This podcast explores how Stony Brook University and Hospital stood up to the coronavirus. It was created and edited by students in the School of Communication and Journalism under the direction of their instructor, Terry Sheridan.
Contributors include: Alek Lewis on how the pandemic inspired some students to switch to health care fields; Kimberly Brown on student health care workers who helped distribute the vaccine; Virain Palta on student workers who stepped up to keep the campus safe; Eddie Zhao on the challenges faced by international students; Sarah Beckford on how the arts moved online through the Zuccaire Gallery; Niki Nassiri on how the pandemic widened the gender gap for women academics, especially those with children; Cameron Albert on how the hospital helped alleviate the stresses of medical workers.
The walls of Carmen Marino’s office, tucked away in Irving College, are adorned with “Thank you Carmen” signs and cards. As a supervising janitor at Stony Brook University, she manages the custodial staff of the eight colleges that comprise Mendelsohn Quad and H Quad. And if her staff was a tightly knit group before the pandemic, the bonds that held them together have only been fortified.
“We became – oh, my God – a big family over here and everybody helped one another and we still like it over here,” Carmen said. “That’s the only way we can help.”
They brought each other homemade remedies to stay healthy like tea made of ginger, garlic, lemons and honey. Carmen dropped off groceries and soup for workers who had to quarantine at home. Back at work, they prayed together, especially during the early dark days of the pandemic when no one knew what was going to happen. “You feel like you’ve gone from one home to another home in this environment around here,” she said.
In March 2020 – after the university extended spring break, then announced all classes would be online for the remainder of the semester and students needed to vacate the dorms – it was Carmen and her crew who cleaned. Morning, noon and night, they cleaned, working 12-hour days. Carmen is the only person with skeleton keys so she had to open each door to every room and go in first. They disinfected every room, spraying and wiping down high-touch areas – desks and door knobs and counters – scrubbing toilets and packing away the belongings students left behind.
“At the beginning, we didn’t know because they were saying that it’s in the air or if you touched things. We were very scared.”
– Carmen Marino, a supervising janitor at Stony Brook University.
During the height of the pandemic, Carmen’s staff was spread thin. Nurses from Stony Brook University Hospital were sleeping at Ammann College, and soldiers from the United States Army Corps of Engineers who were building field hospital tents stayed in James College. Although the campus was mostly empty, international students who couldn’t go home stayed in West Apartments in suites that needed cleaning. The Student Health Center, across from Carmen’s quads, was also taking COVID patients.
Carmen’s workers needed to split up to cover ground across campus from Mendy Quad to West Apartments. Suddenly, working together became a risk. Some had vulnerable family members and worried about bringing the virus home. “At the beginning,” Carmen said, “we didn’t know because they were saying that it’s in the air or if you touched things. We were very scared.”
They took precautions – tossing their possibly contaminated clothes in the laundry and cleaning themselves before entering their own homes, washing and disinfecting their hands over and over again, even wiping down their shoes. Carmen still finds herself wearing a mask even when she doesn’t have to.
Carmen grew up in Ecuador. After high school, she worked for the Peace Corps for four years teaching Spanish. She came to America in 1990 hoping she could continue teaching in middle schools and high schools. But her expectations didn’t match reality. “I didn’t know that I have to have a license, a place, or something. In my mind, I was just going to their house and teaching them.” Fear of the virus became concrete for Carmen when a cousin from Ecuador died. “I got very scared,” she said. “I was careful for all the people working here.”
Early on, one of Carmen’s workers, Verona Macko, contracted COVID-19. Based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and her family’s insistence, she should have gone to a hospital when her fever reached 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. But Verona worked as a nursing assistant in the intensive care unit and emergency room at Stony Brook University Hospital, and with her medical training and experience she decided to stay home. “I knew if I got in and I got intubated, that would have been it,” she explained. “I wouldn’t have the strength to fight on my own.”
At the time, she had a second job as a home care attendant, but she couldn’t go back to that job after she recovered. She felt isolated. But her experience at Stony Brook was different, she said. “When I came back, I was still in the fold. We all worked as one.”
To this day, Verona takes precautions. She can’t believe it when she sees people spitting on the ground or coughing without their masks on. “You really don’t know what you’re dealing with and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy because it’s not something good, and not all of us have the strength and resistance to fight it.”
Caroline Klewinowski is a senior at Stony Brook University double majoring in sociology and journalism. She has served as an editor for the Stony Brook Press and a writer for Musee magazine as well as a news intern for WSHU and a research intern at the American Museum of Natural History. Caroline works as a production assistant for Dec8. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.
The pandemic brought new challenges to students living in dorms as Stony Brook University transitioned to distance learning. Freshmen and seniors alike adapted to residing on a campus where in-person classes, meetings and events disappeared overnight. James D’Elia looks at the impact these changes had on the students who continued to call Stony Brook home even as the pandemic swirled around them.
James D’Elia is a senior journalism major at Stony Brook University. He is interested in sports journalism and broadcasting and aspires to pursue a career as a sports announcer. He has broadcasted live Stony Brook Division 1 sports games for Stony Brook Athletics and Stony Brook’s radio station, 90.1 WUSB.
In the dark days of the pandemic, when gilded theaters in big cities and community playhouses in small towns shuttered their doors, the ghost light continued to shine as a symbolic bright spot in an otherwise bleak present. Some theater people with a flair for the dramatic believe the light wards off wayward spirits, but the true reason the single bulb is left on in dark theaters is simple: safety. And perhaps as a sign that one day, the show will go on again.
The ghost light still shines for Stony Brook University’s theatre community – as it has since March 10, 2020, when the Staller Center for the Arts canceled that month’s events. Announcement of an indefinite closure followed. Two days after Staller closed, Broadway also went dark.
And even though Staller’s closure has ended – the 26th annual Film Festival was live this summer albeit with virtual components and tickets are now on sale for the fall 2021 in-person season – the ghost light shines on. Broadway, too, has reopened – lead by marquee shows like Hamilton, The Lion King, Chicago and Wicked – with 41 theaters from Midtown to Lincoln Center poised to raise their curtains and strut their stuff. By October, 28 shows will be open or in previews with more coming.
“We were probably the second university arts center in the country that canceled,” Alan Inkles, director of the Staller Center for 25 years, said as he sat on a stool on an otherwise barren stage last spring. The pandemic was still raging and the campus was a ghost town as he looked back on a year that even the most inventive of playwrights couldn’t have imagined. A thousand empty seats of faded burgundy loomed behind him. “We looked like the bad guys on the first day. On the second day we were the good guys.”
A genial man in his 60s with graying hair, Inkles lives and breathes theatre. As a teenager unable to afford tickets, he would sneak into Broadway shows during intermission just to watch the second act without knowing anything of the first.
At 18, with short-lived aspirations to be an actor, Inkles moved to the West Coast, where he shot a few TV commercials and three or four pilot episodes for television shows that never saw airtime. He eventually enrolled at University of California, Los Angeles. But he disliked auditioning for roles he didn’t get. More than a little homesick, Inkles returned to Long Island. He took small roles in a handful of off-Broadway shows, including the lead in “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I tore a ligament in my knee,” Inkles recalled. “With only five shows left to go. And I would not let the understudy go on because only I could play Romeo.” Most insulting, Inkles hadn’t even hurt himself onstage, but instead he was injured between acts in a display of what he called idiocy – walking into a piano. The damage to his knee ultimately ended his acting career and he moved on to managing the Staller Center’s theater at the age of 22 – just three months after graduating from Stony Brook University.
