You are here: American University Year in Review 2020 Rising to the Challenges of a Changing World

Rising to the Challenges of a Changing World

Colin Colchamiro, SPA/BA ’19, MA ’21, felt like he was waiting for a hurricane to hit during the weeks leading up to the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. Everyone knew something bad was coming, even if they couldn’t see it, Colchamiro said. As he left campus on March 6 for spring break, he didn’t realize it would be his last time for a long time. He couldn’t have anticipated what the rest of the year would bring.

None of us could. Little has affected American University, and the world, like this global pandemic. On March 16, the American University community transitioned our high-quality and dynamic education online and supported faculty and staff who began teleworking on a scale we’d never seen before. Three principles guided us as we navigated the changes wrought by COVID-19 during the remainder of the spring semester (and what would become the rest of 2020): ensuring the health and well-being of our community; advancing our mission of teaching, learning, and research; and contributing to the broader public health and economic response to the crisis.

“No matter the changes caused by COVID-19, we will not waver in our educational and research mission, nor our commitment to the AU community. Changemakers always look ahead, prepared to address this ever-changing world and take action to make it better,” said AU president Sylvia Burwell in an April 17, 2020, message.


Faced with a complex and rapidly changing situation, we mounted an agile response to the challenges facing us. On March 10, we announced a three-week shift to online classes after spring break as a precautionary measure. By March 12, WHO had declared COVID-19 a pandemic, DC entered a state of emergency, and classes moved online for the rest of the semester. Within three days of the initial announcement, we had established a Student Emergency Fund to support high-need students who faced unanticipated costs related to COVID-19, and the AU community answered with 440 donations.

By March 18, we had transitioned 2,000 classes and essential students services—like counseling, advising, and academic support—online. As knowledge of the virus grew and cases climbed, we suspended most in-person operations and university-sponsored travel, returned students who were studying abroad, and extended faculty and staff teleworking. The AU experience also transitioned online, with speaker events, wellness services, and access to library resources such as research assistance, online databases, and course reserves.

The University Library is empty by mid-March as classes move online for the spring 2020 semester; resources are available virtually. 

Faculty begin preparing for online learning even before the pandemic hit with CTRL workshops that continue virtually.  

PREPARING FACULTY FOR SUCCESS  140 CTRL workshops and events  from September 2019 to August 2020

The Instructional Continuity Team—consisting of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning (CTRL) and several University Library teams—prepared the community for online learning, especially faculty. “We really focused our attention on how to use the technology, how to connect with the students, and livestream your lecture,” said Kiho Kim, executive director of CTRL. “As the semester progressed, we began to include more pedagogy—what is the best practice for teaching online, what sort of techniques can you use to better engage your students.”

By March 23, 3,800 students including Colchamiro had come back to campus in intervals to safely move out of residence halls. “Move-in and move-out are such hectic periods, but they’re fun because everyone is there and excited,” Colchamiro said. “But coming back to campus to pack up my room and seeing campus so deserted was a hard day.”

Though Colchamiro was concerned about how professors would handle the transition to classes online, his experience was mostly positive. “Professors have thought more about flexibility and accessibility. They adjusted what we’re doing to make sure we can all get through this and get something out of it,” Colchamiro said.


As the world continued to reel from the impact of COVID-19, we focused on keeping our values of integrity, human dignity, inclusive excellence, and community at the heart of our decisions. We ensured many of our full- and part-time employees could perform their jobs remotely by enhancing our technology infrastructure and services to support online learning and telework. We also fully funded benefits and retirement plans for our contract workers who could not participate in their jobs on campus. To provide students and families with financial relief, the university offered online summer courses at a 10 percent discount. Summer enrollment for undergraduate, graduate, and law credit hours increased 26 percent from 2019.

A woman runs errands in a shopping center near campus as the city adjusts to the new normal. 

With a $97 million total loss for FY 20–21, the university utilized $40 million in budget reserves and endowment income—approximately 40 percent of the total cost savings—to lessen the financial impact on our people. Our executive team reduced their compensation in April with the president cutting her salary by 15 percent and the provost and vice presidents by 8 percent. Deans and former university leaders also reduced their compensation in support of our community and our efforts. A fundamental decision was made to avoid large scale layoffs. To achieve this, sacrifice was made across the community, including five unpaid furlough days for most faculty and staff and suspending the university’s matching contributions to employee’s retirement plans. We also implemented a hiring freeze and paused capital investments and construction. However, in on our ongoing commitment to equity, many of these measures were not implemented for employees earning less than $40,000 per year.

As we worked on recovering our financial health, our community of changemakers didn’t sit still. Despite the many challenges COVID-19 continued to create, we never stopped rising to meet them. From providing food to those who needed it to supplying masks and personal protective equipment, we used our skills to make an impact where it was needed most.

