Campus Life on Zoom

The calendar may have said March, but on the first warm day of the spring 2020 semester, there was no other place on the Stony Brook University campus that called to students like the Staller Steps.  It’s the same every year when even the slightest touch of coming spring is in the air and students shed their scarves and puffer vests to soak up some natural Vitamin D. They play Frisbee and drink iced lattes or just sit on the grassy bank with tiered concrete steps in front of the Staller Center for the Arts. At Stony Brook, spring is known as “Staller Season.”

And so on a March day just before spring break more than a year ago, students gathered on the Staller Steps. But it wasn’t just spring that was in the air. Rumors were swirling. Students were whispering about an impending lockdown because of the mysterious COVID-19 disease, while the fate of the semester hung in the balance. Everyone had a different version. A few extra days added to the scheduled one-week break. A few extra weeks at home. An entire semester canceled. 

And everyone had a different source: 

“My friend told me.” 

“My professor said so.” 

“My TA confirmed it.” 

At first, the break was extended one week. But finally, on March 11, then New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo made the call through a press conference. All classes at all State University of New York campuses – including Stony Brook – were going remote. Students had to come back to campus, pack up their dorm rooms in only two days and go home again. 

Senior year was ruined.

Freshman year was ruined. 

Student life was dead.   

Junior economics major Olivia St. John of Malverne, Long Island, was on the Staller Steps with her friends when the rumors were blooming. Staller Season is one of her favorite times at Stony Brook.  

“We were like, ‘Oh my god guys – semester cut short, extra-long spring break, this is great,’” St. John remembers them saying. “And then we looked around and thought, ‘This is not going to be as fun as we think it is.’ I think my friends and I realized before we even left that we all have to go home and live separate lives again and not be together every day. That sucked.” 

For many students, that was indeed an honest assessment of what turned out to be a lost semester. Students didn’t leave without making some noise.  

Shortly before the governor’s press conference, about 200 students gathered outside the administration building. They chanted, “Send us home, Pay us back,” demanding refunds and rebates for pre-paid housing and meal plans. And they called for answers about the fate of the semester. 

“We were like, ‘Oh my god guys – semester cut short, extra-long spring break, this is great. And then we looked around and thought, ‘This is not going to be as fun as we think it is.’ I think my friends and I realized before we even left that we all have to go home and live separate lives again and not be together every day. That sucked.” 

Olivia St. John, junior economics major from Malverne

Christine Marullo, director of student engagement and activities, remembers those days as a blur. “We were just learning every single day and then adjusting and pivoting and pivoting. I vividly remember the protests and Dean Gatteau on the fountain,” she said, referring to Dr. Richard Gatteau, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, who fielded questions by the fountain on the Academic Mall.

Gatteau, who has witnessed Seawolves coming and going for almost 20 years, earned the nickname “Fountain Man” that day. He said if he ever wrote a book about his career, March 11, 2020, would be a pivotal chapter because of all the chaos. But because of Cuomo’s announcement later that day, everyone at Stony Brook finally knew the game plan. Gatteau explained the administration made communication with students one of its main missions, including frequent email updates about procedures for moving out of dorms and other university policies as well as news about the pandemic. 

Still, many clubs and organizations were left in the dark about their fates. Executive boards, or eboards, pivoted from traditional methods of catering to students. Registration was completed online and new methods for recruiting members and virtual programming were drafted. Suddenly, everyone was experiencing Stony Brook student life through their laptops.

As the campus shut down, it seemed as if student life was over.  But for a university that isn’t exactly known for its social life, Stony Brook has had a lot going on in the past 16 months. The Undergraduate Student Government (USG) recognized 349 clubs in spring 2020. That number decreased to 312 this past spring, with 33 new club submissions waiting to be approved for next semester. The offerings include clubs devoted to specific cultural, religious, ethnic and political interests, and everything in between. From ballroom dancing to boxing, cricket to crew, math to meteorology, table tennis to TaeKwonDo. Not to mention the Science Fiction Forum, which has existed since the early 1980s and is one of the longest running clubs in Stony Brook history. All of them are funded by the annual activity fee students are charged. The fee, which was $99.50 before the pandemic, was lowered last fall to $17 and will remain such for each of the next four semesters. 

