Sincerely Yours, The Quarantine Club

Jordan Viars
Duke University

Emily Zarych
Bryant University

Hannah Aksamit
California Polytechnic State University

Molly Jean Callahan
College of Charleston

Melissa Joy Raines
The YESS Institute

Michael T. Miller
The Ohio State University

Jarrod Chase Coleman
University of Louisville

Michael Isaza
Iowa State University

To help maintain a sense of connection during the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic, the cohort of live-in Residence Life graduate assistants from Clemson University’s Class of 2019 held a lunch gathering via Zoom. This flock of new professionals maintained a Snapchat group after graduation. The medium proved useful for sharing corny jokes, venting about professional staff life, and checking-in on one another during dark times. COVID-19 proved no different. What follows is an interview-style dialogue reflecting on our experiences as a group of friends, new professionals, and master’s graduates looking for a way to stay connected with our network of support during this [dramatic pause] “unprecedented time.”

Note: We acknowledge this is an unusual way of sharing information in our field. But “unprecedented times” call for unprecedented ways of sharing our stories and experiences. 

Cohort Community: What led to this group getting together at this particular time?

Jarrod Chase Coleman:

“As someone who entered student affairs because of my desire to engage with students, this has been a particularly challenging time. In saying this, I knew that I was not alone. I have remained in fairly close communication with a small cluster from my grad school cohort, and knowing that other people were probably feeling isolated, I suggested that we hold a virtual lunch. A simple idea to just see people’s faces again. People were excited by the idea, and we quickly began to discuss details of when and where we would meet. The chance to talk with people was an activity that many of us were lacking in our lives.”

Emily Zarych:

“We came together out of what felt like desperation. I’m not sure any of us knew what to do in this moment except be a listening ear for each other and share what we were experiencing. I had only recently returned from a trip to Florida in mid-March and when I returned to my campus it was like a different world. It seemed like overnight so much changed and I still had not processed what was going on around me.”

Melissa Raines:

“Personally, I work at a middle school right now and my partner works for a community college as an academic advisor in Denver. I’ve been following how K-12 and higher education institutions here have been working to continue remote learning, and I wanted to hear the good and bad of what’s happening around our country.”

Michael Isaza:

“Coming together as a group now felt very similar to being together during grad school. It was familiar. In the current world of overwhelming uncertainty and unfamiliarity, latching onto anything familiar helped me ground myself and move forward.”

Jordan Viars:

“The thought of seeing my grad colleagues made the COVID-19 situation seem solvable. After all, we did sit in a classroom together for two years solving all of Higher Education’s problems. Why would this situation be any different? But it was different and that’s what we needed to share. We needed to sit in this moment. Together.”

Pouring From an Empty Cup: What were some of the topics discussed? What were some of the things you needed from this group?

Hannah Aksamit:

“What didn’t we discuss? It felt like no time had passed since we were last together. It was the check-in I didn’t know I needed. We did the ‘student affairs thing’ asking how we are doing, digging deeper to concern we have for our health, our student’s health, and our ability to manage emotions. We talked about what our campuses response to COVID-19, what part we’re playing, and the unknowns surrounding it. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a planner, I like answers, so living in this ambiguity has been less than ideal. We reminded each other of what makes us happy, trying to practice what we preach about self-care tactics.”

Molly Jean Callahan:

“I needed to be around people (even virtually) that know me, personally and professionally. As a new professional who decided to return to my hometown to start my career, I have a wealth of people around me that know me personally or professionally, but not both. It was so good to see these friends of mine again and be able to seamlessly switch between the things I was processing personally and the things I was navigating professionally.”

Emily Zarych:

“I needed the group to listen to me vent. I look to them to help me process difficult experiences and make sense of my environment. Navigating your first year in a new job, away from all of your friends and family, can be really difficult. Having your job security diminish while trying to figure out what you now value in a workplace and how to show up authentically for your students caused a lot of stress for me. I needed some time to process with my peers. I had recently been reprimanded by my supervisor for my tone while communicating. While I am not proud of that, I think I needed to surround myself with people who cared about how I was doing personally.”

Michael T. Miller:

“I felt the need to reconnect with my peers, too. After you conquer a Master’s program together, you have a bond like no other. These are my people, and as fellow young professionals in the field, they understand what I am experiencing. When the University shut down, the campus recreation facilities also shut down – something I should have anticipated. Tending to my physical wellness is a stress reduction technique I use, but that cannot be properly fulfilled so my social and emotional wellness are the next best thing. I needed the support to cope with these strange times.”

Finding Our New Normal: Your student engagement transitioned online and you did the same with your peer support and engagement. How was that helpful?

Jordan Viars:

“The reconnection of this group provided a light in an otherwise dark moment. Sharing this space gave me the chance to finally process all the experiences and feelings I had held for weeks during our shutdown process, to take off the ‘mask’ I had been wearing. Grad school really bonded us. We were each other’s support system so the rawness of the moment was natural.”

