What a year.
It was March 11, 2020, that Governor Cuomo first announced that all SUNY campuses would move to maximize remote learning for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester.
Our community has come a long way since those uncertain early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve learned about how to protect ourselves and one another; we’ve worked together to overcome challenges and support each other through hardship; and we’ve sacrificed and succeeded in ways that may have seemed unimaginable on the day of the Governor’s announcement.
Through it all, the unique strengths of the SUNY New Paltz community have been on full display.
In this post, we’ve selected stories from the last 12 months that showcase those strengths: The resilience of students adapting to new ways of living and learning; the selflessness of faculty and staff lending their expertise to the response, even as they juggled new responsibilities at home and work; the generosity of alumni supporting students in crisis; and the collaboration with our partners in the village and town that has helped keep coronavirus spread low, on and off campus.
In March 2021, there are encouraging signs that brighter days are ahead: Steadily increasing vaccine supplies, infection rates declining from their mid-winter highs, and a general sense of optimism that comes with warmer weather and longer days. We also know that we are not yet in the clear, and that we need to remain vigilant in the present even as we look forward to a better future.
We hope the stories we’ve gathered here provide feelings of pride in our accomplishments, comfort in our perseverance, and hope for our shared health and happiness to come.
1: We Not Me
In some ways this is the SUNY New Paltz story of the pandemic: The way our community sacrificed and put the greater good first, and made it possible to sustain our educational mission under unprecedented circumstances.
“We Not Me” was the ethos in the early days of COVID-19, when in-person staff in Facilities Operations, Emergency Management and Environmental Health & Safety, the Mail Room and other vital campus infrastructure units developed new procedures to continue working safely and protecting our community.
“We Not Me” defined the College’s partnership with the Town and Village to Protect New Paltz during the uncertain days at the end of summer.
“We Not Me” enabled us to build an on-campus testing process (entirely volunteer in the fall, and staffed by students this spring) capable of effectively and accurately processing thousands of tests.
“We Not Me” was the spirit President Christian identified when he thanked our students, faculty and staff for a safe and successful fall 2020 semester.
And “We Not Me” embodies the selflessness our alumni carried with them into their professional and personal lives, on a variety of pandemic front lines, all around the world.
2. Our Commitment to Anti-Racism
The story of COVID-19 in America will always go hand-in-hand with the renewed focus on racial justice following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. The following month, the College committed to becoming an actively anti-racist institution, through an inclusive, collaborative effort to make meaningful changes that are within our power to make.
The process involves giving all members of our community a space to share their experiences and their values, as we have done at multiple Dismantling Racism community dialogues in the last year. It also requires concrete action, such as the more recent formation of a University Police Department Advisory Committee.
We all recognize that the process of becoming truly anti-racist is ongoing. The work continues, and we are doing it together.
3. Faculty Adjust to Keep Students Learning
The abrupt pivot to remote learning in March 2020 was a shock to the academic system, requiring nearly every faculty member on campus to quickly develop new technological skills and pedagogical methods to keep students learning.
Departments across campus used the summer to hone those skills and plan for whatever contingency the fall semester had in store. We could cite any number of examples about how diligently faculty and staff worked, and how well their efforts paid off – as they did in Theatre Arts, which successfully debuted a fully online production season; and in Physics & Astronomy, which moved to Facebook Live to share planetarium shows with skywatchers at home; and in the English Department, where world-renowned guest musicians tuned in to help illustrate writing lessons.
We have seen tremendous innovation in every discipline, and tremendous dedication from every faculty member in the last year, which positions the College to emerge from the pandemic with its reputation for outstanding, student-focused education stronger than ever before.
4. Staff Take on New Roles to Promote and Protect Community Health
The need to adjust to pandemic circumstances on campus extended well beyond the classroom. We have depended on staff members across campus taking on new responsibilities to help build COVID-19 testing systems, contact tracing processes, enhanced sanitation methods, safety regulations and quarantine spaces from scratch.
Unsurprisingly, our community rose to the occasion. Our successful testing process, which as of this writing has conducted more than 25,000 tests with a positivity rate under 1%, came together not only thanks to health professionals from the Student Health Service, but also through the efforts of dozens of volunteers and reassigned staff who pivoted from their usual roles into entirely new, full-time projects related to the virus.
Special shout-outs are due to Keith Kenney ’99 (Management) ’10g (Education-School Leadership), assistant director of athletics, wellness & recreation, who continues to oversee operations at the testing site, and Athletic Trainers Allison Lindsay and Bryan Lurie, who helped establish, lead and continue to support led our contact tracing process.
And of course, no run-down of campus innovations combating COVID-19 would be complete without mentioning the Party Patrol. This rotating cast of staff and administrators hit the streets at all hours of the night in an effort to ensure that the institution’s health and safety enforcement came from a place of warmth, friendliness and empathy.
