A month like no other

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • view of cherry blossom trees and empty sidewalk along the Quad

During this unprecedented time, some Willamette University departments share how the pandemic dramatically transformed their service to students, especially those who remain on campus.

In this new reality of staying in and social distancing at Willamette University, Olga Valdes ’20 says there’s no other place she’d rather be.  

“Times like these really test the strength of a school’s community, and sometimes schools use their motto to make the campus seem warm and well-rounded,” she said. “But the Willamette community truly lives by ‘Not unto ourselves alone are we born,’ even during a crisis — it’s like a family that keeps fighting for each other. We’re not easily shaken.” 

For the roughly 199 students who remain on campus, Willamette employees have worked hard to resume normalcy. Facilities staff vigilantly cleans — and clean again — touch points in residence halls and buildings across campus. Goudy Commons still provides food with a smile. Students have stayed connected with professors online and with friends through readings and group exercises. 

Like all universities, Willamette adapted and restructured its operation around the evolving restrictions and challenges of COVID-19. 

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Housing and residence halls 

Willamette residence halls remain open. The university accommodated the needs of about 350 students who initially opted to stay, albeit with restrictions: closed common areas, allowing students with roommates to request a single space. (Japanese students in the American Studies Program represented roughly one-third of that population but they departed for home last month).  

“We have been doing everything we can to allow students to remain living on campus, especially if this is the only place they have to go,” said Stephanie Leeth, eastside senior area coordinator. 

Coordinating the move-out process for the others was challenging. RAs were quickly trained on the process and had to find temporary storage and pick-up options for dozens of students who still needed to retrieve their belongings. Housing waived fees for improper check out and eased cleaning requirements. Staff is now offering to pack up student rooms and store items free of charge. 

As of April 20, about half of RAs remained on campus, though none were required to stay. “Every single one of them stepped up,” said Leeth. “They are the unsung heroes, at least on the housing side. We’re leaning on a lot of them right now and couldn’t do it without them.”

Dining service

Access to food — and worry there’s not enough — has been a big concern of many during the pandemic, but dining staff have taken it in stride. 

Early on, Willamette closed Rick’s Cafe and Kaneko Commons Cafe, the main cafeteria for Tokyo International University of America students, and directed all remaining staff and students to dine at Goudy Commons. 

Meanwhile, Café Bon Appétit pushed all staff to wash hands more and increase sanitization of touchpoints, though Willamette staff had already engaged in that practice. At the salad bar, staff switched out tongs and spoons a few times during service to avoid cross-contamination. 

During spring break, the university agreed to pay for remaining students who had a meal plan. Fees also dropped on to-go containers.

As soon as Gov. Kate Brown issued the stay-at-home order, Goudy switched to once-per-day pickup. Students stood six feet apart in a single line to pick up a hot meal and a container with the following day’s breakfast. A version of that continues to be practiced: students have been picking up meals twice per day during the week and once each day on the weekends. 

Kitchen staff thoughtfully continues to craft meals around dietary restrictions and allergies. Dinners include teriyaki beef yakisoba noodles and lemon thyme chicken with vegan and vegetarian alternatives. Shelf-stable breakfasts — to accommodate students who don’t have access to a microwave or refrigerator — typically contain bottled juice, whole fruit, pastry and an additional item like a granola bar or oatmeal. 

“Our main priority is to be flexible and keep students in mind,” Director of Dining Services Lindsey Leisinger said. “I know there aren’t a lot of places still open in Salem, and even to-go meals are limited at this point. We’ll continue to adjust as we have to.” 

Students have expressed their gratitude in thank-you notes. One wrote that Goudy’s continued operation has “been obviously a big necessity but it’s also been a source of genuine comfort and joy for me.” 

Facilities Management

Gary Grimm, director of facilities management, said he can’t say enough about the effort and community spirit employees are showing right now. Considered essential, facilities employees must be on call 24/7 to respond to emergencies. 

“They show up to work and dive right into whatever needs to be done,” he said. “I know they’re all worried about the potential exposure to themselves and their loved ones, and that’s understandable. But they continue to come to work and do their jobs.” 

Since the pandemic began, night staff prioritized sanitizing touchpoints — door knobs, push plates, classroom desks, chairs and restroom fixtures — and high traffic areas multiple times a day. Staff continue to deep clean restrooms, classrooms and common spaces in academic buildings and residence halls, as well as rooms as they become available. 

Facilities staff, like others across campus, lead by example — they keep the appropriate social distance, hold daily staff meetings outside instead of in a breakroom, wash their hands frequently, and call ahead to vacate spaces before entering them to work. 

For the second year in a row, the office has deployed a team of student “Flu Fighters” — equipped with gloves, eye protection, rags and a spray bottle of disinfectant — to sanitize touch points in academic buildings.

