One year ago this month, a global pandemic changed how we learned, lived, worked, and gathered.
Leadership at American University monitored the spread and potential impact of COVID-19 before then, but the university felt the pandemic's impact beginning in mid-March. President Donald Trump announced on March 11 the suspension of most travel from Europe. AU immediately scrambled to get students home from overseas. And the weeks and months that followed forced the adoption of new technology and new teaching and learning methods.
Six members of the AU community share their losses, challenges faced, and difficult decisions made over the past 12 months. They also give their outlook on what’s ahead.
Sylvia M. Burwell, President
There are many lessons that I learned this year—both professionally and personally—with the first being the importance and value of not taking anything for granted. In seemingly the blink of an eye, our entire world changed, and with it, our day-to-day lives. My family, like far too many others, has not been spared. We lost my beloved uncle to COVID-19 last fall. That loss has been extremely difficult and hard to put into words.
As we grappled with this monumental change, early in the pandemic, our family began a daily gratitude journal. Each night around the dinner table, our children would list things that they were grateful for, like our dog Zuzu’s silly antics, and Matthew’s favorite answer: technology. But as our daily practice went on, it became clear that what we all were truly grateful for is each other and this unexpected time together.
Professionally, there were silver linings as well. AU’s strategic plan, Changemakers for a Changing World—which is grounded in our community’s values, history, and future—served our community incredibly well as we were all buffeted by professional and personal challenges. It provided the core principles for our decision making during this time: First, safeguard the health and well-being of our community. Second, continue to advance our educational and research mission. Finally, be forces for good in contributing to the overall response in the DC region and beyond. In true changemaker fashion, many of you reached out to assist others and make a difference, from providing free meals to those in need, to designing a COVID-19 resource app, to helping connect patients with their loved ones. The way that our students, faculty, staff, and alumni supported each other during these challenging times reminded us all that we were not alone in facing the hardships of the last year.
Our compassion for each other and dedication to our mission allowed us to build momentum, not just fight the gale force winds trying to hold us back. When we worked together as a community, we listened, communicated, acted nimbly, and, guided by our core principles, we hit our marks. In doing so, we were able to do more than talk our values—we lived them, each day.
There are many lessons from COVID-19 and more will come—professionally and personally. But thanks to our entire AU community, we continue to weather the storm—together—and we continue our journey as changemakers for a changing world—and that is something I am profoundly grateful for.
One of the new signs reminding mask requirements is pictured on campus. (Jeffrey Watts/AU)
Fanta Aw, Vice President of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence, Office of Campus Life
As I think back over the last year, I’m struck by so many things: the speed, the intensity, the grieving and gratitude, and the way it revealed that without community, we cannot feel whole.
For me, it began as crisis management, in the middle of a storm. We’d never faced anything like it. Logistics were extraordinary. Over 400 students were overseas, needing to return safely to families with borders closing. Students were returning from break. We had to keep everyone safe, in a very short window, with little information and no precedent. All hands were on deck, and everyone—staff, faculty, students, families—was doing all we could, as fast as possible.
After that, life became all about gathering information and accepting uncertainty. It was like drinking from a firehose, every day.
I knew from my background in organizational development and intercultural communication that every decision would have ripples, so we needed new structures and ways of communicating across the institution. We had to bring people to the table who may never have been there but should be. Only then could we make informed decisions, mobilize, and be nimble. So even as we lost community in person, it was that community that would make success possible.
I felt confident about our decision not to return in the fall and not bring all students back to DC in January. We knew more about the virus trajectory, and that was the right choice. But there was also loss and grief. I love to walk the campus every day. That’s how I gauge the pulse and learn. That loss was hard for me. It became imperative to connect—with colleagues nationally, here at AU, and, crucially, with students. Again, community came to the forefront, both for me personally and for students.
This year, the hours have been long. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, and I’m not the only one who could say that. Yet there is also so much gratitude—for the privilege to work at home, knowing that not everybody gets that opportunity. Gratitude for my health and that of my family. For my team and how they’ve pulled together. For the engagement I’ve had with students that brings joy and reminds me of why I got into higher education in the first place.
This pandemic and what we’ve gone through has taught me there is a world of possibilities. The pre-COVID world will not return. But we’ll find new ways of being, new ways to support each other in this changing world, and new ways to embrace possibilities.