AU in Action

Ryan Jolley holds up a sign that reads hashtag rydye, $3000 donated, 600+ masks sold.

Threading a Way Through Crisis

By adapting her business, Rydye, and making more than 700 face masks with her family, Ryan Jolley, SPA/BA ’20, raised more than $4,000 for Project Cure, an organization that sends medical supplies and PPE to first responders and medical professionals across the country. “I wanted to encourage people around me to start wearing masks and stay safe during the pandemic,” Jolley said. “At the same time, I wanted to contribute to relief efforts.”

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Dan Doll and Dave Simnick hold Soapbox hand sanitizer.

Eagles with a Mission

Soapbox has always been in the business of helping people in need. Dave Simnick, SPA/BA ’09, CEO, and Dan Doll, Kogod/BSBA ’10, president and COO, donate a bar of soap for every unit their company sells. Their donations were set to double when they added hand sanitizer to their product line in February. “We see what we’re doing, in a very small way, as helping to provide essential resources to those who need them most,” Simnick said.

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A milling machine sits on a desk in the Design and Build Lab.

PPE for Those in Need

A team from AU’s Design and Build Lab (DaBL) used their equipment and expertise to manufacture face shields for workers on the front lines. “We really wanted to do something, because this pandemic makes you feel kind of powerless,” said DaBL director Kristof Aldenderfer, CAS/BS ’07. They used 3D printers they took home, the lab’s laser-cutter, and a new disinfection station. They donated their first batch of 100 to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast DC.

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A woman distributes free Medium Rare meals to elderly recipients.

Delivery of Hope

When Medium Rare steakhouses’ sales dropped by 75 percent after restaurants closed across the DC region in March, Mark Bucher, SPA/BA ’90, wanted to help the community and keep as many of his employees working as he could. The co-owner announced on Twitter that his team would deliver a fresh, hot meal to any senior citizen in the area in need—for free. Through his generosity and the help of AU employees and alumni, he has touched the lives, and stomachs, of hundreds of people.

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The AU Humanities Truck.

Humanities Truck Serves Day Laborer Community

AU’s Humanities Truck has found ways to support the day laborer community of DC, whether it’s from gathering firsthand stories or providing food to those in need during the pandemic. In partnership with local grassroots organizations and nonprofits, fellow Ludy Grandas expanded her work with day laborers in DC to deliver 50 bags of groceries each week to a common gathering spot for those who seek daily employment, many undocumented immigrants.

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Sandy Wood sits in front of barrels from One Eight Distilling.

Sharing Good Spirits

Long before COVID-19, One Eight Distilling gave back to its community. Known for its District-made spirits, the distillery shut down normal operations and devoted its resources to producing hand sanitizer. The company is prioritizing sales to first responders, government agencies, hospitals, and healthcare professionals, said Sandy Wood, WCL/JD ’01, CEO and cofounder. DC government has placed several orders, and the company is donating sanitizer to smaller nonprofits performing critical services in vulnerable communities. 

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A graphic of parents on a couch and a child using a tablet unsupervised.

Interrupting Online Radicalization

With the COVID-19 pandemic, extremists are taking advantage of fear and uncertainty to radicalize youth online. A new guide from the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center provides resources to help parents and caregivers identify and interrupt radicalization tactics. The PERIL team, led by SOE/SPA professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss, worked with scholars, teachers, parents, and even former extremists to practically apply research to youth interventions that will stop radicalization in its tracks.  

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Microscopic image of COVID-19.

Exploring the Pandemic in Real Time

A seminar for future public health professionals gave them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity as they explored the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic in real time. The course examined historical implications of past pandemics, the current and evolving situation, and how this pandemic will transform individuals and society.  “Now is the time to engage in difficult conversations that can lead to a healthier world,” said Public Health Scholars Program director Melissa Hawkins, the epidemiologist who developed the seminar. 

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CTRL also answered the faculty’s call to continue to enhance their online learning skills with more workshops about advanced technological tools. “Teaching is an important part of our culture,” Kim said. “The combination of faculty being receptive to different modes of teaching and the university being responsive to the kinds of things [faculty] were looking for made for a positive outcome.”

Though commencements in 2020 are virtual, graduates find ways to celebrate, many taking socially-distanced photos on campus. 

Faculty also found ways to continue their scholarship, many examining the impacts of COVID-19 through lenses of policy, health, and social justice. At the onset of the pandemic, WCL public health law professor Lindsay Wiley advocated for widespread COVID-19 testing, more protection for frontline health workers, and support for people of color and low-income communities. A demographer and global health scholar, SIS professor Rachel Robinson explained the disparities of COVID-19 among Black, Latinx, and Native American people, stressing the importance of health care access, basic income provisions, and efforts to dismantle systemic racism. Another SIS global health professor, Nina Yamanis, promoted the critical need for early, clear, and consistent public health messaging to limit COVID-19 deaths. SPA professor Bradley Hardy discussed the economic consequences of the pandemic and how federal and local governments can make economic policy decisions that help those most affected.

