Supporting students through the COVID-19 response
Where are you from?
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and then went to St. Louis, Missouri to do my undergraduate degree. It just so happens to be in Emergency Management, so right on target with the work we’re doing right now! It’s kind of serendipitous that it worked out that way. And then I came to Blacksburg about 7 years ago to do my master’s work in Higher Education and Student Affairs, so I’ve been in Blacksburg for a little bit. I thought it was only going to be a couple of years for grad school and then back to the city life, but Blacksburg has really drawn me in! In particular I love the people and the things to do outside, so I’ve stayed significantly longer than originally anticipated.
What got you into emergency management?
It was a little bit of an accident if I’m being honest! I started undergrad as a biology pre-med student because I really thought that I wanted to be a doctor and that was a program with a direct admit to the medical school. But I was doing a shadow program in an emergency room, and the first time I saw the blood and the gore I literally passed out in the hospital. So… the whole doctor thing didn’t quite pan out.
After that I switched my major a couple of times, really searching and kind of lost in terms of what I wanted to do. I had some really great advisors at St. Louis University that talked things through with me: “What do you like doing? What do you not like doing?” And over the course of those conversations, I realized that one of the things that I really loved doing was being involved in crisis! It turns out that was at the core of my interest in being an emergency room doctor. I was a lifeguard and an RA all throughout college, and the part that I loved was being with people who are at really low spots in their life and walking with them on their journey to recovery, as well as helping them prepare for things that would happen in their future. It just so happened that emergency management was literally a brand-new major at my undergraduate institution, so I got connected with the faculty members, learned a little bit more about it, and started that major my second-semester sophomore year. I’m a part of the first graduating class with that major from St. Louis!
In light of your interest in emergency management, why did you decide to pursue higher education?
When I was in undergrad I did a lot of work with community-level response; for example, working with community partners to do city recovery work after hurricanes, that sort of thing. What I learned in both my coursework and my volunteer work was that while I enjoyed the community planning and coordination, what I loved most of all was the individual connections with people in the actual crisis. I can see that same thread throughout my other interests during that time – being an RA, working with Relay for Life, serving on peer education teams. So, for me, higher education fulfills my desire to work on both the individual and the community level.
Higher education often seems to be the crossroads of the crisis and the individual student. Crisis can be defined in a lot of different ways based on that individual. If a student doesn’t know what they want to do with their life, for them that is a personal crisis. Crisis can range from the individual to some kind of large university event, like a pandemic, that is impacting the university at large. This is especially true when I think about isolation and quarantine now! The students that are moving to isolation and quarantine are experiencing a personal crisis. Their lives are being uprooted from their normal routines, how they have figured out how to navigate the world. Simultaneously, we’re navigating the university-level crisis, where it’s an absolute imperative to minimize community spread. So you have to look at it from both lenses, which I really appreciate and was actually a bit of what I was looking for when I started the higher education journey.
Why work in Housing and Residence Life?
Ironically, when I was in graduate school, I wanted to do everything but Housing & Residence Life! I did not want to be a graduate assistant, had already been an RA, and I wanted to expand my horizons and do something new. But when I came to Virginia Tech for grad school, I started as the graduate student in the Residential College at West Ambler Johnston. That was very new and very different to what I had experienced, given the residential college model, live-in faculty member, etc. I enjoyed that spin on the traditional housing model and have worked my way through a variety of positions from there. Halfway through grad school I got moved over to the Honors Residential Commons to run that building as a full-time professional, and then I found my way to working with Living-Learning Programs on the whole, and most recently due to COVID I’ve transitioned to what I currently do!
I think the short answer to your question is that I love all of the players that support Housing & Residence Life. It’s not just our staff working on these experiences: the RAs, the student staff, the faculty members work with the programs, the business office orders supplies for them, the Virginia Tech Police Department are in the halls day to day doing community policing and engaging with students and staff, etc. I love the collaboration and meeting new people across the university in the work we’re doing.
How has your work changed since the start of COVID-19?
It has been a total 180-degree shift! My day to day used to consist of working with Living-Learning Programs to create student experiences, applications, and pathways for students to get involved. And then mid-March, all of a sudden we were in crisis and had to figure it out and get it done! I learned a lot of skills in my position with LLPs that have helped me with this role, particularly as it relates to collaboration and bringing people together for a common goal.
In the beginning, my role was primarily focused on communication: I would go to university meetings, figure out what the university’s overall plan was, how that impacted housing, and what our staff needed to know in order for them to work through the crisis on their own. I did a lot of information gathering and synthesizing during that time period. Then, we transitioned to protocol writing and execution. I wrote our isolation and quarantine protocol, and we were lucky to have a test run when the students living in Riva San Vitale in Switzerland were evacuated and had to return to Virginia Tech’s campus and immediately go to isolation. I credit those students with their thorough feedback on what they experienced and what they still needed from our protocol.