In one of his first acts as director, Inkles secured the sponsorship of British Airways and brought in companies from around the world, among them a Scottish company that included a then-unknown actor named Alan Cumming, who would go on to win Tony and Olivier awards and multiple Emmy nominations.
When Inkles started his career with Staller nearly 40 years ago, the arts center presented 20 shows a year – 10 dance performances and 10 classical music concerts. Until the coronavirus closed it, the center hosted 350 a year – from live Metropolitan Opera screenings to acrobatic acts and theatrical performances.
On March 7, 2020, the Staller Center’s closing event – the 2020 Gala featuring Broadway legends Kelli O’Hara and Sutton Foster singing together for the first time – drew a nearly sold-out crowd in spite of mounting unease about the pandemic. Though the after-party was canceled, the show itself went on.
Kelli O’Hara spoke to the anxiety in the room. “Thank you for being here because it might be the last time we’re all in the same room,” she said. For many in the audience, the gala would be the last live performance they’d enjoy for months to come.
“If we had to go down on a night, that was a good night to close our theater,” Inkles said. “They always say you’re as good as your last show. So that’s pretty good, right?”
Acts cancelled or rescheduled included the 25th anniversary tour of “Rent,” Alan Cumming returning for the first time, and the March 2021 Gala featuring renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. For nearly five months, the center remained on hold as the pandemic worsened worldwide. From March to December 2020, Inkles estimated a loss in revenue of about $1.2 million. That’s almost half the $2.5 million it costs to run the Staller theatres in a typical year.
But the show eventually went on – in a way. Partnering with IndieFlix, an independent streaming service, the university’s formerly postponed annual film festival went virtual last September. “We’ve turned into a virtual venue,” Inkles said at the time.
One positive to come out of an otherwise devastating closure was the widespread exposure the film festival received. Which is also why this summer’s festival included live and virtual screenings, Inkles said, and probably always will.
“We sold more passes than we would normally sell if we were opened here,” he said of the 2020 festival. Factoring in the likelihood that many of the nearly 900 passes sold were used by couples, families or groups of friends, Inkles estimates three to four times more people, nationwide, experienced the festival in this digital medium than a typical live in-person year.
The festival, typically held for ten days in July, ran instead for 12 weeks in 2020 at $60 per ticket, with viewers able to screen one feature-length film and one short each week. This summer the festival returned with in-person viewings for 10 days in July and virtual screenings in August.
“We’ve turned into a virtual venue….We sold more passes than we would normally sell if we were opened here.”
– Alan Inkles, director of the Staller Center for the Arts about the success of the 2020 film festival.
The decision to transition to a virtual experience last year became an overarching constant in the performing arts world. Theatre fans were able to purchase inexpensive tickets ranging from $5 to generous donations for a plethora of Zoom performances that benefit The Actors Fund. The national organization has provided emergency financial assistance, health care, career development and more to members since 1882. In the wake of COVID-19, The Actors Fund distributed a record-breaking $10.5 million in emergency financial aid to its members in just the first eight weeks of the shutdown. “Take Me to the World,” Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday concert, went virtual with more than 2.3 million views on YouTube as a benefit for the organization Artists Striving to End Poverty. Technical difficulties due to volume delayed the stream for more than an hour.
In addition to fundraisers put on by theatre companies and groups, specific shows also went digital. For example, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a Tony-nominated play that has since closed, is available on Amazon Prime Video – free to Prime members.
For $6.99 per month, Disney+ subscribers can enjoy the world-renown Broadway rap/hip-hop musical, “Hamilton,” winner of 11 Tony Awards. The film is a taped performance of the live stage show, featuring the full original cast, minus one ensemble member. At its height, “Hamilton” tickets sold for upwards of $1,500 a seat, not to mention resale values that climbed even higher. In just the first 10 days on Disney+, around 2.7 million households nationally tuned in, according to the television analytics company, Samba TV. This viewership supersedes the 2.6 million theatergoers who have seen the show live on Broadway in the five years since it opened, according to Broadway World, a theater-news website
But most shows are not “Hamilton,” which reopened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Sept. 14 with almost the first month of performances already sold out. Instead, during the pandemic, most shows took place in the small rectangles of Zoom.
Zoom spawned a number of new shows written or adapted specifically to be performed in that medium. Zoom Theatre, for example, is a new online company that has made seven live theatre shows, including “Macbeth” and David Mamet’s “Reunion & Dark Pony.” None of the free shows are recorded, and audiences watch in real time with the ability to un-mute themselves and applaud at their discretion.
At Stony Brook, Pocket Theatre, the university’s largest undergraduate theatre organization, got into the act. “We’re trying to do as much theatre as we can,” Emily Morse, the group’s president, said last fall when virtually all classes and extracurricular activities were virtual.
The junior chemistry major became president just weeks before the March 2020 shutdown. The student-run troupe was unsuccessful in mounting even a small-scale outdoor show because of the difficulties of following university guidelines at the time.
But members were determined to have some sort of activity that spring, so its 2020 cabaret concert was moved to the Pocket Theatre’s Facebook page. Half a dozen students submitted self-taped performances with varying degrees of audio and video quality. None were live.
Before long, Morse and her e-board members were holding auditions for a modern reimagining of the H.G. Wells novel turned play, “War of the Worlds,” made specifically for Zoom performances.
But Zoom isn’t live.
“The whole point of theatre is to be live,” Morse said. “It throws a wrench in what theatre is defined as.”
Teaching, a performance art of sorts, also went online. A majority of theatre classes such as the introductory courses, Performance Art I, and American Theatre and Drama were restricted to Zoom. Production classes, both at the introductory and advanced levels, were in person but operated under strict regulations and limited capacities. Students sat at desks spaced six feet apart. For ease of contact tracing, students were required to sit at the same desk for the entire semester. They also had to purchase their own personal protective equipment such as earmuffs, wrenches, and work gloves usually supplied by the class. Eating and drinking during class were forbidden – a challenge since production classes are typically three hours long.
Before COVID, it was customary as their final projects for students in the introductory production class to run tech – theater jargon for work that includes handling lighting setups, monitoring audio and building sets – for Pocket Theatre productions or Staller Center shows. This was something Hannah Oliver, a sophomore theatre minor who was a teaching assistant for such a class, had been excited about. But barely six weeks into her first theatre class, the campus shut down and the class went online.
“The whole point of theatre is to be live. It throws a wrench in what theatre is defined as.”
– Emily Morse, president of the university’s Pocket Theatre
“It was pretty rough, I’m not going to lie,” she said of the abrupt transition. But using their experiences from the spring 2020 semester, instructor Dave Barnett and Oliver made changes that benefitted the fall-semester students. A camera positioned over Barnett’s desk projected blueprints, tools and other practical demonstrations onto a flat screen television that enabled students to better see from their socially-distanced seats. And Oliver used a hand-held digital camera to record the lessons for anyone unable to make the in-person class.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Oliver said of her TA experience. She had to reconcile the rewards with the very real health risks. “It’s weird knowing I could potentially get COVID, I could potentially be spreading COVID. There’s a lot of anxiety centered around that.”