Health and mental wellness

General worry and anxiety over the pandemic, in addition to the uncertainty for first-year students and tremendous loss felt by graduating seniors, has been profound, said Don Thomson, director of Bishop Wellness Center

“This is not what any of us signed up for,” he said. “Sheltering-in-place is new to all of us, and we’re not wired to be alone.” 

The overarching goal of Bishop is to make sure students still have access to care, on campus and off. Students who have cold or flu-like symptoms are being referred to community primary care — Bishop does not have the ability to test for COVID-19, but can help screen and direct students to the appropriate resources. On March 30, the center began offering physical health and counseling telehealth appointments to students. 

Students can also schedule video calls through a platform that protects patient privacy. In the first four days, more than 50 students signed up for a telehealth appointment. During a typical week, Bishop sees 100 appointments.  

Ongoing clients as well as ones new to Bishop reached out and they were able to see both in the first week, which was huge, said Thomson.  

“We care about students and want to make sure they’re connected,” he said. “Right now, we’re making use of this opportunity for our community to coalesce and be resilient so we can emerge from this better on the other side.” 

Spiritual resources

Chaplain Karen Wood scheduled a Wednesday coffee hour, a daily morning prayer throughout the week and will continue Convocation, the weekly discussion of community issues, all online. 

She reaches out via email and Zoom to faculty, staff and students who may be struggling with anxiety or isolation. In late March, she held a grief group that was “surprisingly intimate” given the technology, she said. 

A resource page includes care advice she takes herself: long walks, meditation, prayer and staying connected virtually. Interns will be adding resources to the page daily, and more information on meditation resources is available. For some fun, the office has also created a COVID-19-themed Spotify playlist

“We have a unique opportunity to continue to be there for one another,” Wood said. “We’re going to learn new skills and build an appreciation for them.” 

In addition to ideas for spiritual connection and worship, Claremont School of Theology offered a free online community care series by CST Professor Nicholas Grier on the mental, spiritual, physical and material well-being of others during the pandemic. CST students can also use TalkCampus, an app that allows students to talk anonymously to trained community peer supporters about anything on their mind. 

Student activities

Engaging students in activities from afar has required some creativity, but for the most part, student events are continuing online. 

Willamette Events Board offered takeaway activities — including care packages, Paint By Numbers kits and Harry Potter Stuff-A-Stuff (similar to Build-A-Bear) that elicited lots of smiles the first day of handouts — and it’s considering online trivia and open mic nights. 

Student newspaper The Collegian dropped its Wednesday print edition but it’s still publishing news online on a weekly basis. 

Several groups, including Associated Students of Willamette University, continue to meet online. Opening Days leaders will participate in interactive training — building online bios and creating videos — to prepare for the August event. 

Zach Cardoso, a coordinator in the Office of Student Activities, says he’s impressed with the work ethic and ability of student leaders to roll with the punches, especially Sparks Fitness Center staff.  

“Things were changing every single minute for a while, and the entire time, they made sure they could meet the needs of users while still practicing good health,” he said. 

Career development and student employment

The impact of the pandemic on future careers is hard to comprehend by graduates who, just months ago, imagined entering a very different job market. 

Addressing steps job seekers can take during this tumultuous time, the office of Career Development recorded short videos for their website and for faculty to use in classes. Topics include how to build professional experience when internship plans have changed and strategies for job searching in a global pandemic. 

Director of Career Development Mandy Devereux encourages students to spend the summer holding informational interviews with employers, performing job research and communicating with organizations to see how they’re operating right now. 

“We’re helping students understand what they can do now and how they’re going to be able to find opportunities in the future,” she said. 

The career staff is working and meeting with students virtually and reviewing resumes and cover letters. Advising meetings and weekly career advice sessions — Fridays with the F.A.M. — are now online. Devereux is also coordinating projects from various departments for students displaced from their campus jobs. 

Students are still able to apply for summer internship funds for remote work by April 30. 

Cardoso is working with student leaders to find remote work for dozens of student staff across Community Service Learning, Campus Recreation and Student Activities that applies to their current job or builds their skillset. Student workers who oversee Sparks Fitness Center, for instance, are curating a collection of online workouts that don’t require equipment so students can stay at home. 

“We’re ensuring students have a job and making sure what they’re doing is still meaningful to their department and job growth,” he said. 

Campus departments have managed the initial shock of the pandemic. But the effects of the crisis will linger for years. 

Following its duty to collect and preserve records of enduring value, Willamette’s Archives and Special Collections is asking the campus community to submit original, created works that capture their experiences, thoughts, challenges and feelings. 

Archivists and librarians at the Mark O. Hatfield Library will curate the submissions — photographs, sketches, audio recordings and other formats — into a digital exhibition that later will be used for exploration and scholarship. 

Despite the uncertainty and upheaval this pandemic has caused, Thomson said, this much has never been more clear — Bearcats truly live and breathe the motto. 

“Because this sentiment is so deeply woven into our collective fabric,” he said, “our community will undoubtedly emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.” 

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