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Highlight the Heroes Part 3: Staff Members Display Ingenuity, Determination, Teamwork in Face of COVID-19 Pandemic
As the novel coronavirus took hold in the United States and locally over a year ago, many members of the campus community had to reimagine countless processes, solve new and challenging problems, work together in ways previously unheard of and step up in ways large and small to continue protecting the health and well-being of those who call Syracuse home.
Delivering Excellent Customer Service (Along With the Mail)
The team in Mail Services has been instrumental in ensuring that all incoming packages and parcels to the University were delivered to the right place on campus. COVID-19 protocols have restricted vendors from making deliveries on campus, necessitating expanded warehouse service hours, adjustments to daily delivery schedules and modified staff working hours to better serve the needs of the University community.
“Despite the challenges this year has brought, our Materials Distribution and Mail Services staff have been able to keep the mail and packages moving with the use of technology, hard work and determination,” says Krystal Porter, office coordinator in Mail Services. “Our priority is delivering mail and packages to our campus community as quickly and efficiently as possible. That didn’t change during the pandemic.”
Porter says teamwork and adaptability were two important strengths that her team have leveraged during the pandemic to be successful. “Everyone works together, pitching in to help ensure superb service,” she says. “We take great pride in our adaptability. This has been a great example of how we work together as a team to improve the experience of the campus community.”
Facilitating Virtual ‘Career Connections’ Between Students and Alumni
Matt Wheeler, associate director of alumni relations in the undergraduate advising office for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to reimagine how the University connects with alumni and students—and how it helps facilitate their connections with one another.
He expanded the existing Student-Alumni Career Connections program in A&S and Maxwell to include virtual opportunities for students to network with alumni, allowing them to gain insight and some informal guidance about establishing a career in their chosen fields. The program has seen great success, with more than 340 one-on-one meetings by Zoom or phone taking place between students and A&S/Maxwell alumni since April 2020.
“When things started shutting down last spring, one of our first thoughts was ‘how can we add to the student experience at this time?’” Wheeler says. “We wanted to not only keep the Career Connections program going, but make it even more beneficial for our students since they were losing out on other parts of the student experience.”
The program also benefited from the widespread adoption of Zoom by nearly every demographic, increasing the comfort level of alumni in communicating with students on the platform. Some also had more time to devote during the pandemic, making it a simple way for members of the alumni community to stay engaged with the University. “More than 700 alumni signed up to participate in these networking opportunities with students and they are just as excited to talk with our students as the students are to talk with them,” says Wheeler. “They want to ask what’s still open on Marshall Street, what clubs and organizations the students are a part of, things like that.”
Some of the connections made through this program over the past year have led to long-term mentoring relationships, internships and job interviews for A&S and Maxwell students, and Wheeler sees this program continuing long after a “return to normalcy.” “It’s a win for our students. It’s a great way to engage alumni and I hope to see this type of program scale up to other areas of the University,” he says, noting that several schools and colleges have reached out to him for guidance on starting similar virtual networking programs for their own students and alumni.
Dishing Out a Friendly Smile and Warm Meal at Goldstein Dining Center
Over a year ago when the University’s initial campus shutdown took place, Goldstein Dining Center on South Campus remained one of the only dining options for students remaining on campus. Despite COVID still being a novel situation and public health guidance continually evolving, Manager Karen French and Assistant Manager Lucy Haag in Food Services didn’t miss a beat in making sure that Goldstein was open, well-stocked and safe for students.
“Our staff was amazing and leadership made sure we had the face masks, sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizers and digital thermometers needed to help everyone feel safe while working and getting food,” says Haag.
Early on, protocols were shifting nearly every day and the entire process of how the dining center operated had to be re-examined due to what was rapidly becoming known about COVID. “What seems like an easy thing, feeding our students, suddenly was very complicated,” says French. “We had to look at how we received products coming in and every additional step until the finished orders were handed off to customers. Luckily we had a good team of caring employees who helped us reinvent the wheel!”
French and Haag kept their spirits high, despite frustrating moments, and maintained continuous front-line contact with students, helping them feel at home during those early, difficult days. “The University’s 150th birthday [March 24, 2020] was unfortunately disrupted by the pandemic,” Haag says. “But we still gave out pre-bagged orange half-moon cookies and put up a few signs. We wanted to recognize that we all still bleed Orange.”
They also focused on keeping their team motivated and healthy, both physically and mentally, by conducting daily wellness checks on staff, and spent time preparing for any scenario that could emerge as the pandemic unfolded.
“I am proud to say that I am part of a team of people that collectively puts time, effort and thought into the way we do things to offer the best we can for our customers,” says French. “My experience over the past year has reminded me of how proud I am of this team.”
Helping Students Feel At Home in Residence Halls
Residence directors (RDs) and residence hall operations coordinators (RHOCs) in the Office of Student Living have worked non-stop to provide for the needs of our students amidst the pandemic, pivoting and adjusting based on the ever-changing needs of the University’s closing and reopening plans, while continuing to balance their many other duties on behalf of our students.
“Our RDs are an amazingly talented group of young professionals that deserve campuswide recognition and our RHOCs have been the backbone of a department that relies on their operational management,” says Courtney Albiker, assistant director in the Office of Student Living.
Moving to virtual connections with residents, resident advisors and colleagues around campus and facilitating student move-in during a pandemic were new challenges for those working on the front lines of the residential student experience.
“One of the reasons I got into student affairs was because of the students and the stories they bring into Syracuse University, which makes the University a better place to live and work,” says Ernie Arvizu Bastidas, RD for Brewster and Boland halls. “It’s taken more work to really connect with residents this year, but hearing their stories virtually is just as rewarding.”
Bastidas says that increased feelings of loneliness and isolation among students prompted residence directors to think outside of the box to offer better student experiences for students to more easily build a support system within their floor. “With the spring semester, it seems students are feeling better and are able to connect more with one another,” he says.
Maya Falkner-Guidice, RHOC for Flint and Day halls, experienced her first Syracuse move-in in 2020. “I often reminded myself that it was everyone’s first opening during a pandemic,” she says. “I missed the experience of sharing a comforting smile with students or parents, which was not possible from behind a mask. We had first-year parents who were unsure but eager to get their students moved in, and in some cases they weren’t able to accompany them to their residence hall. You want to convey that their student is safe but have to rely on words to provide a similar genuine effect.”
The OSL team helped keep one another motivated through frequent check-ins, development of new trainings, and using Teams and Zoom to share ideas and troubleshoot any roadblocks. “Watching my coworkers show up for the students and each other motivated me every day,” says Falkner-Guidice.
Kudos to the entire OSL crew of RDs and RHOCs, including: Mary Ellen Albiker, Ammar Asbahi, Ernie Arvizu Bastidas, Quincy Bufkin, Elizabeth Cronk, Maya Falkner-Guidice, Tim Gray, Joanne Green, Thai Le, Mike Louis, Valentina Louissant, Nicholas Martin, Haley Matlock, Jamel McMullin, Stephanie Mecca, Mel Molsberry, Derrick Morris, ShawnMarie Parry, Christi Pluff, Rachel Rodriguez, Isaiah Sheffield-Thergood, Adam Wallander and Russell Wesdorp.