Before the beginning of the fall semester, the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching offered educators a crash course in online pedagogy. “Otherwise I’d be floundering even worse than I am,” theatre professor John Lutterbie, said at the time.
His class – THR 344, Performance Art I: The European Avant-Garde – runs as a combined section with the art history department. Lutterbie, who holds a Master of Fine Arts in directing and a doctorate in theatre history and criticism, admitted he is not well versed in technology.
In addition to the steep learning curve that accompanied online teaching, Lutterbie described the struggles of teaching a performance arts class to empty faceless boxes in a Zoom meeting. Early in the semester, more than half of his 36 students kept their cameras on. But as the semester dwindled on, only perhaps two or three remained visible, leaving him to lecture to what amounted to an empty screen.
Professor and students struggled. “Taking this course online is definitely not as good on Zoom as it is in person,” Carissa Andreas, an art history major in her final year, said. “Before COVID even existed, my entire college career, I avoided online classes because I hate that.” Andreas added that she struggled with technology and expressed sympathy for educators navigating this new way of teaching.
The most significant change Lutterbie made was the advent of group projects and presentations. “It’s interaction,” Andreas said. “In a classroom we’d be sitting together and working together.”
Before the coronavirus, she took the second part of Lutterbie’s performance art classes. She recalled the fun students had creating and rehearsing performances for their final projects, contrasting it with online projects. Of the 37 students in the class, the majority elected to create recorded video projects alone. And while Andreas does not discount solo work, she said the collaborative work of past years generated more innovation and enjoyable performances.
Andreas lost her job at the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery, located in the Staller Center, when COVID shut down the gallery and exhibits were canceled. She tackled her studio art classes from her own basement on Long Island with materials she accumulated over several years with her own money – an amenity she acknowledges not all students have.
“Mentally, it’s draining,” she said at the time. “I don’t have the creativity I normally have; I don’t have the drive I normally have. I don’t get excited over things. Easy assignments I’ll stare at for two hours like ‘I don’t want to’ and I could have been done already. Normally, performance, art pieces, they’re relaxing and fun things, and I still don’t want to do them.”
Even as the pandemic wears on, what Lutterbie called the “healing power” of theatre endures. “It can distract you in a very positive way from the limitations the pandemic has put on our lives.” he said. “It teaches us how to empathize with people.”
If all the world’s a stage, we can only hope we’re approaching the final act of the pandemic. Alan Cumming returns to the Staller Center on Oct. 23 and Yo-Yo Ma is coming back for the 2022 Gala.But with the Delta variant now on center stage and who knows what other variants waiting in the wings, perhaps this is more like intermission.
Either way, the ghost lights will stay on.
McKenzi Murphy graduated from Stony Brook University in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and women’s studies, with a minor in theatre. She is working on her master’s degree in publishing at New York University.
It was early March 2020 and sun sprinkled the campus of Stony Brook University as Carolina Ruiz and her friends chatted about the upcoming spring break.
And then, everything changed.
“We were prepared to go to break and in the blink of an eye everything changed,” Ruiz, a 21-year-old junior biology major, said. “I felt like everything went into chaos and it hasn’t been the same since.”
Actually, the changes were already in motion with conversations about shutting down a portion of the annual Staller Center Gala, scheduled for March 7. Then Interim President, Michael Bernstein, who has since left the university, remembers those discussions as the real beginning of the pandemic – and as a time when he would have to act quickly and under growing pressure.
“We were all in sort of denial and thought that this isn’t really happening – and it’s not going to be as bad as everyone says,” Bernstein recalled.
At the time, there were only a few confirmed coronavirus cases in New York State and none in the vicinity of the university. But on March 8, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on Long Island – in Greenport, on the North Fork of Suffolk County. The 40 year-old patient was transported from Eastern Long Island Hospital to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital.
Suddenly, the global pandemic had arrived in Stony Brook’s back yard. The changes being discussed at the highest levels of the university administration were about to become real.
If anyone knew what that meant, it was Lawrence Zacarese – the interim chief of the University Police Department and assistant vice president for campus safety – the man who proclaims the words everyone at Stony Brook longs to hear as he announces the cancelation of classes on snowy days, “Out of an abundance of caution. … ”
Zacarese knew the university and hospital were prepared. As director of emergency management at the time, he was in charge of the preparations. On the hospital side, he helped manage occupant capacity and morgue overflow. On West Campus, Zacarese also prepared temporary hospital facilities and helped create the COVID-19 dashboard that would track the course of the disease at Stony Brook. But what he didn’t know – and couldn’t predict – was how long that state of preparedness would have to last.
“I was confident in our ability to get through the initial stages,” Zacarese said. “My concern became what happened after. I knew we would be able to handle the during, but I also had major concerns because of the hospital and our role in the region as a medical provider.”
Video by Isabelle Panza
The first public-facing decision to be announced was made jointly with the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) – to bring home about 260 SUNY students, including more than 30 Stony Brook students, who were studying in South Korea and Italy. About 26 students from SUNY study abroad programs immediately went into a mandatory 14-day quarantine at Stony Brook’s Southampton campus. That included 25 students from the Fashion Institute of Technology and one student from Stony Brook.
“We were quickly inserted into the COVID world, which I think paid dividends for us down the line, because we got really good at it really quick,” Zacarese said. “Having the space, having the comfort care items, having the medical care, having the mental health pieces, and all the things that we had to get in place for those students, with very little time to actually do it, was the blueprint that we had for the fall semester.”
Meanwhile, Judith B. Greiman, chief deputy to the university president and senior vice president for government and community relations, was one of several administrators preparing other changes.
“I was managing local people who thought we were bringing the virus to Long Island by bringing those students here,” Greiman said. She was also helping the Division of Student Affairs decide how to handle the new realities of residential life. “How do we have students who are in quarantine? What do we do with them? How do we serve them food? All of that was actually going on then.”
A week later, rumors began to spread across campus about imminent changes. During the week of March 9, emails started showing up in students’ inboxes from professors. Speculation was rampant. Classes were going online. Spring break was being extended. No one seemed to know what was going on. There were no official announcements from the university administration. Students were confused, frustrated.
Vanessa Luutran, a 21-year-old senior business major, remembered hearing from her friends about emails from professors, but never received one herself. “They were probably even more scared and freaked out than we were because we had to transition to online school, but they had to facilitate the entire thing,” she said.
For Luutran, who commutes approximately 12 miles from Holtsville, the week of March 9 was a fever dream. “That week was literally the most confusing, somehow unrealistic thing I’ve ever experienced,” she recalled. “We had absolutely no answers and we barely even had questions because we literally had no idea what was going on.”
Richard Gatteau, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, said Stony Brook was the first of the 64 campuses in the SUNY system to call for a shift to remote classes. But the decision wasn’t solely up to the university.
“Rightly so, we needed to consult with SUNY to make sure that it was working,” Gatteau said. “And ultimately, the governor and SUNY wanted it to be system wide because this evolved so rapidly. It made more sense for it to be a SUNY decision so that every campus could prepare, even though the time frame to prepare was literally 12 to 24 hours.”
Students received emails from the administration saying potential solutions were being evaluated. One statement referred to a possible move to remote instruction, saying the university was “taking steps to plan for such an action if it should be necessary.”