One advocate for the lower fee was former USG President Huntley Spencer, who resigned recently for personal reasons. He said he wanted to lessen the burden on students during the pandemic, when the budgets for many clubs and organizations weren’t being spent as much as they would have been in a regular year. Some clubs forfeited their budgets for the 2020-2021 academic year because in-person events weren’t allowed. Unspent money goes back into a general fund that gets distributed to clubs that need more money. 

“Everyone needs to sacrifice a little so that you can give a little to more people,” Spencer said, referring to the activity fee. “It’s also been a time for USG to actually grow closer to our clubs.” 

Despite the pandemic and students being scattered across Long Island and the world, most of those clubs managed to survive – and some even thrived. With so much going on, it was fairly easy for students to be involved – even if it was over Zoom from their laptops. 

Junior linguistics major Judie Wu of Manhasset felt the same frustration and stress as many students. When the lockdown came, she was living in Yang Hall, on the west side of campus, and serving as vice president of recruitment for her sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha. As an eboard member, she had to come up with a game plan to lead and engage her sorority sisters while everything went virtual. All that and she had never taken an online class before – and she was losing her meal plan money, formally known as dining dollars.

“I was panicking,” Wu said. “I remember I had so many dining dollars left over. So I literally went to all of the markets and literally used all my dining dollars out because we wouldn’t get money back for that.” 

Wu describes her experience as chaotic, still looking frustrated more than a year later. She knew about COVID-19 before most students because she has relatives in China, where the virus first spread. But like most Americans, Wu assumed it wouldn’t be as bad here, that it would pass quickly. 

“I did not know the extremes of it coming to America,” she said. “I remember that my mother couldn’t get a plane flight because it was very hard to fly back and forth during that time.”

Jared Okunewitch, a Long Island native and incoming president of the Sigma Phi Delta fraternity, was called upon to create virtual ways to recruit new members, including professional events and a Zoom call to get to know brothers. He feared only a few would attend these events, but the turnout was surprisingly high with the fraternity signing up about 12 new members, the most in many years. 

“It just required a lot more outreach from us, and it’s the same thing with professional events,” Okunewitch explained. “If you’re interested in the topic, you can log on and learn all about it. It’s a lot more like presentation based rather than actually like being lectured by one of the brothers.”

While administrators like Marullo were managing their teams and the dozens of plans created to keep student life afloat, Samantha Thompson, associate director of student engagement and activities, took control of the futures of Stony Brook’s 30 Greek life organizations. By the time classes and activities went remote, new members of fraternities and sororities were in the middle of learning about the organizations they had just joined. Thompson explained that individual college chapters were allowed by their national organizations to determine how to handle new members. 

Most Stony Brook organizations continued with virtual processes that resulted in 210 new members joining fraternities and sororities. Figuring out alternative programs for new member education was stressful and required pivoting to accommodate unforeseen issues. But Thompson says she’d never seen organizations more involved in philanthropy initiatives, a requirement of Greek life, especially fundraising for COVID-19 relief organizations like the anti-hunger charity, Feeding America.

“When we’re thinking about service and philanthropy, our fraternity or sorority community leaned into that a lot last spring and this fall,” Thompson said at the time. “I think that it has shown that fraternity and sorority life is strong.”

Some organizations raised money virtually by posting bingo boards on social media where people pay by Venmo and get a shout out online. Bingo boards also offered challenges such as doing 10 pushups or a handstand for charity or the by-now-famous ice bucket challenge, originally to benefit ALS. In the spring 2021 semester, three sororities – Sigma Delta Tau, Alpha Sigma Alpha and Theta Phi Alpha – created a virtual “puppy pageant” to raise money for charity. People donated one dollar for each vote they cast for the cutest of three puppies, each dog representing one of the organizations. Sigma Delta Tau’s Scarlett the Pug won, so the sorority was able to donate the $602 raised by the event to a charity of its choice.  