Two students sit on the quad in March 2021. (Matthew Fredericks/AU)
Amrutha Chatty, Senior, SOC, Public Relations and Strategic Communications
In fall 2019, I was extraordinarily fortunate to study abroad in London, a fulfilling experience both personally and academically. After spending four months away from AU working, traveling, and immersing myself in a new culture, I entered the last part of college reenergized and with a fresh perspective.
Just two months after returning to campus, my newfound energy began to fade. At first, there was hope that COVID-19 would be only a temporary inconvenience. But the pandemic forced my classmates and I to come to terms with how the rest of our time at AU was going to look. I moved back into my childhood home in South Brunswick, New Jersey, where I would spend 11 months isolated from my friends, laboring through online classes and, at times, questioning what my future held. With every day that passed, I felt more and more detached from the student experience I’d taken for granted.
With the transition to online learning also came new challenges to academic life. Professors worked hard to adapt their classes for virtual instruction. Students had to put in more effort than ever to be engaged and active participants. When each class consists of sitting in the same chair at a desk for hours on end, it’s hard to maintain a high level of focus and excitement about learning. Many of my favorite classes at AU have been those with lively discussions and interactions between classmates and professors. Some of those critical moments are lost over Zoom, making it harder to connect with the class material. After a year online, I understand the value of the minutes after class to catch up with professors. I miss the chance to run into friends on campus or grab a quick drink from the Dav.
I’ve been able to stay grounded and connected to our community as the director of Kennedy Political Union, AU’s student-run political speakers’ bureau. Leading KPU through a virtual transition has had its challenges, but my team stepped up and put on valuable programming. We’ve hosted Anthony Fauci for a discussion with President Burwell about the ongoing pandemic. Angela Davis joined us for an event about the Black Lives Matter movement, and Stacey Abrams explored the 2020 elections and voter suppression. Even with the added challenge of engaging students in an online environment, KPU could make the most of the situation by booking speakers that might have previously been unable to travel to campus.
Although it’s taken a lot of teamwork and dedication to put these events together, it’s been tremendously rewarding, and I know I’ll miss it after I graduate in May. I’m inspired by my classmates who have kept our community strong by starting mutual aid funds, organizing protests for the Black Lives Matter movement, and volunteering their time and resources to those most affected by the pandemic. I moved back to DC to try to soak up the final moments of my time at AU in as much normalcy as possible. Safe trips to the monuments or the waterfront with my roommate and friends have made us feel a little bit closer to the college experience we once shared.
While nothing can negate the losses and challenges faced this past year, the lessons I’ve learned about the importance of community and how to channel strength during hard times give me hope as I look ahead to the future.
People wearing masks walk on campus following a winter storm in 2021. (Jeffrey Watts/AU)
Gihan Fernando, Executive Director, Career Center
On March 6, 2020, I was scheduled to fly to Nairobi, Kenya, as part of a team on a site visit to our center there. I had packed my suitcase and was ready for a stimulating trip when I learned that AU had implemented a ban on all work-related travel.
That was when it sunk in that the pandemic was upon us.
Looking back at my first message to my Career Center colleagues about working remotely, I smile wryly at my optimistic assessment that we expected to be back in the office in about three weeks.
Volunteering to staff the residence hall desk during move out, I remember several students vividly. A gay student told me it was hard to go home, where he was only out to his mom and shared a room with two siblings. A student from Hong Kong talked about the difficulties of returning there in the middle of the pandemic. One of the last students I saw on campus has since lost several family members to COVID.
For my team, the first several months were a blur of activity. In quick order, we moved all student appointments and drop-ins online, conducted our first virtual job fair, and even found ways to successfully run networking and education programs online. We were flying the plane while we built it. Throughout, our guiding principle was to be there for our students, and especially those with difficult circumstances.
With summer came the reckoning with the long legacy of racism. It was weird to walk around DC and see boarded-up storefronts everywhere. Other moments stood out: white supremacists being jeered at by Black counter-protestors; kneeling with thousands in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square for a vigil called by the Washington bishops; thinking deeply with colleagues about how we can better serve students with an equity lens on our work.
It’s not all bleak. I love recognizing my colleague’s kids. I’ve rediscovered my neighborhood through daily walks. I’m moved by how many people have pushed through exhaustion and constant uncertainty to produce new and improved ways of doing things. A year on, it is trite to say that it’s been an unprecedented year. Through it, I’m struck by our students' grace and adaptability and the extraordinary caring and hard work of my colleagues under challenging circumstances. As we look forward to returning to campus in the fall, I’m hoping to be able to repack my suitcase and head to Nairobi again before too long.