On March 11, still with no official announcement about the future of the spring semester, students protested the administration’s silence.
Gatteau remembered getting a call when he was in a planning meeting with senior leadership in the Student Activities Center (SAC) that day. More than 150 students were gathering in protest at the fountain on the Academic Mall. His heart was pounding as he walked the short distance between the SAC and the fountain, mentally preparing what he would say. When he arrived at the protest, students were clapping and chanting, “Send us home, pay us back.”
“The thing that was frustrating at the time is I knew the background of what we wanted to do,” Gatteau said.
But all he could say to students as he stood on the wall surrounding the still-closed fountain was that the university would be making an announcement soon. And he urged students to watch Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s televised press conference that day.
“I absolutely understood the frustration of students,” Gatteau said. “I think I would have felt the same way because there was such a tense time of a lot of uncertainty and what our students wanted and needed was more certainty with the answers.”
Cuomo’s announcement at the press conference confirmed the rumors that had been circulating for days. All SUNY schools would be moving to remote classes for the rest of the semester. Finally, it was official.
That week, thousands of students left campus for what was supposed to be an extended spring break – unsure of what to expect beyond that.
“I was concerned about the structure of changes and how everything was going to be organized,” Christine Om, a 21-year-old senior biology major, said. She lived on campus before the pandemic and has resided at her home on Long Island since.
Shaheer Khan, then-president of the Undergraduate Student Government, remembered finalizing campus events for the remainder of the term, including the Back to the Brook concert and the Laugh at the Brook comedy show. But Khan knew something serious was happening based on what he was hearing from the SUNY Student Assembly – a group of elected student representatives from all SUNY schools that functions as an umbrella student government and a liaison to the chancellor and the board of trustees.
“USG didn’t even have all the information, Stony Brook University didn’t have all the information – it was really up to the governor of New York to really call the shots,” Khan said. “When we were told that we were going to go to spring break and then have an extra week of spring break just to get things back to normal, that’s all we really thought – that it wasn’t going to be crazy.”
While on spring break, students got the announcement that the university closed on-campus housing for the rest of the semester in an effort to reduce population density. Campus residents were notified on March 17 that they had to vacate their rooms – in two days.
The billing cycle for residential housing typically closes at the end of the semester. But due to the pandemic, it ended on March 19. If students were unable to leave by that date, housing charges continued until their rooms were vacated and their keys were returned.
In the email announcing the closure of on-campus housing, students were also notified about pending refunds. “Room and meal plan costs will be prorated for the remainder of the semester for all students leaving campus housing and applied as a refund and/or credit to your student account based on the date of check out,” the email stated.
As students packed their clothing and twin-sized bedding, took down decorations and photos of friends and relatives and made sure their rooms were empty before closing their doors, they came to a stark realization – the rest of the semester would be completely virtual. Already, the physical look of the campus was changing as a drive-through testing site opened in the South P commuter parking lot and soon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would start building a 1,000-bed field hospital in the shadow of the football stadium.
Khan recalled being at home with his family in Elmont and feeling perplexed and confused. “I immediately thought about how we can get students accustomed to Stony Brook University virtually and what USG can do to provide for this,” he said. “It was really a collaborative effort to figure things out together.”
Michael Bernstein said that closing the dorms was one of the most challenging decisions he had to make. And for Laura Lindenfeld – dean of the School of Journalism, now the School of Communication and Journalism – it was difficult to watch.
“I think it was very hard in the beginning because none of us knew what we were doing and nobody had faced this before,” said Lindenfeld, who was part of the coronavirus academic planning group. “We were watching students being moved out of dorms and that was just a horrible process.”
To compensate for the rapid switch to remote classes, Stony Brook established a Pass/No Credit grading option, which allowed students to forgo letter grades in an unlimited number of courses that semester. But remote instruction was new for both students and professors, which caused anxiety all around.
“We achieved more in the way of preparing for and delivering remote instruction than we had talked about for the previous 10 years,” Bernstein said. “In the pressure of this emergency, everybody sort of came together and said, ‘Well, you know we have no choice now. We’re just going to have to make this work.’”
Zoom became the word of the semester. Students could no longer just knock on professors’ doors during office hours. They had to wait for Zoom invitations and enter virtual waiting rooms. Professors had to switch from writing on white boards in classrooms to creating slides for Zoom classes and learning how to share their computer screens – not to mention remembering to unmute themselves before talking.
“We maintained the academic program, but it was anything but business as usual,” said Charles Robbins, then vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate colleges, who is now a professor in the School of Social Work and executive director of the Center for Changing Systems of Power. “So, the attempt was to make it as close to that as possible, but try to be as understanding and as human as possible, in terms of what students were experiencing.”
Online classes worked well for many students, such as Christine Om. She recalled her classes being much easier when the switch occurred and being able to simply log on was a plus compared to walking from class to class. “It was difficult at the same time because the professors were kind of trying to adjust to it,” she said. “Even still, some of them don’t know how to work Zoom.”
On the other hand, some students, such as Alanya Radner, a freshman marine science major, struggled. Online classes made her feel disconnected from the course material. “I just sit in my room and I get distracted by all the things around me,” she said at the time. “And then I remember to look at my computer screen and there’s another slide with something being explained by a disembodied voice half the time. It’s just really not what you expected when you said you wanted to go to college.”
Greiman’s role as chief deputy to the president includes responding to faculty and student matters. After the switch to remote learning, Greiman said both faculty and students expressed concern about course material, laptop access and adequate internet connections.
“There was this notion of how do we make sure that everybody has the resources they need to operate in this kind of new reality,” Greiman explained.
A survey of undergraduate students was conducted a few weeks into the transition to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. Multiple surveys have been conducted during the pandemic to gauge student satisfaction.
“The transition for many students who went home, their living situation was not particularly conducive to studying and being able to do well,” Robbins said. “There was also a decent-sized group of students who did not have a laptop or an iPad or something to work on.”
After a month of online learning, SUNY distributed more than 8,800 laptops and Chromebooks to students to make online classes more accessible. Greiman took on the project at Stony Brook. Instead of waiting for the laptops to be shipped, a faculty member drove almost four hours to Albany to pick them up.
About 150 laptops were loaned to Stony Brook students who applied for them through the Division of Student Affairs. “I think that it’s critically important to make sure that no student is disenfranchised and doesn’t have the opportunity to continue,” Robbins said. “We couldn’t let the digital divide keep a significant number of our students from being able to continue their studies.”
The laptop loan program continued into the fall 2020 semester through the university library and the Division of Information and Technology, which rented HP laptops to about 200 students. Under the ongoing program, students can borrow a laptop for up to 60 days and renew it if there is no pending reservation. There are no additional fees for borrowing a laptop as long as the student has a Stony Brook student ID and abides by library standards.
As students faced great upheavals in their personal and academic lives, the mental health and emotional impacts on a generation of young adults was on everyone’s minds. Fears of the pandemic overlaid with the isolation of remote learning were a difficult combination. Many students faced emotional distress while still trying to maintain their grades.
Om got hit by a wave of depression as a result of the lockdown and adjusting to online classes. But it didn’t end there. Her spring semester classes seemed less demanding as professors made accommodations to their courses in light of the escalating pandemic and the sudden move to Zoom as everyone dealt with the shell shock of the situation. But when online courses resumed the following fall, the academic rigor of Om’s courses seemed to return to pre-pandemic levels.
