Andre Taylor’s first project as the new oral historian for Swem Library’s Special Collections Research Center called for him to interview 14 incoming freshmen and closely follow their transition from high school to college during the pandemic.
Taylor, who started at William & Mary in July, was impressed with the flexibility and creativity these young people displayed while navigating a very uncertain time.
“They found ways to still make friends, to still have discussions, to still be college freshmen,” Taylor said. “They found a way to make it work.”
As Taylor progressed through his first fall at W&M, he noticed something similar about the entire university. Faculty and staff identified ways to adapt and work around the restrictions they encountered because of the pandemic. They took on new roles and made new connections with other employees.
They found a way to pull off a fall semester that was challenging and rewarding all at the same time.
“I’ve been a part of many teams in my life, be it through sports or work or family, and this has been one heck of a team,” Taylor said.
William & Mary rallied around the common goals of safeguarding the health of the community; continuing to teach and learn so students could complete the semester; adjusting research and university operations so that W&M employees could keep working as long as possible; helping to slow the spread of the virus.
“There was this great group conscience on campus that said we need to communicate and work together for us to succeed,” said Tim Russell, university space manager in Facilities Management.
Russell was one of the hundreds of William & Mary faculty and staff members who made sacrifices to serve the university during this difficult time, whether by taking on expanded roles or adapting to new positions altogether.
‘Commonality of purpose’
Sallie Marchello serves many roles as W&M’s associate provost and university registrar, and her duties multiplied during the pandemic.
She found herself in a variety of meetings as part of the university’s COVID-19 Response Team, and she was in regular contact with W&M’s Emergency Management Team. She also met regularly with her own teams via Zoom.
These meetings proved critical in bringing faculty and staff members together to solve problems and talk strategy.
“By bringing people together who didn’t normally interact much pre-pandemic, we got so much done,” Marchello said. “Nobody loves to have a lot of meetings, but there was an efficiency to these remote meetings around the common cause and the common need to make it work, and that was really extraordinary.”
From the challenges of completing the spring semester virtually to creating an instructional environment to allow for in-person and virtual classes in the fall, Marchello and her teams worked tirelessly to meet the needs of the students, faculty and staff.
As Marchello’s work requirements evolved, so did the efficiency of her staff. The university showed itself to be collaborative and creative throughout, she said.
“I don't know if it's that William & Mary attracts that kind of person to work here or what it is, but there has been a commonality of purpose that is very special,” Marchello said.
Little wins and silver linings
While many employees took on new duties in the fall, others pivoted to new positions completely. Mariellynn Maurer, for example, shifted from her role as director of Conference & Event Services to overseeing the quarantine and isolation program for the university.
“It was an honor to be asked to serve the university in this way, and it really didn’t take any time at all for me to agree to the request and bring my team on board,” Maurer said.
Maurer and her team, which included Madelyn Phillips, Todd Cooke and Logan Zumbrun, assisted students staying at Richmond Hall, a 100-room residence hall that was outfitted to house students with COVID-19 and those who were exposed to the illness. Their purpose was to support the students and make them as comfortable as possible.
“So many people from every area of campus contributed to the foundation that the quarantine and isolation housing program was based on,” Maurer said. “Being able to help make an uncomfortable situation a little more comfortable for anyone going through it was very rewarding, and those little wins and silver linings along the way really encouraged us throughout the semester.”
Embracing new challenges
Kathleen Mazzitti, director of advancement events for University Advancement, shifted from coordinating large-scale events to leading the COVID-19 testing coordination team that executed all COVID-19 testing for the university.
She welcomed the new challenge, particularly after many of the events she normally planned, such as Homecoming & Reunion Weekend, were moved online or cancelled altogether.
“I was nervous but happy to jump in and provide help where needed,” Mazzitti said. “After several months of event cancellations, it was exciting to have a role where I felt I was contributing to the university’s mission and could utilize my event skills such as logistics and organization.”
Like many university employees, relationships forged over years of work helped ease Mazzitti’s transition to her new role. And she had a lot of help, as more than 100 volunteers helped facilitate several rounds of in-person testing.
Thanks to Mazzitti and her team, William & Mary was able to provide a range of COVID-19 testing measures, including prevalence testing and wastewater testing.
According to W&M’s COVID-19 dashboard, the university recorded only 64 positive cases for students out of 24,924 total tests administered since August and only 24 positive cases for employees out of 2,679 tests during that same time.
“I am so thankful for the wonderful colleagues I have worked with over the past several months who allowed William & Mary to make it through a semester many did not expect us to, and it set us up to continue to improve from lessons learned for the spring semester,” Mazzitti said.
By popular demand
Russell’s role didn’t change, but the demand for his services did.
As the university’s space manager, Russell has created digital floor plans of every space on campus, and his expertise has been critical as the university works to create an environment for students to learn and meet safely under necessary safety and physical distancing guidelines.
“As a William & Mary alumnus, my desire to get students back on campus and to keep them safe really stemmed from the enjoyable experience I had here as a student,” Russell said. “Being able to give students that experience made it easy for me to pivot because I really care for this institution and keeping students and faculty safe.”
Russell and his team answered many requests from faculty and staff, such as spacing out classrooms or setting up hand sanitizer stations on campus.
A multitude of needs on campus translated into some long days for Russell and his team, particularly early in the pandemic. One day, he put tape on the floors of some classrooms to mark off appropriate physical distances, and then another he was being asked to re-measure the same classroom to accommodate a different group of students.
He received help from many university employees who assisted in converting non-classrooms into classroom spaces and obtaining and installing Plexiglas barriers to lecterns.
“It’s taken a coordinated effort by many groups to get all of it done,” Russell said.
‘Part of something big’
Taylor had his share of challenges this year, but he’s not like others who want to write off 2020 as the worst year ever.
He contracted COVID-19 in October and went to bed one night wondering if he would wake up the next morning. That would be enough to sink the spirits of anyone, but not Taylor, who chose to take a more positive attitude about it all.
“I hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh this year is the worst,’ and I sit back and say, ‘Let’s see, I’ve got a new job. I’m here with my family. I’m living through a pandemic, and I’m documenting what’s happening for the next generation of researchers and students to learn from,’” Taylor said. “What do I have to complain about?”
By having COVID-19 testing widely available through the university, Taylor found out he had the illness without showing a symptom. He took advantage of W&M’s open testing one day and was informed two days later that he was sick. He was able to quarantine immediately away from his wife and twin daughters, none of whom came down with COVID.
“I was lucky enough to have testing available,” Taylor said. “A lot of people complain about being tested. Some people call it an inconvenience. And I was able to find out that I was living with this virus. Some people don’t have that. Some people, by the time they find out, it’s too late. So I think for myself, it’s a great thing that I have that access.”
Taylor has felt a welcoming environment at W&M from the day he started in July, from the collaboration and adaptability of his fellow employees to the support he received from the university community during his illness.
“I hadn’t known the staff in special collections for very long, but you would have never known it by the outpouring of support, the packages left at my front door for my family and me,” Taylor said. “We were getting food. They were sending coloring books and things for my kids. I really felt like I was part of something big. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”