We celebrated the Class of 2020 through virtual commencements in May and December, with plans for an in-person ceremony that would include these graduates as soon as circumstances allowed, and we welcomed new students via virtual events and initiatives, including a virtual Eagle Summit orientation for first-year and transfer students.

Experiential learning continued, with virtual job and internship fairs, and internships like the Washington Semester Program moving online. “It’s really great how many internships and jobs have transitioned online,” Colchamiro said. “It’s such a big part of going to AU, and the fact that we’re able to continue those experiences is so important.”

AU Forward

On June 16, AU announced AU Forward, a detailed plan to help ensure the health, safety, and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and the broader community in preparation for a fall semester with a hybrid of in-person and online classes. However, due to accelerating case counts and the District’s mandated two-week quarantine for anyone traveling from 27 high-risk states, by July 30, AU had moved to a fully online fall semester with no on-campus residential experience.

“COVID-19 offers no easy answers, and we all must take difficult steps to navigate these times,” President Burwell said in a July 30 message.

10% Community of Care discount on fall tuition

“While it is disappointing that we are unable to be on campus this fall, we will not be deterred from our work or our purpose. We will deliver an outstanding educational experience, thanks to the dedication of our faculty and staff and the spirit and ingenuity of our amazing students.” 

Masked up and six feet apart, AU students in the DMV take time to connect with a hike outside.  

As professors began using different aspects of technology, like Zoom breakout sessions, to make online classes feel more like an in-person classroom experience, Colchamiro said his fall classes were the engaging and challenging learning opportunities he was used to on campus. Still, he admits that he and many students missed the personal connections of the student experience. “If it wasn’t clear before, it’s definitely clear now that people need that in-person aspect [for college],” Colchamiro said.

Faculty missed in-person interaction too, and Kim admits that student engagement has been a difficult challenge to overcome over the internet. But departments have found different ways to build connections. Some labs use online community platforms, like Discord, to keep in touch. Campus Life released a student’s guide to fall 2020 and created an online platform, Eagles Everywhere, to help AU students, alumni, and families to connect in their local communities. 

Finding opportunities for interaction can be challenging, but necessary for the well-being of our students and faculty, Kim said. The Department of Environmental Science, Kim’s own, has started planning AU-approved small group excursions for the spring. One weekend, department chairs organized weekend walks around the DMV area. “Everyone will wear masks and be social distanced, but they’ll at least have that connection in real life,” Kim said.

Ramping Up

On October 26, the university announced a “robust” spring experience that expanded in-person opportunities on campus; by March 15, 2021, more than 500 first-year student had moved to campus for an eight-week mid-semester residential experience. We increased in-person classes in the sciences, visual and performing arts, and media studies, among others; boosted both in-person and virtual cocurricular activities and engagements; and offered limited university housing for students with specific programmatic requirements or acute housing needs. Most faculty and staff continued to work remotely with some physical presence where needed to support students.

Flowers and trees blooming in spring on the AU campus-wide arboretum are a constant as the community looks to the future. 

To protect the health and safety of the community, the university delayed the beginning of the spring semester for undergraduates by one week and cancelled spring break. Instead, students were able to recharge and focus on their personal well-being during Wellness Week, with classes held but no written assignments, required reading, quizzes, or exams.

After extensive planning, safety preparations, and coordination with DC health officials, the university held its first in-person commencement experiences since 2019 over the first three weekends in May 2021. During in-person processionals, which were in addition to online celebrations, President Burwell, Acting Provost Starr, and school deans greeted 2021 and 2020 graduates as they took part in a time-honored tradition—crossing the Bender Arena stage as their names were called.

The advent of the COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020 allowed us to increase activity and remain on-course to return to in-person operations in the fall. AU partnered with Gallaudet University to fund a mobile testing laboratory that could process 50,000 COVID saliva tests a week and provided physical space and utility hookups for its operation. AU’s health and safety ambassadors checked visitors into the university’s testing clinics and showed them how to take the tests, provided education on health policies, modeled safe behavior, and offered encouragement.

They also answered questions not related to COVID. Alice Wang, Kogod/BSBA ’22, said she looked at her role as an ambassador kind of like a big sister, embracing her community-building role as she welcomed new students and filled them in on things she’d had to figure out on her own, like the best restaurants in Tenleytown or how to navigate the shuttle system schedule.

2x the in-person classes offered in fall 2020
Planned mid-semester residential experience for about 1,250 students
10% Community of Care tuition discount 22% reduction to law school activity fees