“It really hit me a little before the fall semester started,” Om said. “Because everything was more put together, it was harder for me to do well in school.”
During the extended spring break, the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) went virtual with teleconferencing and other online services. And the Healthier U initiative, a wellness program for employees, was expanded.
“It was change, it was scary, it was health,” Greiman said. “We increased CAPS and Healthier U and all of these services to help make sure that our faculty and staff and students were – as best we could in the midst of a rapidly changing and difficult environment – able to get the support that they needed.”
But the changes took a toll on the university’s financial status. Before the pandemic even began, the university was facing budget stress due to inflationary costs and decreased state funding, according to President Maurie McInnis, who came to Stony Brook from the University of Texas at Austin in April as the pandemic was raging.
“I was particularly excited to join the Stony Brook community because I was really well aware of Stony Brook’s strengths,” she said, “particularly the work we do in cutting-edge research, in providing great health care, but especially the role we provide in giving educational opportunities to a diverse and really talented group of students.”
Her official start date as the university’s sixth president was intended to be July 1, but she began much earlier. Even before she officially stepped in last summer, McInnis was already involved in coronavirus guideline preparations.
“Immediately, even before I began the job in July, I knew we had work to do as a community and I jumped in – really starting in April right after my announcement,” McInnis recalled. “And that was going to require a broad campus response, not only in fighting COVID-19, but we needed to be really thoughtful about how we were going to support students in their education as we move to this all-of-a-sudden, overnight, remote teaching.”
For Stony Brook, the pandemic’s price tag was high – $220.7 million in lost revenue and coronavirus-related health care costs, including personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, educational materials and testing equipment. The price also included another $77.5 million in lost revenue and costs on the academic and research side.
Academic and research costs included $34 million in refunded student fees; $12 million in cultural programs and facility rentals; and $9.6 million in cleaning supplies, student quarantine provisions and technology expenses. As a result, the administration cut the 2019-2020 budget and put a hiring and purchasing freeze in place. These freezes will continue and are expected to save the university approximately $20 million and $2.3 million, respectively, in the 2020-2021 budget.
“Mostly what we’re facing is our faculty and staff are having to work harder and harder and harder,” McInnis said. “And that’s not sustainable because there is a tipping point where people just can’t work any harder.”
McInnis is optimistic about the budget, but says she still worries. “This year, it was almost a tsunami of budget challenges that were facing this campus,” she said.
Lost revenue for the past academic year included lower out-of-state and international student enrollments, potentially fewer students living on campus and eating in the dining halls, an increase in COVID-testing services and a substantial outlay for cleaning equipment.
“The last federal relief bill provided some rather significant relief to the State of New York so their budget deficit is not as large as they were anticipating it might be, but there’s still a budget deficit,” McInnis said. “And so we do not know what to expect and we don’t know where it’s going to end up – so we’re nervous.”
McInnis said the university needs additional funding to address its longstanding budgetary issues. “I’m hopeful that we will one day be successful in helping our supporters understand what it is we do that is special and unique for this state and how vital we actually are for New York’s future, both in the education we provide and in the research and innovation that we drive,” she explained. “It is so clear that investing in higher education is, for the long term, one of the most important things you can do for the economic development of your state.”
Once the spring 2020 semester ended, administrators realized they had only fought half the battle. Now, they had to devise a plan for the fall – and quickly.
“The days just sort of blended together,” Zacarese recalled. “There were very long days working with the county, working with the town, working with the state and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA].”
Task forces and planning groups formed and in seemingly no time, the new academic year arrived. All the groups operated under an executive leadership team that originally included Maurie McInnnis, Rick Gatteau, Judith Greiman and Michael Bernstein, who at the time was the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
“I think the team constantly rose to the occasion of sharing information, arguing the issues and then making a decision,” Bernstein recalled. “We didn’t get paralyzed and when having to make a decision, we didn’t get into a lot of infighting or any refusal to cooperate.”
To set priorities for fall 2020, Bernstein asked faculty and staff to identify guiding principles and developed a summary report prepared by the Academic Planning Task Force that looked at academic and technology concerns as well as accessibility and diversity, equity and inclusion issues. One recommendation focused on communication.
The task force concluded that the administration should “communicate frequently, empathically, and uniformly, all while placing health and safety as the core priority.”
The Facilities Reopening Plan, issued on June 8, outlined three steps needed to reopen classrooms the following fall semester — follow guidance from authorities, protect the health and safety of the returning workforce and students, and create a transparent process.
Spatial planning would be required in classrooms to ensure social distancing, which led to the appearance of green and red stickers on floors and chairs across campus.
Classroom capacity dropped to 45 percent occupancy and lecture halls to between 18 and 22 percent.
Returning to campus for the fall 2020 semester meant students had to provide a negative coronavirus PCR test – the gold-standard, nose-swab test that detects the genetic material of the virus and is considered the most accurate way to diagnose COVID-19. They also had to quarantine for 14 days if they were from a restricted state or from abroad.
The university adopted a hybrid teaching approach for many classes – meaning a combination of in-person and virtual instruction – during the fall and winter 2020 semesters as well as the spring 2021 term.
The campus population decreased significantly with only 17 percent of students living on campus during the spring 2021 semester compared to 37 percent of students the previous spring.
About 83 percent of classes were online, while only 10 percent were held in person at West Campus locations and three percent at the Health Science Center.
From the start, testing played a major part in Stony Brook’s strategy. Testing to keep the virus at bay on campus. Testing to ensure safe return when the time was right. Testing. Testing. Testing. As Rick Gatteau says, “It’s all about the testing.”
On March 18, 2020, Suffolk County’s first COVID drive-through testing site opened in the South P lot – the largest commuter parking lot on the sprawling suburban campus. In addition to providing testing for county residents, the university also tested students living on campus through Enzo Clinical Labs, a full-service clinical reference laboratory with multiple locations on Long Island. Students could walk into a small tent attached to a mobile home turned testing site outside the Student Health Center, which was closed at the time except for telehealth counseling and by-appointment, in-person visits. After making appointments online, students formed long lines to get their noses swabbed.
Marisa Bisiani – assistant vice president of Student Health, Wellness and Prevention Services – said Enzo Labs was chosen because of its expeditious turnaround time and its ease of use. “They had a program that was, I would say, most student-forward facing that really would make it the most simplistic, easiest way for students to obtain COVID testing,” she said.
Last September, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras and McInnis partnered with SUNY Upstate Medical University to provide pooled surveillance COVID-19 testing, which mixes several individual samples, then tests the combined sample. Pooled testing became a priority because it increased the number of students, faculty and staff that could be tested using the same amount of resources as regular testing. With this testing system, a negative test means that all 10 to 25 people in the group are presumed at the time to be free of the coronavirus. A positive test for the pool would mean each saliva sample would need to be tested again individually to pinpoint exact positive cases.
Pooled testing was conducted in SAC Ballroom A and continued into the spring 2021 semester. Another form of pooled testing was also introduced that semester. It was a pilot program with a quick-and-easy testing alternative that collects saliva in a straw, rather than with a long-handled nasal swab.