Hannah Aksamit:

“Learner, input, and achiever are among my top five strengths so I am constantly hungry for best practices and making processes efficient. I used the chat as an opportunity to do some informal benchmarking. With all of our campuses being so different in type, size, and location, I was curious to know what folks had seen and heard related to navigating COVID-19, realistic requests being made, and how and if folks were telecommuting. My county had gone on shelter-in-place and I did not know what it would mean to be ‘essential staff.’ My coworkers and I reached out to our union about requests that were being made of us and our staffs on the front lines, genuinely worried about our safety and ability to perform our jobs.”

Long-Term Impact: What does this mean for each of you as you look ahead to your careers?

Michael T. Miller:

“The silver lining in this crisis is the skill building that is occurring. Flexibility is the name of the game as we change processes, procedures, and practices. But, I have fear for the negative impact that the crisis will have on my professional development. I never completed this academic year, and if the situation worsens or even continues on its current trajectory, will the coming Fall semester resume as normal? I could be facing a situation where in my first two years of professional life, the second half of year one and the first half of year two could feel incomplete. It is possible that my third year as a professional is my first year that I could consider ‘normal.’ For some, three years is the shelf life of their entry level position. Of course I am thankful to not be personally affected by COVID-19, but I empathize with those who also just began their professional careers.”

Michael Isaza:

“‘Day-to-day’ has felt closer to this new reality than ‘business as usual,’ which was a phrase I constantly heard echoed by colleagues. Perhaps it is well intended, but the phrase is dismissive and invalidates the many forms of trauma we are experiencing right now. For the moment, staying engaged with peers and colleagues is one positive action we can take to remain engaged. I think we will continue to see the consequences of this pandemic for the foreseeable future. I view this as a way for us to move forward together.”

Jarrod Chase Coleman:

“I agree. The phrase, ‘return to normalcy’, may be possible following a large-scale, on-campus event or unexpected office transition; however, it is simply not feasible following COVID-19. So much of the focus in student affairs has been on in-person engagement. COVID-19 has taken this norm and thrown it out the window. Looking ahead, the ACPA/NASPA technology competency is no longer a competency that people can dismiss.

Over the past few weeks, I have seen some of my peers thrive in this time of uncertainty by using new technologies in their communities. Unfortunately, I have also seen many professionals overwhelmed by the  technology now mandatory in  their lives. Technology was a supplemental tool, not a necessary one, and they are simply not prepared to engage with the issues of today. As I look toward the future, I know that the next few years – and decades – we will see an increase in online work. Work from home, whether permanent or temporary, is going to become a new norm. Online interactions will be viewed as viable alternatives to in-person interactions. Assessment, which would usually take days and weeks, will be available instantaneously as livestreams and online spaces can save and upload the amount of viewers and engagement in a session. If we adapt to these challenges, then the future seems much more tailored to the needs of current and future students than the ‘normal’ we just departed.”

Melissa Raines:

“The K-12 system very much informs the future of higher education, so the ways quarantine affects my middle schoolers will trickle into higher education in the next few years. Knowing how online schooling is going within my district and the issues my students have faced trying to continue their education highlights a lot of inequity in the foundations of education nationwide. My middle school is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and has a 95% free and reduced lunch population. While my 12-14 year olds are trying to learn online, many of them are also caring for younger siblings, experiencing internet issues, and trying to understand our written English directions while having teacher input with their families whose primary household language is Spanish. Many of our students also have IEPs that are hard to meet through virtual education. All of this on top of the stresses of being home without their friends for an extended period of time.

For the future, I think it’s important to recognize the disruption in the education of our youth, the effect it is having on underrepresented students at a much higher rate, and the widening learning gap compared to more affluent, white, majority-identity student populations. Plus, the mental health of our students should, and for me has been, at the forefront of this pandemic and hopefully can continue to be a focal point as our students move into post-secondary education settings.”

Space and Grace: How can educators in other roles, other settings, and in the future use this to enhance working teams, student support, graduate student experiences, etc.?

Emily Zarych:

“While the ongoing joke is “that meeting could have been an email” sometimes that email should have been a quick meeting. I have learned from this experience that human connection is essential, especially during stressful times. Using a video conference software allows us to see the facial expressions and tone being conveyed that can be left out when engaging in written communication.”

Michael Isaza:

“I believe there is more work to be done in developing how we connect and collaborate during this period of social distancing. The last month or so has consisted of frequent WebEx meetings and an increase in the number of emails I receive. These virtual meetings and emails replaced the face to face meetings that were often the highlight of my workday.” 

Molly Jean Callahan:

“I agree. I’m also thinking about this in terms of the staff experience. I really enjoy being together virtually over a video chat – even if there’s no conversation. I’ve used this method of connection for years both with friends and with my partner. It reminds me of study groups where my friends and I would gather to hold each other accountable to completing homework assignments whether we shared courses or not. It’s important to me that I know I’m not alone in this pandemic-induced upheaval – even if it means virtual work parties with colleagues. We’re missing opportunities for connection as we work from afar; there’s no laughter over the coffee pot anymore or spontaneous lunches when leftovers don’t seem appealing the next day.