Alpha Sigma Alpha’s Judie Wu, who participated in philanthropy efforts, is now the group’s president. “I really wanted to take this leadership position to help our chapter grow,” Wu explained. “Being president during the pandemic has been difficult in terms of creating a bond. It is difficult communication-wise because there’s a lot of disconnect between sisters because we don’t really see each other in person.” 

Lost connections were a common worry. Erika Pugliese, a junior political science major from Ronkonkoma, became vice president of the belly dancing club during lockdown and immediately tried to figure out ways to keep the dancers connected. 

She has been belly dancing since her freshman year when she attended the university’s involvement fair and felt a connection between the club and a similar group she danced with in high school. Pugliese enjoys wearing the colorful, jingling costumes and making connections with other dancers. She understands how important camaraderie is and feared they wouldn’t be able to practice and learn new routines – not to mention perform. 

Before the pandemic, the 16 members would practice in person at the campus recreation center twice a week, and even more in the Staller Center when they had an upcoming performance. But during the pandemic months, members logged onto Zoom every Monday and Tuesday evening and danced together in their own homes for about an hour. Because of personal struggles some members faced during the pandemic, mandatory practices were discontinued. 

“Dancing in our rooms is a completely different experience,” Pugliese said. “Some people can’t see the Zoom the right way, you’re not sure what the move is. Now it’s kind of like you’re looking at a screen and just doing belly rolls.”  

The same struggles confronted the Deja Vu Dance troupe, said sophomore Sarah Scharf, the group’s vice president and co-director. Last fall, auditions were canceled and many experienced dancers were inactive since there were no live performances. Although performance groups were allowed to come together in person this past spring, Deja Vu Dance had a rocky start. 

“Since we weren’t able to perform in person, I think that affected us negatively in terms of involvement,” Scharf explained. “We’re trying to figure out other ways that we can try to get the full Deja experience for our new members.”

The recruits had three weeks to master new choreography on Zoom before their first in-person performance this spring before a live student audience at the bottom of the Staller Steps.  

Olivia St. John is also in a performance group – the all-female a capella singing group called The Stony Brook Pipettes. She joined the group’s eboard during the first full semester of remote classes and recalled the challenges of singing on Zoom, such as lagging internet connections that caused voices to be out of sync.

“My favorite thing was just to get into a room together and sing,” St. John said. “Because of Zoom, there’s lags and there’s freezes so you can’t really sing all together.” 

Unlike the Pipettes, whose only required tools are their vocal cords, groups like the hula-hoop and circus club need special equipment for their participants. The two groups joined forces two years ago for budgetary reasons and because both teach unique skills such as juggling, hula hooping, diablo and devil sticks. Their practices usually take place in the multi-purpose room in the recreation center during the sacrosanct hour and a half on Wednesday afternoons known as Campus Life Time when no classes are scheduled. When it’s Staller weather, they hold their meetings outdoors, drawing interested students to watch their tricks. 

For the past year and a half, their meetings were held on Zoom, practicing with plain juggling balls and regular hoops. Because Nikita Chatoredussy, the club’s president, lived on campus, she went out of her way to deliver equipment to members who live in dorms or nearby. And when possible, they practiced on the Staller Steps. “We’re a very hands-on club, so it’s much easier to teach these different skills to people in person because they could physically see what you’re doing from different angles as well,” Chatoredussy explained. “We’ve been mainly doing juggling and hula hoops over Zoom because it is easier to teach those skills over Zoom, especially since hula hoops and juggling balls are more accessible.” 

A light went on in the darkness last summer when Stony Brook gave the go ahead for students to move back into campus housing and for a small number of classes to resume in person. But even so, the Academic Mall – usually crowded with students crisscrossing on their way to classes – was deserted. Campus was so quiet it seemed as if the only sounds came from the shuttle buses idling near the Student Activity Center (SAC) and the music blasting in one’s own headphones. 

Incoming commuter and transfer students never got a glimpse of what it truly means to be a Seawolf – joining clubs through the involvement fair, attending their first football game and the homecoming tailgate and just meeting friends in person to study in the Melville Library’s North Reading Room. 