Stony Brook University has been praised for its response to the coronavirus pandemic. Chancellor Malatras applauded the university’s requirement that students test negative for COVID-19 before the semester started and its regular testing of everyone on campus.
“I wanted to visit Stony Brook especially because I want to highlight shining examples of campuses that are doing it well,” Malatras said at a press conference outside the Stony Brook Union last September. “And that’s important to build confidence and to demonstrate that this can be done.”
Other state leaders also praised Stony Brook for its testing regimen.
“I commend Chancellor Malatras and Stony Brook President McInnis for bringing this vital testing system to Stony Brook University,” said New York State Assembly member Steve Englebright (D-Setuaket), a Stony Brook-trained geologist who is an adjunct lecturer in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “The health of students, staff, and community members must be given the highest priority. Pooled surveillance testing can help to speed up the process of identifying infections and preventing the spread.”
With the theme of protection, resident students, faculty and staff received two “Stony Brook Strong” cloth face masks at the beginning of the fall 2020 semester. Vending machines across campus also got new additions – they were filled with masks and other personal protective equipment including hand sanitizer. These will be available into the fall 2021 semester.
During the spring 2021 semester, the university amped things up with mandatory twice-a-week PCR testing. If they didn’t comply, resident students faced penalties up to one-year suspensions from university housing – and even outright bans from campus.
The university also switched from the walk-up testing site at the Student Health Center to two indoor testing locations at the Center for Leadership and Service and the Center for Global Studies and Human Development. Testing went from outdoors to indoors in favor of accessibility and weather conditions.
“Students follow the COVID protocols,” Bisiani said at the time. “I see students wearing their facial coverings and I am so impressed by what they have done and what they continue to do with the COVID testing twice a week. Students have been amazing.”
The ramped-up testing system also kept the infection rate low, and isolation and quarantine rooms never got close to capacity.
The first COVID-19 case at the university was confirmed on March 22, 2020 – after students had already left for spring break.
From then to mid-September of this year, there have been at least 500 positive student cases and 400 positive cases among university employees, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard. The dashboard received a grade of “A” from the website “We Rate COVID Dashboards,” founded by researchers from Yale and Harvard Universities. The dashboard was described as “easy to read” and was highly rated for its frequent updates, data and trends.
Zacarese, now assistant chief of police and director of emergency management, is proud of the dashboard. “It tells our story and we knew we wanted a way to be transparent and fair,” he said. “We knew it was important to have that data readily available and updated … as often as we could.”
McInnis said hybrid instruction during the 2020-2021 academic year went as planned, with only about 25 percent of classes conducted in person, giving students opportunities for online and in-person experiences.
“We were able to have a lot of our in-person classes conducted very safely, giving our students opportunities still for in-person education, especially in those areas that were just so hard to do remotely,” McInnis said. Those areas included experimental settings in labs and classes heavily based on discussion, including smaller introductory classes.
“Our students have done such an amazing job of understanding how important it was to follow the guidelines, so that everybody could stay healthy and we could remain in person, living our lives to the best that we can,” McInnis added.
When resident students tested positive for COVID-19, they were notified by Student Health Services and required to move to one of the 394 isolation and quarantine rooms set up in three locations within West Apartments. Contact tracers tracked down people they may have been in contact with so those people could also go into quarantine. There are fewer designated isolation and quarantine rooms for the fall semester because residence halls will be returning to near full capacity.
CAPS counselors checked in daily with quarantined students, Bisiani said, as did someone from Student Health Services. Students used tele-counseling services and had access to recreation and wellness programs – “to take not-such-a-great experience and make it the best it could be,” she said.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 394 students have been quarantined.
Alanya Radner, a marine science major who is a member of the University Scholars program, was quarantined on campus four times – twice as precautions and twice because she’d been exposed to someone who had tested positive.
“It’s definitely very lonely,” she said. “Since I’ve quarantined four times now, I’ve gotten to see them become more and more organized and kind of figure out what works for students in a quarantine setting.”
The arrival of vaccines during the spring 2021 semester eased anxiety. Based on state eligibility rules, New Yorkers signed up to get the two-dose Pfizer vaccine at the university’s Research and Development Park. In just the first month that vaccines were available, about 120,000 shots were administered. Shortly after the state made vaccines available to everyone 16 years old and older, a site for students was set up in the newly renovated Stony Brook Union. By the beginning of April, more than 1,400 doses of the Moderna vaccine had been administered to students.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was available to students until rare side effects temporarily halted distribution on April 13. But ten days later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted the hold, and the university again made it available to students on May 5 – the first of several opportunities to get the one-shot vaccine.
“We went from a place where there was limited availability to now … people are actually shopping around and deciding which vaccine they want and which one they feel comfortable with,” Bisiani said.
Mcinnis recalled her own vaccination as an emotional moment. “That moment when you realize that we are on a pathway to be able to protect the health of our communities, including your own personal health, I found a very moving moment,” she said.
“The job of being a university president is many, many, many hours, seven days a week, no matter what,” McInnis said. “This came with, I think, a very different level of stress and concern, because it had this layer of knowing that the decisions you were making were very much tied to the health and well being of your larger community.”
But she wasn’t prepared for how long that task would take. She stressed the importance the administration and staff played. “What I didn’t know and what none of us could have anticipated, was the breadth and depth of the toll that COVID-19 would have on our community or the challenges that we would face,” McInnis said. “We had a great range of committees actually really focused on it and we work together great as a team.”
Bernstein said a silver lining to the pandemic was learning lessons about remote instruction in higher education, including digital techniques of instruction and new ways to communicate. “You never waste a good crisis,” Bernstein said. “When there’s a crisis, you use it as an opportunity not simply to survive, but to make things better.”
Produced by Melissa Azofeifa with contributions from James D’Elia, Matt Lindsay and Claudia Motley
The university celebrated the end of a traumatic academic year with in-person graduation – actually, a series of 10 separate ceremonies during the third week of May. The hope for a more normal fall semester was almost palpable. On Aug. 23 – the first day of the fall 2021 semester – more than 80 percent of classes were in person with nearly 10,000 students living on campus.
“I imagine by the fall, when we will have a significantly vaccinated population, that we’re all going to feel even more confident about being able to follow whatever the guidelines are at that point,” McInnis said at the time.
A significantly vaccinated population didn’t take long to accomplish. On June 15, Cuomo announced that coronavirus restrictions were lifted as 70 percent of New Yorkers aged 18 or older had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
But things constantly change during a pandemic, and the Delta variant arrived with force. During the summer months, the highly contagious mutation swept through New York, especially among the unvaccinated. Scandal spread as quickly as the virus and Andrew Cuomo resigned in his third term as governor amid allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct. And now, the presence of a new governor, Kathy Hochul, the lieutenant governor who was sworn in on Aug. 24 as New York’s 57th and first woman chief executive, puts the future of SUNY and Stony Brook in a new light.
The emergence of the Delta strain coupled with the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine colored the university’s plans for the fall 2021 semester. Students who were registered for at least one in-person class were required to submit proof of vaccination; by the start of school, at least 89 percent had complied. Now, according to Stony Brook’s COVID dashboard, 100 percent of the 9,500 students living on campus are full vaccinated as are 92 percent of the 14,000 commuter students taking in-person classes.
