling with the distance-learning formats, Grecu is experiencing something unique. In January, she accepted an assistant professor position at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, effectively making the Spring 2020 semester her last at Missouri Southern.
She thought she’d have more time to emotionally prepare for a move, but eliminating any possibility to see her coworkers and students in person has made quarantine even harder.
“The hardest moments were the first three days,” said Grecu. “I couldn’t do much mentally as I was trying to figure out what was happening. I wasn’t expecting it. Trying to make sense of it is difficult.”
Having to simultaneously change her courses to work online and dealing with the emotions of moving has been tough. She will miss the small interactions between her colleagues in the hallways of Webster Hall on campus.
“That path between Webster and Billingsly is almost like a time machine,” said Grecu. “I get to see students from the past, current students, coworkers and colleagues. Those are those interactions that make a community and that has been the saddest piece of not having that closure.”
The expert on uncertainty
Grecu has dealt with changes like this before. After graduating from Purdue University in 2003, she was thrown into the job market during a recession that caused the national unemployment rate to peak at 6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. She had been laid off twice during this time. She worked in media sales, an advertising agency and restaurant marketing.
“Uncertainty is familiar, whether because of grad school, moving around and having jobs during the recession. I love the quote ‘change is the only constant in life.’ That’s really stuck with me over the years,” said Grecu.
Ironically, Grecu studied uncertainty in the workplace while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Colorado Boulder. She went on to get her Ph.D. in strategic communication and environmental communication from Washington State University.
Her first job out of graduate school was at Southern and she has been a communication professor for five years. For the last three, she has lived in Arkansas. It isn’t a short commute.
Having fun indoors and outdoors
Moving to Utah will provide Grecu and her husband Patrick more access to the outdoor activities they love. They hope to live between Salt Lake City and Orem, where Grecu will be teaching. Moving farther West will bring Grecu closer to the region that she had lived in for so long.
“My husband and I always enjoy the outdoors,” said Grecu. “We just really enjoy the outdoor culture.”
Despite the anticipation of moving, Grecu is currently enjoying more of her hobbies like baking, cooking, card making, painting and puzzling while quarantined. She is particularly proud of her recent accomplishment– finishing a 750-piece in only two days.
“The emotions have been overwhelming and there are days where I don’t feel like doing anything, but those hobbies I’ve always enjoyed I’ve been able to get back to. I have trained for this crafting moment,” said Grecu
Students say goodbye
Though the impending move presents its challenges, Grecu is excited for the opportunity to teach subjects that are meaningful to her and meet new people in the process.
“I’m very excited about the courses– research methods, PR writing,” said Grecu. “I’m excited to be teaching in my field as well as meeting the students. I will miss our students terribly at Missouri Southern, but to get to know more students in a different area– I’m looking forward to that.”
Though the communication students at Southern will miss Grecu, Dobbs suggests that the students in Utah will benefit greatly from the new addition.
“She was a blast to be around and I hope her students feel the same at the new college she teaches at,” said Dobbs.
Students who have had Grecu in the past will miss her optimism and helpfulness.
“Over the past four years, Natalie has been a constant inspiration. Her enthusiasm each morning, her passion for the field, and her intense desire to see the world be a better place– she has always made me want to be the best version of me,” said Shelby Witzman, senior mass communication major.
Grecu’s arsenal of puns and jokes will be missed by some students, who say those small interactions in the classroom or hallway brightened their day.
“I will miss Natalie’s positive attitude,” said Whisper Chaney, senior mass communication and public relations double major. “No matter how early it is or how hard the day is, she is always laughing and trying to make puns.”
Students who had Grecu in class not only benefited from her positive disposition, but her valuable experience and knowledge of what she was teaching.
“Dr. Grecu was a light in the communication department. Her knowledge and experience were an excellent asset to my education, and I believe she is truly a great educator,” said Veronica Gazaway, senior public relations major.
Grecu expressed how proud she is of her students, especially her seniors, and hopes they can look back on this historical moment five years from now to reflect on their strength in uncertain times.
“My heart breaks for my seniors. What an accomplishment to graduate. I’m so proud of them overcoming these challenges and I know that they’ll face this with the heart of a Lion,” said Grecu.
Seniors in the department, like Dobbs, Witzman, Gazaway and Chaney, all wish the best for Grecu and express their gratitude for her guidance.
“Irreplaceable in every sense of the word, the communication department will feel her loss immensely,” said Witzman. “I’m grateful to have had as much time with her as I did and I wish her the best of luck in Utah. We love you, Natalie.”