Spring 2020 Issue

Unity & Resilience

W&M perseveres as COVID-19 forces a shift to distance learning, remote gatherings

By Tina Eshleman

Life has changed dramatically for all of us in the William & Mary community — and throughout the world — over the past few months.

At the beginning of the semester in January, there was little hint that the outbreak of a new virus in Wuhan, China, would become a public health crisis that would inflict so much loss and economic hardship. We didn’t know then COVID-19 would become a pandemic that would stop in-person classes for the rest of the academic year, upend Commencement plans and force a physical separation of the Tribe.

While navigating the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the W&M family rallied to support our more vulnerable members and answer the call to wider service. Students, faculty and staff adjusted to a new reality of learning and working remotely. Alumni, parents and friends of the university found different ways to communicate and connect with each other. Through it all, a spirit of resilience and unity emerged.

“So many people in this community are thinking about each other,” W&M President Katherine Rowe said while reflecting on a quiet campus this spring. “It’s an amazing thing to be part of that and get to see it day after day, even when what we’re doing is unprecedented and involves a lot of sacrifice.”

A Support System

One student couldn’t get a flight back to Italy. Another who was traveling to China got stuck in South Korea for several days before she could get a flight home. Still others lost part-time restaurant jobs, leaving them short on money for food and rent.

Those were some of the unexpected circumstances William & Mary students encountered when residence halls closed and businesses shut down or reduced their hours in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A Strong Community: Left: It is a W&M tradition for students to decorate the Thomas Jefferson statue beside the Sunken Garden, and this spring was no exception. Right: Ellie Kurlander ’24, who will start at William & Mary this fall, discussed how the pandemic has changed her mindset.

From March 23 to May 6, the Dean of Students Office assisted 226 students — many of them international — with emergency housing, food, lodging, transportation and technology needs. Using a combination of expedited housing rebates and donor-supported funds, the university distributed more than $230,000 to the students — sometimes within hours of when the request was made.

Private support through the For the Bold campaign was essential in providing resources for students. The Health, Emergencies, And Resources for the Tribe (HEART) Fund, the Edith Rohlfs Marsh Endowment, the Student Affairs Emergency Fund (non-loan) and the Janet, John and Elizabeth Osborn Emergency Fund Endowment are just a few examples of funds that were tapped to help students facing hardships during the COVID-19 crisis.

New donations of all sizes have been coming in as well. William & Mary’s Student Assembly allocated up to $20,000 for Student Affairs emergency support funds (with another $15,000 promised if needed) and 433 donors contributed more than $252,000 to the HEART Fund, the International Student Scholarship Fund and the Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation (STLI) between March 12 and May 4. An additional $200,000 was given to the HEART endowment by three donors during that time.

More than 50 students opted to donate their housing and dining rebates and parking refunds back to William & Mary to provide emergency relief for students in need, contributing a total of more than $30,000.

Cultivating Connections

In a series of weekly Community Conversations on Wednesdays during the spring, President Rowe invited guests for timely discussions and addressed questions about the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty members, students, staff and alumni shared their perspectives on how their lives and work have been affected by the sudden changes.

Kelly Crace, William & Mary’s associate vice president for health & wellness, told viewers it’s OK to be in protective mode while in the midst of a crisis, but having a sense of community is also important as people strive for wellness.

“We’re all in this, but we’re all in it differently,” Crace says in the session. “By connecting with each other, we can share in the meaningful and inspiring experiences of this and also can share in our varying levels of the pain and varying levels of struggle.”

Peter Atwater ’83, founder of Financial Insyghts and adjunct professor of economics, touched on the multiple roles students, faculty and staff have taken on with their many responsibilities at home.

“I’ve described it as we’re all learning to ride a bicycle in a hurricane,” he says.

Atwater says it’s important to remember that the current crisis won’t last forever. For those who are troubled by the sense that they’ve lost control, he suggests that helping another person is one way to regain some of it while making sure someone else knows they’re not struggling alone.

“It’s counterintuitive, but helping is all about displaying certainty and control,” he says.

Personal connection also was a theme emphasized by student speakers who talked about gathering online for dinners and lunches using online chats and the videoconferencing tool Zoom. Junior Class President Aria Austin ’21 says her a cappella singing group met that way.

“Students are really trying to say, this is rough but we’re going to do this together,” Austin says. “That just shows that when we say One Tribe, One Family, we mean that, even though we’re not on campus.”

Distance Learning

When all in-person classes were suspended midway through the semester, William & Mary faculty and students shifted quickly to online learning. The STLI, W&M Libraries and Information Technology worked in concert to help ease the transition for faculty and students.

The STLI offered an assortment of resources to help faculty members, such as daily webinars, drop-in sessions and new tutorials. Faculty members were able to ask questions in real time, and STLI team members and library representatives were available for individual support.