Faculty and staff on West Campus and those at the hospital, medical school and Health Sciences Center whose jobs don’t put them in contact with patients were required to do the same. The dashboard shows that to date, 74 percent of university employees and 78 percent of Stony Brook Medicine employees have been inoculated. Everyone who is fully vaccinated must undergo testing approximately once a month; the unvaccinated or those who refuse to share their status must submit to weekly testing. And even though social distancing isn’t required, everyone, regardless of vaccination status, must wear face masks in all classrooms and indoor public spaces.
Since more than 90 percent of students are registered for at least one in-person course, suddenly, the campus is more alive than it’s been in a year and a half. McInnis said one of her long-term goals is for the university to recapture its energy and ambition. The president who took over in the middle of a pandemic said she can’t wait to see throngs of students walking down the Academic Mall and to talk with them face to face.
“I also want us to be very mindful of ways that we can really celebrate once we’re able to be back together,” she said before the start of the semester. “That coming together of community and that affirmation of who we are as Seawolves supporting one another and how excited we are to move to a better chapter, as more and more of us are vaccinated, as we get on top of COVID-19 and we can really celebrate our future.”
For many months, the coronavirus created challenges that shook and transformed the university. Noses were swabbed about 303,000 times to test for COVID-19. Approximately 400 million minutes of Zoom sessions were logged. About 350,000 students, faculty and staff rolled up their sleeves and braved sore arms to be vaccinated – to protect themselves, their families and friends and fellow Seawolves.
But in the end, Stony Brook University stood up to the myriad challenges and came back safe and strong.
Maya Brown is a senior journalism and political science double major, who is pursuing a career as a White House correspondent. She has a passion for social justice and politics and has interned for the Council on Foreign Relations, WSHU Public Radio and CNN. She is a member of the School of Communication and Journalism Student Advisory Board, managing editor of The Statesman and president of the Stony Brook Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
International students at Stony Brook University – both those who chose to stay on campus and those who returned to their home countries – have faced some difficult situations in the past year.
In 2020, the United States was the country with the most cases of COVID-19. Many countries had strict rules for students who wanted to return home. For instance, China restricted the number of flights to one per week for a period. It required 14 days of forced quarantine after entering the country.
Chinese student Sandy Dai talked about her difficulties last year. “It was my parents’ concern,” she said. “They felt like having me staying here, by myself, it’s just a little bit dangerous.”
After purchasing an overpriced ticket, she finally returned to her homeland. But that’s not the end of her story. To continue her education, she had to take online classes with a 12-hour time difference.
“We simply had to turn the day upside down,” she explained. “We had to take the class during the night, it was just suffering.”
Dai was not the only international student who faced such obstacles. Another Chinese student, Zhihui Hou, had class at four o’clock in the morning and believes the situation had a serious impact on her health.
On the other side of the story, it wasn’t easy for students who stayed on Long Island, such as Jane Park, who comes from South Korea. “The price of the plane ticket was rising crazy,” Park said. “Also, if I returned, then my visa would expire.”
“We simply had to turn the day upside down. We had to take the class during the night, it was just suffering.”
Sandy Dai about taking Zoom classes from her home in China, with a 12-hour time difference
Like other students who were far from home, Park suffered from loneliness that sometimes bordered on depression because of the prolonged – and seemingly endless – separation from family and friends.
Vivian Kwan said she didn’t return to her home country of Vietnam last year because she was afraid wouldn’t be allowed back into the United States. She said her education is her family’s priority and she decided she had to stay tough and work hard even though she was lonely.
Grace Zhang, an assistant director of the Chinese Student and Scholar Association – Stony Brook’s largest international student group – said the organization has tried to help. When supplies were low last year, the association worked with the Chinese Embassy in New York to deliver safety kits to students. Zhang said there was also an effort to change class times to accommodate international students suffering because of time differences.
Like all students everywhere, Stony Brook’s international students – no matter where they chose to ride out the pandemic – can’t wait for their educations to return to normal.
Listen to more of Eddie Zhao’s report:
Eddie Zhao is a senior journalism major at Stony Brook University. He was born in China and moved to New Jersey at the age of eight. He studied at Seattle Pacific University for two years before transferring to Stony Brook to earn his bachelor’s degree in journalism.
When classes resumed in the spring 2020 semester and Stony Brook University professors returned from their own mini sabbaticals, they no longer faced classrooms full of students staring back at them. Instead they faced computer screens with cameras, and collections of photographs, icons, first initials and, with a little luck, several human faces populating kaleidoscopes of boxes on the sterile Zoom interface.
Like many of their students, professors from almost all disciplines were forced to resume their classes from home. The situation would remain in place for the rest of that semester and beyond, and compel instructors — from tenured full professors to part-time adjunct lecturers — to adapt their teaching styles as well as their curricula to embrace the new reality of remote teaching and learning. In the chaos of that March, professors turned to the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) to help them make the transition as smooth as possible.
“It was crazy,” Rose Tirotta-Esposito, associate director for teaching excellence at CELT, said. “Part of it was everyone getting everything they needed to be functional at home, and part of it was faculty saying … ‘What are we going to do now? Can I have your help?’”
In response to the changing needs of the faculty, in-person workshops were replaced with online versions — supplemented with additional, generic workshops to address any concerns about the move to online teaching, Tirotta-Esposito said. Overall, the feedback CELT received from professors and other professional attendees of its workshops has been positive, but the center did encounter some difficulties with the new technology early on.
“We just got Zoom about three seconds before this all happened, so there were a lot of questions — some faculty never used Blackboard, some never used any of these tools before this happened,” Tirotta-Esposito said. “Most of the staff didn’t have office phones at home. We were trying to connect via Zoom — and if a faculty member had trouble connecting, we had some challenges before we were able to help them with their class.”
For the fall 2020 semester, Stony Brook introduced hybrid online/in-person classes and continued the slow return to normal operations by holding some in-person classes this past spring — until finally, it was announced that classes would be back in person when in the 2021-2022 academic year. Despite early difficulties, Tirotta-Esposito said many faculty have recognized some benefits of online classes and discovered new ways to teach familiar material.
Whether teaching from a home art studio, an apartment, an office or a nearly empty auditorium, Stony Brook University’s 1,000-plus faculty members continue to adapt and thrive in the still-evolving learning environment brought on by COVID-19.
Here’s a look at a few of them.
Matthew Reuter: Algorithms, Homemade Cookies and Lego
Matthew Reuter, a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Statistics and the Institute for Advanced Computational Science, hasn’t taught on campus for more than one year. Instead, he has been teaching both his small graduate class and his 250-person applied math classes remotely — from his desk in the living room of the white-walled apartment on Long Island he calls home.
Although the fluorescent fixture mounted above him is off, the space is bathed in natural light from the windows beyond his desk. Black and gray pots sit atop the white cabinets in the kitchenette behind him. Lego Architect models of One World Trade, the Sydney Opera House and other notable buildings stand tall on a short table to his right. Reuter – with his buzzed black hair and dark, heather gray Stony Brook hoodie – dominates the Zoom window, illuminated in contrast to his surroundings by the lack of color around him.
But these things — the pots and pans, the Lego — aren’t for decoration. They’re just a few of the tools Reuter utilizes in his lessons.