Finally, on a departmental level, I focused on what we needed to get done over the summer in order for the university to open in August. That included organizing the department into different topic areas and task groups, planning move-in, rethinking health and safety checks, managing PPE supplies, etc.
If I had to give myself three words for what I do in summary, I’d say: communicator, organizer, and executor. There’s no way we could do what we are doing right now without every person in the department contributing, so in my role I continue to gather people to talk about where we’re at, where we need to go, and how we’re going to get there.
What's been your biggest challenge and your biggest triumph from this past year of managing Housing and Residence Life's COVID-19 response?
One of the biggest challenges has been how things change so quickly and suddenly; I know everyone has experienced that. You put a plan together, you think you’re good to go, and then the situation changes and everything you’ve put together so far needs to be thrown out. It can be really frustrating, but it’s a necessary evil. Another challenge has been managing workload, because while we are a large department, we’re also spread pretty thin. To ask more of people is hard because you know what must be done, and simultaneously that people might not have the capacity to get it done. So what essential thing are we going to shed to get this more essential thing done? That has been challenging to navigate.
In terms of triumph, I’m really proud of the way the department and some of our campus partners in Dining, Schiffert, and the Dean of Students office have come together to figure all of this out. There’s been a lot of minutia and messiness, but I’ve really enjoyed working with those people throughout it all. Honestly, I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we stayed open! As of Labor Day I really didn’t think we were going to make it, when we had so many people coming into isolation and quarantine and didn’t have enough infrastructure in place to manage the load that was coming through; but we did it! We put everything together very quickly, including all the things we didn’t even know we needed because no one had ever done this before. People were so willing to pick up a little more in the moment.
I can remember specifically one night we had 60 people we needed to move, and it was already 6:00 pm. All I could do is put out a desperate call for help. Well, 15-20 people answered that call on a Friday night to jump in and help to get those people moved to isolation or quarantine, all in a 3-hour period. It’s been very humbling, both to have to ask for more of people, and for those people to be willing to jump in and help.
Could you talk a bit about the new isolation assistants?
They’re amazing! We have 10 isolation assistants, a very committed and flexible group of people who were willing to jump into a position that didn’t exist before. First and foremost they are building community among students in isolation and quarantine, because it can be a really lonely time. Each isolation assistant gets a cohort of students – so, for instance, let’s say a group of ten students move in on Monday. Those students will all be assigned to an isolation assistant who works with them individually and as a group, forming connections with other people on the hallway who are going through the same thing as them, experiencing that uprooting. Isolation assistants also serve on-call in the evenings to help students with any needs they have when the university is closed. That can be anything from a forgotten toothbrush to experiencing chest pains or difficulty breathing. Finally, they prep rooms for the next students moving in, packing isolation kits, bundling linens, and setting up rooms to be welcoming. They are absolutely essential to the isolation and quarantine effort. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think we would have made it!
What's one word that best describes you, and why?
Strategic is the word that comes to mind. I really enjoy thinking about the dozens of different ways to solve a problem and working through the pros and cons of each of them, including all of the potential repercussions down the line. I think my brain works in a doomsday kind of way, evaluating all of the different things that could go wrong and all of the different ways to solve all of those different problems. It’s a good skill to have in terms of strategic planning but can be personally taxing. Sometimes I have to say to myself, “okay Amanda, you need to take a breath and stop for a second, because all of those things happening is probably not real.” It’s come in handy during COVID-19, though!
What advice would you have for students coming to Virginia Tech?
Be open to trying new things and meeting new people. What you thought your student experience would be might not be what it ends up being, and that’s okay! It will help you learn and grow, no matter what path life ends up taking you on. Going into college, I was going to be a doctor! That’s what I wanted to do, and if I hadn’t allowed myself to be open to the possibility that that wasn’t where I’d end up, I wouldn’t be doing what I am right now. And granted, I never thought I would be managing a pandemic, that definitely never crossed my mind – but when it happened, I was open to rolling with the punches and saying “okay, this is what’s needed from me, this is what I have to contribute, and I’m going to give it everything that I have!” I think that all of our students have something to contribute, and those contributions might come in different forms than they expect. Just be open to the idea that you have a lot to contribute even if it’s not in the way you originally thought it was going to be.
Anything else I should have asked you, or that you think folks should know?
There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know about. In particular, there are dedicated people in Schiffert and in Dining who are pulling a lot of load. Remember to thank them for the things that they’re doing! We wouldn’t be here without them and the countless hours that they have put in - in Housing, obviously, but also in Dining and in Schiffert, to name a couple of our partner departments. It’s been a huge coordination effort, and I’m really grateful for the excellent colleagues that we have across the university.