Extraordinary Times

Life During a Pandemic

The campus shutdown frustrated teachers and students alike. But in their move to an online-only Maxwell, they rediscovered one another and their shared dedication to the mission.

Statue of President Lincoln wearing a face mask

Heidi Stallman is a doctoral student in political science for whom remote learning is, at best, a mixed experience. That makes her similar to every other student at the Maxwell School, quite possibly — and maybe every student anywhere.

“There are still high expectations for projects that had been started earlier in the semester,” she reported in April. “All of the faculty that I have had the chance to meet with have been understanding about moving deadlines, giving some leeway, etc.”

There are a few upsides. Advisor meetings were doubled in frequency; online meetings with colleagues assumed a heightened “air of honesty”; her department launched a weekly “happy hour” providing chat opportunities (and pet visits) unknown on campus; and she found free time to rethink her research topic.

But, in the end, Stallman missed campus. “Education is much less about the material, and more about the experiences,” she said, citing the advantages of not just class sessions, but other in-person contact, such as impromptu hallway meetings and quick pop-ins to discuss an idea. She said, “This online format is, as predicted, much lonelier.”

In mid-March, Syracuse University told its students not to return to campus from spring break; the remainder of the semester’s work would be achieved remotely, online. It told teachers to convert in-person coursework to online presentation. The University was adapting to COVID-19.

It would be folly to sugarcoat the strain and frustration that resulted, and difficult to generalize about the outcomes. Students in Policy Studies 101 conducted their own survey. To the question “What did you like about online classes,” answers ranged from “I hate them” to “I liked that I was able to move at my own pace.” “Did you learn as much as in earlier class sessions?” Students answered, in almost equal proportions, yes, no, and maybe.

“I am a student at home, far from the typical college life, yet I still feel an immense connection to Syracuse through the computer.”
Freshman Victoria Amado

It is not difficult, though, to find stories of perseverance, augmented camaraderie, unique intellectual opportunities, and other unforeseen benefits. In that same PST 101 class, freshman Victoria Amado reported that online instruction started rough, but then came together. “In a lot of ways, it is working,” she said. She missed class interaction, but in some ways remote life reinforced her identity. “I am a student at home, far from the typical college life,” she said, “yet I still feel an immense connection to Syracuse through the computer.”

Faculty members faced hurdles, including unprecedented tactical decisions about online teaching. Evidence suggests they approached those with a determination to provide a high-quality education. Sociologist Andrew London, for example, with a team of TAs, was teaching one of the MAX Courses with 92 students. He decided to preserve the syllabus and “deliver the course we had promised” — a conviction he thought reassuring amid so much change. Though a self-proclaimed technology Luddite, he quickly adopted robust communication resources, including an FAQ-style archive of past student questions.

He found students resilient. “I learned that my students could keep learning even under less than ideal circumstances,” he says. To his surprise, he discovered that students who, on campus, were sometimes reticent to visit his office now reached out. “I think I had more contact with more students during the online period than I would have had if we had stayed on campus,” he says.

Students in Elizabeth Cohen’s Power and Identity political science course were “crushed,” she says, when the University moved to remote teaching. They worried their education might suffer, so Cohen offered bonus meetings after the semester ended. Through this small, entirely voluntary post-finals “class,” Cohen and the students completed extra readings and discussions on workplace democracy, feminism, and race and policing — “a way to stay connected to each other and the learning process amid the disorienting experience of the pandemic,” she says.

Francine D’Amico teaches a course on international relations that also prepares students to take part in national Model United Nations, but MUN was canceled. Still, the simulation continued online. Students drafted proposals on MUN topics, held a virtual voting session, and adopted 17 draft resolutions.

Colleen Heflin, teaching an undergraduate course on poverty policy, was intrigued that events were altering student attitudes toward government assistance programs. Unfortunately, by then two students had left the class entirely. “They couldn’t manage their coursework,” she says, “given serious health issues they or their family was dealing with.” Others struggled with internet access. “One student usually goes to Starbucks or McDonalds to work, but they are closed down.” Heflin found herself extending deadlines.

The pandemic altered other classes. Undergraduates in Robert Murrett’s class on the U.S. intelligence community converted a scheduled presentation to an analysis of how the intelligence sector could aid in pandemic-driven humanitarian crises. In Hazardous Geographical Environments, Professor Mark Monmonier concocted a “life-hands-you-lemons-make-lemonade assignment,” asking students to create diaries combining geographic analysis with political and personal implications of the pandemic. Over the diary’s 35-day span, junior Taylor Grosso approached the task with “exceptional enthusiasm and thoughtfulness,” Monmonier says, culling maps off the internet (school closings, hospitalizations, carbon-emission impacts) and relating them to experiences reported to her by friends and family. “I started making entries daily,” she wrote, “because it is a great point that we are living through something that will be in the history books.”

The shutdown came during the busy season for academic advising, exacerbating the usual advising challenges with uncertainty about online teaching, technology access, and the fall schedule. In International Relations (with its 300 undergrad majors), the staff created, in five days, a new online advising process, including remote-contact guidance and new “office hours” — some in the evening, to accommodate students who’d returned to overseas homes.