5. Generous Campus Community Supports Students
When students encounter unpredictable financial hardship, such as an accident, illness, natural disaster or other unforeseen events such as the coronavirus, their success in and out of the classroom is threatened. Emergency funds provide much-needed stability as students continue their academic journey.
In addition to the many campus community members who rallied together to support the College’s Student Crisis Fund and the Crossing the Finish Line Fund this year, alumna Michele Di Palo-Williams ’77 (Sociology) and her husband Graeme Williams were inspired to make a difference. The couple donated funds to support the acquisition of laptops dedicated to students in the College’s Scholar’s Mentorship Program (SMP) to use remotely.
These acts of generosity and kindness can be a powerful motivator for students who come to know someone cares about their success.
6. Institute for Disaster Mental Health Leads Early Response
The College has always been incredibly fortunate to be home to the IDMH, an internationally recognized leader in helping communities recover from the psychological effects of traumatic experiences.
IDMH students and staff are trained as first responders with flexible skills that can be applied quickly in a variety of situations. That often brings them to locations far from home – they’ve worked recently in Puerto Rico, Haiti and Texas, among other areas – but in the confusing early days of the pandemic the Institute was here providing care and resources to our New Paltz community.
IDMH staff including Director Amy Nitza and Deputy Director Karla Vermeulen delivered Psychological First Aid to hundreds of students and employees, providing strategies for alleviating stress and caring for themselves and others in a moment when “normal” life seemed a distant memory.
In the months since, the Institute has done what it always does: provide community care while simultaneously creating learning opportunities for students. These kid-friendly videos and the free children’s book “An Unusual Situation” are just two examples of how the IDMH made it possible for New Paltz students to learn from and contribute to the pandemic response.
7. Alumni Serve Communities Large and Small
As families acknowledge the one-year anniversary of students packing up their backpacks and leaving their in-person classrooms, alumni educators and volunteers continue to serve their communities with the skills and expertise they learned at the College.
Examples of this perseverance include Stephanie Whiteman ’17 (Psychology; Black Studies) who is continuing to impact young learners’ lives through the successful tutoring business she started last fall, and Nate Duran ’18 (Management) who pivoted quickly with new policies to keep his youth basketball program competing as an outlet for kids.
This year, the Distinguished Alumni Service Award was given to 11 alumni who went above and beyond when the Office of Development & Alumni Relations had to cancel all in-person programming in response to the pandemic.
By offering to participate in a helpful virtual video series highlighting their individual expertise, these inspiring alumni did not hesitate to share their unique knowledge via Zoom, Webex and other online platforms in lieu of the College’s in-person alumni gatherings.
8. Bolstering the PPE Supply Chain
At the time, the challenge was two-fold: How could we provide front-line healthcare workers with the PPE they needed to do their vital work, while also making simpler masks available to everyday people?
The College’s 3D printing labs had an answer for the first question. Almost immediately, the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center redirected its workflow to construct resilient face shields for health workers. Their first delivery of 50 shields went to Ulster County on March 23; by the end of the year, they had produced and shipped more than 30,000.
As for the more basic masks for everyday use? New Paltz faculty were at the center of a more DIY maskmaking process: an online network of hundreds of Hudson Valley residents, who together created thousands of hand-sewn masks for distribution to hospitals, shelters and other at-risk populations. Adjunct professor Kimberly Ruth put it best: Sewing these masks was “a blessing in a time where I would otherwise be in a very fearful and dark place.”
9. Students Supporting One Another
Our students have faced so many new challenges in the last year, and it would be more than enough for them to just persevere and make it through to the other side.
And yet everywhere you look, students are rising to the occasion and doing so much more, often volunteering their own time and energy, to lend strength and support to their peers.
The donor-funded Student Resilience Project is a great new example of students finding new ways to share optimism and motivation. We’ve seen outstanding service from Resident Assistants and other on-campus staff, who create fun programs, share important information and even help out with COVID-19 testing, tracing and quarantine, all while sustaining their efforts in the classroom. Peer tutors at the Center for Student Success and operators at the OASIS/HAVEN peer counseling hotlines are doing their part too, helping their peers overcome academic and personal obstacles to success and wellness.
There are so many more examples; this entry could sustain its own top 10 list.
10. Questionable Authorities Keep Us Dancing
Let’s wrap this list on an upbeat note with every Hawk’s favorite faculty rock band. Their video rendition of “Dancing with Myself” was a heart-felt congratulations to the class of 2020 in a year when normal Commencement exercises were impossible. More fundamentally, it was also a fun and well-produced entertainment at a time when our community needed exactly that.
In December, QA one-upped themselves with a cover of “All Star,” offered as a special message of thanks to all the students who helped keep COVID-19 spread low on campus. We can’t wait to see what they come out with next (no pressure!).