Kiho Kim, Executive Director, Center for Teaching, Research and Learning
The past year has been a blur and is difficult to put into words. My family of four has been largely spared from the immense loss and stress of the pandemic. My wife and I have been able to continue working from home, and though one of our two sons did get COVID-19, he recovered quickly.
Sadly, my father died last summer, and I could not see him or attend his funeral with my family in Canada. But I recognize how fortunate we have been given the unfathomable loss that the pandemic has wrought. It feels like we live in a parallel world, loosely connected to those suffering the most, on separate trajectories through time.
The first two weeks of March 2020 at AU were marked by a frenzy of pandemic planning and transitioning to online teaching. I recall distinctly the exceptional professionalism, dedication, and teamwork of the Instructional Continuity Team, who worked tirelessly to move our faculty to online teaching. Our efforts were well received and appreciated by the faculty, two-thirds of whom had never taught online before.
Before joining CTRL, I came into work pretty much every day, even when I was not teaching. I enjoy being on campus, seeing students, meeting with or bumping into colleagues, going to the gym, and, of course, getting work done. I did not trust myself to work from home; there were just too many distractions.
The pandemic changed all that. I set up my remote office, equidistant from my wife and kids as we all moved online for work and school, and soon came to appreciate the ultrashort commute and a further relaxation of what I think of as work-appropriate attire. I have even learned how to ignore the distractions, though we did have to insist that drum practice only be allowed outside of working hours.
In settling into this new routine, it was essential to keep the CTRL team connected in ways that would allow us to maintain the collegial and collaborative culture we had created. That meant relying more on instant messaging and video calls instead of emails, to add spontaneity and presence to our communications. And using our weekly staff meetings to both report out and check in on one another, periodically digressing upon sightings of pets and partners and changes in scenery.
The rhythm of remote work no longer seems weird. And I feel just as productive at home as in the office. But I can’t wait to put away my sweatshirt and sweatpants and get back to campus.
A student works near COVID testing equipment. (Jeffrey Watts/AU)
Paul Wapner, Professor, SIS
The first thing my wife and I did, when we learned about COVID in March 2020, was jump on a plane to visit my aging parents. We were unsure how deadly the virus was or how long it would last, so we leaped toward what felt most important. It was the last time I saw my father. He died in May and my heart ached as I attended his Zoom funeral, and it continues to ache as the long COVID months unfold without him.
Teaching during COVID has brought a different but related form of pain. I’ve always looked to the classroom as a place to gain perspective and find comfort by reflecting with students about things of significance. All of a sudden, the classroom evaporated. Within days, flesh turned to plastic; conversation transformed into sound bites (as the mute button clipped expression); camaraderie turned to seclusion as I would send students into the black box of breakout rooms.
Yes, I can teach from the comfort of my own home—and not have to change my wardrobe—but disembodied learning prevents me from really knowing and journeying alongside my students. Their names appear under framed faces, but that simply gives me license not to memorize them. Their ability to turn off their own screen and leave me staring at a blank rectangle unnerves me. By closing each class with a final “end meeting” click, it hurts not to see them gather their books, lope across the room to talk with each other, or linger in front so we could explore further our curiosity.
Something else, however, has happened during the pandemic. I’ve learned that, despite its disembodied quality, the synthetic classroom can still generate magic. Taking up the topic of the day—which for me is global environmental politics—something starts to happen. Slowly, we find ourselves transcending the pandemic’s emergency alarm and even preoccupations of our everyday lives. As we settle into discussion, we start to touch the piercing quality of thought. The Earth, plight of other people, long traditions of accomplishment and challenge, and the more-than-human world come into sharp focus. Perhaps not as brightly as before, but the plastic classroom can still sparkle.
I’m unsure why this is. I know that all of us are hungrier these days. Stuck in homes with only limited contact, we are starved for engagement, meaning, and the chance to wrestle with questions that matter. But I think it involves something more enduring. There is something about education—about inquiry, insight, and understanding—that electrifies us. At least that is what I’d like to believe.
I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but I must say that no matter how dispirited, lonely, or challenged I may feel by the pandemic, this changes as soon as I turn on the screen and find 25 troubled yet inquisitive students waiting to dig in. This doesn’t erase the pain but expands the horizons within which I need to feel it.