Emily Snyder, director of student community relations, helps the more than 1,300 so-called non-traditional students – those over the age of 24 – plus transfer and commuter students adapt to campus. 

Because most classes were still online in the spring 2021 semester, the student body this year was classified as roughly 75 percent commuter students, up from the usual 50 percent, according to Snyder. This made her position more important now than at any other time during her 14 years at Stony Brook. 

“There is so much thought given to connecting with this population that is not living on campus, in addition to serving our on-campus students,” she said.  

Snyder and her staff tweaked popular programs from past semesters like drive-in movies in the South P parking lot to accommodate students who live and learn off campus. Her team also worked on strategically organizing events for set days of the week. “There’s a consistency and something that people can depend on,” Snyder explained. “They enjoy this event, they can come back each week or every other week, whatever the programming schedule is, and enjoy that same program.” 

Pablo Alverez, president of the Association of Transfer Students, tackled remote programming while also welcoming new transfer students to a 1,040-acre campus that can, at best, seem overwhelming. “Our students feel isolated from the Stony Brook community at large and from other transfers,” he said.

The goal of the two-year-old association is to give the more than 1,000 transfer students who come to Stony Brook every semester space to meet each other. The club provides a sense of community and addresses the concerns of transfer students to university administrators so policies and programs can be put in place to improve their lives as Seawolves. Students who transferred to Stony Brook during the past two semesters may have never even stepped foot on campus. 

“We’ve tried focusing on creating programs that will attract people, and that will provide something that people either need or want,” Alvarez said. 

Although fewer students were on campus, Howard Gunston, director of student centers, worked night and day to keep the opening of the newly reconstructed $64 million student union on track this fall. Gunston manages all operations in the union and the Student Activities Center. 

The two-story union features a club hub in the lower level – a new space with lounges where clubs can meet and a ballroom for large events. There are study areas where individuals and small groups can gather. 

The first floor consists of many support offices for students such as the Student Accessibility Support Center, the offices of the undergraduate colleges and a brand new UNITI Cultural Center. The center, formerly located in the SAC, now has 3,500 square feet of space in which to host events that celebrate Latin and Black culture. The second floor is home to Student Financial Services and Academic and Transfer Advising Services, among other offices.

“The Stony Brook Union really tells the story of a Seawolf’s journey,” Hunston said. “When you enter the Stony Brook Union on the first floor, one of the offices that you’re entering is literally the office that welcomes every student on their first day, which is New Student Programs. On the second floor, the journey of a Seawolf concludes because they are literally walking to the office that issues the diploma, the Registrar’s Office.” 

For now, the Seawolves’ journey still includes paying attention to the pandemic that disrupted student life – but didn’t destroy it. That’s why Gunston pointed out another role the new union is playing – as a vaccine distribution site for students, faculty and hospital staff. 

During the spring semester, the union was also the site for in-person events such as the popular craft night on Thursdays. Each participant was handed a red, blue or yellow apron and a paint-by-numbers canvas. Students came in alone or with a friend or two, grabbed a seat at any round table, all separated by six feet. Conversations struck up between strangers as everyone was there to relieve stress and maybe make a new friend.

To forge school spirit as students returned to campus, the university held a week-long hybrid orientation for incoming students. Usually, orientation occurs on one or two days in the summer when students register for classes and during the weekend when residential students move in and start learning about the Seawolf experience. The new model focused on community building with students divided into smaller groups so they could get to know each other. “The week-long model is intended to help students acclimate,” said Jeffery Barnett, assistant dean of students. “This gives students a longer period of time to sort of adjust to their surroundings and work through the challenges of transition. There’s much more community building and a sense of belonging.” 

But belonging to a community is what being a Seawolf is all about. As winter morphed into spring, then summer, student life began changing for the better. Performance groups like the belly dancers and The Pipettes were practicing in person again. Just the mere announcement of in-person graduation lightened the mood. And as seniors walked across the football field at Kenneth Lavalle Stadium to receive their hard-earned diplomas, it felt like a dream come true. 

For everyone else, the dream came true on Aug. 23, when in-person classes were back in session. And when campus life resumed – for real.