There’s room for casual gatherings to collaborate virtually with no agenda – and maybe even laugh over the virtual coffee pot. I’ve been impressed by our Staff Advisory Committee at the College – they created a lot of opportunities for staff to connect virtually in a casual manner around a number of topics. There is a weekly drop-in for parents wanting to discuss working from home with children, a drop-in for those living and working alone during this time, a weekly session on Meditation and Mindfulness, and one just for those wanting to connect and spend time with colleagues across campus.”

Signing Off

For us, a simple suggestion in a GroupMe chat turned into a Zoom meeting that provided us a much needed reprieve from the world we were navigating. As life becomes increasingly uncertain, the desire to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on our students’ lives has become the focus of educators around the world. But what about the impact on us? Every day leads to more questions than answers. Though we are doing our best; we all wait for the next email to change everything we set in motion. Of the many lessons learned these past few weeks, we have realized: “unprecedented times” is a phrase that does not carry much weight anymore.

What we are missing in this time is connection. We have no choice but to hold our meetings in a virtual space. We long for answers to the difficult questions around “how do we come back from this?” We are learning to offer space to heal and cope because this is one of the few things we can offer each other in this moment. That said, “unprecedented times” is no excuse for us to avoid providing for our general well being. How are we providing intentional space for ourselves, and those around us, to just be with each other? Connection with our people, albeit virtually, is just what we need right now. Connection will propel us through this moment. And connection is how we can best prepare for what awaits on the other side of this pandemic.

Yours in Quarantine,

Jordan, Emily, Hannah, Molly, Melissa, Mikey, Chase, & Mike

Discussion Questions:

  1. How are you addressing newfound disruptions in your daily routine? Are these resolutions short-term or long-term?
  2. What process have you gone through to reflect and acknowledge your own emotions and well-being throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
  3. What might connection look like for you and your team during this time of social distancing and distance working? How can you operationalize those ideas? 

Author Bios

Jordan Viars is a Residence Coordinator at Duke University. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise where he majored in Psychology. After undergrad Jordan worked two years in residence life at the University of Pikeville in Eastern Kentucky before completing his Master’s Degree in Counselor Education – Student Affairs at Clemson University where he developed a particular interest in the experiences of first-generation, rural, and LGBTQIA+ students.

Emily Zarych is a Community Director at Bryant University in Rhode Island. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology at Rutgers University- New Brunswick. She completed her Masters of Education degree from Clemson University in Counselor Education – Student Affairs. Emily has currently taken on managing social media for her office and has enjoyed learning new ways to engage with residents while collecting informal, qualitative assessment.

Hannah Aksamit is a Coordinator of Student Development at California Polytechnic State University, their first full-time professional role. She completed her undergraduate work at the University of Arizona in Tucson where she majored in Psychology with a double minor in Chemistry and Family Studies & Human Development. She completed her Master’s Degree in Counselor Education – Student Affairs at Clemson University where she explored her passion for programming, assessment, and curriculum.

Molly Jean Callahan is the Student Support Coordinator and Office Manager for the Office of the Dean of Students at the College of Charleston.   Molly received her Master of Education in Counselor Education (Student Affairs) from Clemson University. Prior to that, she completed her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of South Carolina. She is a proud South Carolina native and also serves as the Director of Administrative Operations for the South Carolina College Personnel Association.

Melissa Joy Raines is a Middle School Program Manager at an educational non-profit, the YESS Institute, in Denver, Colorado. She completed her undergraduate work as a first-generation college graduate at the University of Georgia where she majored in International Affairs and Social Studies Education. She then worked for a non-profit campus ministry for a year and another year as an AmeriCorps member for College Possible in Omaha, Nebraska. After two years of working full-time with college students, she completed her Master’s Degree in Counselor Education – Student Affairs at Clemson University. Because of Melissa’s passion around equity, inclusion, and success for underrepresented student populations, she has accepted a new position as an Advisor for the Community College of Denver’s TRIO program starting later this summer after she finishes this school year with the K-12 system.

Michael T. Miller is a Residence Hall Director at The Ohio State University. He completed his undergraduate work at University of South Florida where he majored in Public Health. He then completed his graduate program earning a Master’s Degree in Counselor Education – Student Affairs at Clemson University. Mikey has a particular passion for student development theories and working with first-year students in Residence Life.

Jarrod Chase Coleman is a Hall Director at the University of Louisville. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication. After undergrad, Chase pursued his Master’s Degree in Counselor Education – Student Affairs at Clemson University where he developed interests in masculinities and learning new ways to incorporate technology in the workplace.

Michael Isaza serves as a Hall Director at Iowa State University in Ames, IA. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Central Florida, where he majored in Political Science with a focus in American Politics. He then completed graduate work at Clemson University, earning a Master’s Degree in Counselor Education- Student Affairs. Michael has developed a passion for working in the areas of supporting first-generation college students and college to post-college career transition.

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