Dean of University Libraries Carrie L. Cooper says many textbook publishers have made their entire catalogs of online books available free on a trial basis. The libraries also have signed up for trial subscriptions to 10 new databases, such as the Harvard Business Review’s Press Collection and Academic Video Online, which has more than 60,000 titles of videos in all disciplines.

“The best part of this transition is seeing our faculty and staff work together in support of this new reality,” Cooper says.

Students, faculty and staff have also been working together to help the community. For example, department of Applied Science instructor and MakerSpace Director Jonathan Frey assigned students to design a face shield to help protect local first responders and medical professionals from the COVID-19 virus.

Frey then incorporated students’ work into a design that he manufactured on 3D printers at the Swem makerspace. The visors were distributed to W&M police and local medical professionals.

With campus buildings closed, graduate students working in the New Horizons Family Counseling Center and New Leaf Clinic have continued offering telehealth services to Williamsburg-area residents and students. In addition, an online peer support group for William & Mary’s international students formed through a partnership between New Leaf and the Reves Center for International Studies.

In an effort to assist families of school-age children when schools closed because of COVID-19, School of Education faculty organized several webinars for parents, including one in Spanish, and set up an at-home learning hub with resources and tips.

“We want to do what William & Mary does well, which is be of service to our local community,” says
Kristin Conradi Smith, associate professor of reading education, who organized the initial webinar and at-home learning hub setup.

Recognizing the difficulties that William & Mary’s graduating seniors face during this time of uncertainty as they enter the job market and pursue advanced degrees, the Cohen Career Center moved all of its offerings to a virtual format, added evening advising hours and contacted graduating seniors who indicated in a survey that they did not have a job yet, as well as those who were still pursuing graduate school or who didn’t respond to the survey.

“The outreach we’re doing now is more intensive than we’ve ever done before,” says Kathleen Powell, associate vice president for career development. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The William & Mary Alumni Association also expanded its career and networking offerings for the W&M community to include additional online networking hours, professional development webinars and more. Alumni can also post job and internship opportunities on the W&M Switchboard.

In the Trenches

Many William & Mary alumni have been deeply engaged in battling the coronavirus as medical professionals, including Dr. Jennifer Primeggia ’02, an infectious diseases physician caring for COVID-19 patients in Northern Virginia; Dr. A. Scott Morris ’10, a radiologist who served on USNS Comfort in New York City; and Dr. Lisa A. Jackson ’84, who is leading the study of a possible vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle. Dr. Jonathan Doris ’90, a cardiologist who was the inspiration for John “J.D.” Dorian on the TV show “Scrubs” (created by his college friend Bill Lawrence ’90), tweeted in March that he was working at a COVID-19 command center in Los Angeles.

Several former W&M gymnasts are also on the front lines: Dr. Lance Hoffman ’94, an emergency medicine physician in Fremont, Nebraska; Stephanie Bevan ’10, a registered nurse in New York City taking care of infants who may have been exposed to the coronavirus; Dr. Stacia Ruse ’15, an orthopedic surgery resident volunteering on a COVID team in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Dr. Christopher Lynch ’10, a hospitalist in Los Angeles who collaborates with a variety of specialists to treat infected patients. Like the others, Lynch says he draws on his gymnastics experiences by embracing teamwork while persevering through challenging circumstances.

Makers: After the CDC began recommending cloth masks, many in the W&M community sprang into action to make masks, including fashion designer Kiya Tomlin ’96.

Alumni outside the health professions have also provided key services.

David Culver ’09 has been covering the outbreak as an international correspondent for CNN reporting from Shanghai on the Asia-Pacific region. He was in Wuhan when the first cases were reported. CBS News White House Correspondent Weijia Jiang ’05 joined Culver in a Q&A with President Rowe on April 30 to discuss what it’s like to cover this outbreak as it unfolds.

Kiya Tomlin ’96, a fashion designer and wife of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin ’95, L.H.D. ’08, suspended work on her spring collection and, along with other team members, began making hundreds of cloth masks per week for hospital workers, according to an ESPN report.

Looking Forward

During a Moment of Silence and Reflection on April 16, President Rowe acknowledged the losses and hardships resulting from the pandemic, while honoring the sacrifices of health care workers, essential workers and service providers.

She described the ringing of the Wren bell as a symbol of William & Mary’s resilience. “It will call us together again in due time. And when it does, what we will remember and cherish from this moment, together with our grief, is the strength that we are finding in one another,” she says.

While the campus remained closed for the spring semester, plans proceed for the annual giving event One Tribe One Day — rescheduled from April 21 to June 23 — Commencement Weekend on Oct. 9-11, and Homecoming & Reunion Weekend on Oct. 15-18.

Announcing the schedule for Commencement activities, Rowe says they will include all of the university’s treasured traditions associated with that rite.

She promises, “It will be glorious.”


Dave Johnson of W&M Athletics; Joseph McClain, Nathan Warters, Cortney Will, Jennifer L. Williams and Erin Zagursky of University Communications; and Claire De Lisle of University Advancement contributed to this story.