IR advisor Amy Kennedy reported that, in some ways, advising had become more intimate. Via video, she saw into students homes and their circumstances. “It brings daily insights into how students are situated during the pandemic,” she said. She’s met students living in hotels, waiting out precautionary quarantine; and an ROTC student activated for coronavirus response while still a full-time student. She witnessed evolutions in student coping. “I have the overwhelming sense that students are finding themselves to be more adaptable and stronger in the face of uncertainty than they expected,” she said.

Spring is also student-admission season, but visits by applicants and admitted students were impossible. So Christine Omolino, admissions director in Public Administration and International Affairs, mounted virtual receptions, attended by more than 100 students and extra numbers of professors and alumni. “The feedback from the admitted students was extremely positive,” she says. One student described it as “easy and, quite frankly, engaging and fun.” Omolino foresees year-round “virtual admissions” as a permanent addition to the program.

In the Palmer Career Center, “students are overwhelmed and it is hard to make job search a priority,” said director Kelli Young in April. But virtual recruiting and interviews with employers took place; offers were made. Podcasts, social media, Zoom sessions, and email were utilized to keep students engaged; one-on-one counseling was done by phone and Zoom. The center researched remote internships for MAIR students whose opportunities disappeared.

Everyone found new ways to function. The Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs canceled dozens of events this spring, but converted a major conference on U.S./China trade and politics to online attendance, added a focus on the pandemic, and drew nearly 100 attendees.

“Students are finding themselves to be more adaptable and stronger in the face of uncertainty than they expected.”
IR advisor Amy Kennedy

Such adaptations were diverse. Alumni events became public affairs presentations, featuring faculty members via Zoom. The Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion’s research brief series nearly quadrupled in frequency, addressing a range of pandemic-related topics. The online Executive MPA program held a “virtual happy hour,” where professors discussed the pandemic’s impact on democracies, and a virtual Maymester class addressed governing in a crisis.

One more story: Barry Weiss ’83 BA (PSc)/’04 MA (PA) is an administrator in the Onondaga County district attorney’s office who helps coordinate internship opportunities for pre-law students who are enrolled in a local-politics course taught by Maxwell’s Grant Reeher. The students’ original internship plans (bureau assignments within the office) disappeared. So, thinking quickly, Weiss organized the interns into teams and provided a substantial group project, researching drug task forces around the country and how some recently survived funding cuts. He also organized virtual meetings between students and young professionals in the field. “He went above and beyond the call of duty of intern supervisor,” Reeher says.

Students adapted and looked for silver linings. Though he found the lost internship “extremely disappointing,” sophomore Mahlet Sergis “appreciates still contributing and doing work that was specific to the DA’s office.” Junior Sydney Ruggles had scheduled her semester around the internship, which only lasted five weeks; but was “glad I was able to contribute to the District Attorney’s office in some way.” Senior Sara Cummings found herself unexpectedly “fascinated” by the glimpse into the narcotics abuse and justice given by Weiss’s project.

Perhaps speaking for everyone, Cummings concluded, “In times like these, nothing is ideal, and during my past four years at Syracuse I learned that if things don’t go your way, you don’t throw in the towel. You adapt and turn obstacles into opportunities.”

Eye of a Storm

Brian Brege was enjoying a research leave in Florence when, suddenly, Italy was the center of early coronavirus spread outside Asia.

Brian Brege
Brian Brege, in simpler times, at Harvard's I Tatti Center in Florence.

As I sit down to write this evening, the Tuscan hills are eerily silent.” So began Brian Brege’s mid-April report on the pandemic. Brege, a Maxwell historian, was in Florence on a Harvard fellowship, placing him, by chance, in one of the world’s hardest hit coronavirus zones. “I hear the chirp of birds,” he wrote, “and the rustle of the wild boar that have come down from the mountains to reclaim newly empty fields, gardens, and streets.”

Brege watched Italians react, foreseeing how, as the medical crisis abated, “a social, political, and financial crisis of the first order awaits. . . . I mourn for Italy and hope against hope for its recovery.”

He was also a witness to the exodus of visiting students. American study abroad participants — including Syracuse students in Florence—were among the first to leave. Local officials protested; Tuscany was less affected than other regions. But “Syracuse correctly anticipated that movement would become constrained and schools would be closed.”

The institution where Brege was based, Villa I Tatti, was among the last still open. Required lunch meetings became optional, then afternoon teas were canceled, the library closed to outsiders, and an extreme form of socially distant lunch was tried. “Each step lasted but a day or two before further restrictions were announced,” he remembers. Seminars, conferences, and lectures were canceled. Then I Tatti closed.

When Brege wrote in April, Italy was a do-not-travel zone; he could not return home. “I am now in indefinite separation from my wife in Syracuse,” he said. He spent hours revisiting a Boccaccio work about Florence and the Black Death of 1348. And, like you, he Zoomed with family, colleagues, and acquaintances—an “unabashed silver lining,” he said.

In late May, he wrote again. He’d managed arrangements to travel home on June 15, while I Tatti was carefully resuming activities.

By Dana Cooke