In AMS 103: Applied Mathematics in Modern Technology — a course that according to the Undergraduate Bulletin, explores the question, How does it work?, and in the process, knocks off two of the university’s core requirements known as SBCs — Reuter discusses algorithms and how they relate to real life. “One of the best forms for an algorithm in real life is a recipe,” he says, because it is a well-known, real-world example requiring a person to complete steps to do something.
“That lecture has been sort of fun in the era of COVID,” says Reuter. “Now, the bad news is, I can’t actually give the samples to students — I don’t know how to send cookies through Zoom — but on the other hand, this lecture hall has an oven. And so, rather than having to carry all of my kitchen onto campus, we’re actually just in my kitchen.”
In his AMS 261: Applied Calculus III class, Reuter trades recipes for Lego when teaching the concept of triple integrals — a tool used in calculus to help find the solutions to multi-variable problems by breaking them down into smaller parts. Before COVID, Reuter would bring the 2,000-piece, 3.3-foot-tall model of the Saturn V rocket he keeps in his office to class, carrying it across campus from the Institute for Advanced Computational Science to the Earth and Space Sciences building. But when Stony Brook locked down almost a year and a half ago and he went home, the rocket stayed behind — so he uses some of his other models instead.
“He cracks jokes and witty comebacks … but you also get a really good sense of how well he knows the material.”
Michael Pellegrini, a senior with a double major in applied mathematics and statistics and economics who took AMS 103 in the spring 2020 semester
“There’s a Sydney skyline that has a very small Sydney Opera House,” he says, pointing off screen. “I’ve got a postcard-size, dedicated Sydney Opera House. Then, in the other room over to the side, there’s a 3,000-piece massive Sydney Opera House. And you can then say, ‘Well, what do you want? What’s the level of detail that you need?’”
Some of Reuter’s hands-on examples unfortunately didn’t translate to online classes as when he’s teaching the concept of coordinate systems and takes a sudden jump onto the first row of lecture hall desks. He also had to deal with the issue of finding the best camera angles to make sure students understood what he’s trying to get across — but that, he says, was just a “fun problem” to solve.
“You look for little crazy things to do that just sort of bring a smile to people’s faces,” Reuter says. “Remind them that we’re all still human and we can still have fun.”
Reuter glances away for a moment and a conspiratorial look flashes across his face. He smiles before reaching off camera — speaking as he does — to grab his red parrot hat with orange, blue, green and yellow tail feathers, which he promptly puts on his head.
“I had an impulse buy at the grocery store,” he says, adding that it was “in memoriam” for spring break 2021, which was replaced by an informal week-long staycation. “When I open class the week after, that Monday when I teach, I have my parrot because I’m just as sad that we’re not having it as everyone else,” he said at the time. “And it has absolutely no bearing on anything other than that I’m teaching with a parrot on my head.”
Despite his attempts to keep everything intact from his pre-pandemic classes, Reuter, who has a doctorate in theoretical and computational chemistry from Northwestern University, had to make some changes. Each class, he says, was structured differently, with different learning objectives and although it might not have been the most convenient approach, those goals were what motivated him when moving everything online.
“The most convenient for me is, I’m just going to find a whole bunch of lecture videos from three years ago, you can view them and take the quiz from time to time and I’ll respond to email when I get to it,” he says. “I mean, that would be great because look at all the time I now have to do other things. But it turns out, that’s a really crappy teaching strategy.”
Instead, Reuter maintained the weekly meetings of his larger AMS 103 class. But for his other two classes — AMS 261: Applied Mathematics and Statistics and AMS 510: Analytic Methods for Applied Mathematics and Statistics — he finalized a pre-pandemic plan to switch to a so-called “flipped classroom.” This instructional model features in-person or Zoom recitations and asynchronous online lectures. Overall, he says, the experience has been positive — his use of Blackboard was about the same as before and he noticed more interaction from students in the remote meetings than he’d seen when things were still in person.
“I loved watching the lectures on my own time and at my own pace. …I was given plenty of time to learn the material.”
– Andrew Hu, who took AMS 261 in the spring 2020 semester
“This allows me to spend more time actually addressing their questions, and getting to interact with them more, so I’m really liking it,” Reuter says.
One of the biggest advantages of the flipped model, he says, was how it takes away some of the worry and stress students face by giving them the opportunity to attend lectures on their own time. Reuter did not anticipate — at least in a way he could verbalize 16 months ago— how much of his time would be devoted to helping manage student stress. COVID exacerbated students’ anxiety, so Reuter did what he could to help — like when it came to exams.
“Students — and I think this is reasonable — get freaked out when it comes time for these remote, proctored quizzes, exams, assessments, whatever the case may be,” he says. “Because what happens if something goes wrong? There’s not a person in the room to help — and we’ve all heard the horror story of the professor who doesn’t respond to emails. So they’re like, ‘what do I do?’ and the panic starts to set in.”
During his exams, Reuter made sure his students knew that while he may not have been in the room with them, he was at his computer ready to help with any issues that might arise. For other things, Reuter relied on redundancy — emailing and posting the same thing on Blackboard, for example — to make sure his students received important information. He was also inspired by a colleague in the College of Engineering to set up a Google calendar with Zoom links so it was even easier for his students to access class updates and other information.
“The more easily accessible you can make that information and communicate with them, the easier things go,” Reuter says.
Reuter has been back on campus twice since last year, for two meetings. Before he left — “bolted like a thief in the night,” he says — he grabbed his lecture notes and some books he knew he’d want. Then he stopped at Donatina Neapolitan Pizza Café in Patchogue.
“Knowing it was the last day before spring break anyway, I had already planned on splurging on some really good pizza,” he says. “As I was walking to my car, I ordered the pizza.”
And when he settled in at home and was eating his pizza, he remembers thinking, “‘Well, I guess I’m going to be home for the foreseeable future.’ And a year later, here we are.”
Lorena Salcedo-Watson: Art, Empathy and YouTube Demos
Lorena Salcedo-Watson sits comfortably in her bright high-ceilinged home studio on Long Island. Potted plants rest on metal wire shelves in the back of the white room, basking in the sunlight filtering through the sheer curtains that frame a pair of glass-paneled French doors. A long wooden table, smothered with drawings and some of the tools of Salcedo-Watson’s trade — art and lithography supplies, blocks of wood waiting to be used — and a large printing press stretched across the space behind her. Salcedo-Watson stands out from it all thanks to her black, long-sleeve blouse.
She smiles and brushes silvery-black hair away from her face, and leans forward in the cramped Zoom window.
Salcedo-Watson is the director of undergraduate studies in the art department and teaches drawing, lithography, experimental printmaking and intaglio, or engraving — all of which work exclusively with physical mediums. Her artwork has been featured in more than 14 galleries throughout the country — including The Bendheim Gallery in Greenwich, CT, the Alfred Van Loen Gallery in Huntington, NY and Waterfall Arts in Belfast, ME. These days, she has fully transitioned back to in-person classes, but in the chaos of spring 2020, Salcedo-Watson joined faculty across the university in meeting the challenges of moving classes online.
“When we closed down in the spring of 2020, we were just getting going. I was teaching a beginning printmaking class and a lithography class — all equipment dependent,” Salcedo-Watson says, referring to ARS 274 and ARS 375, respectively. “We had our first critique, and then shut down.”
But before the semester’s abrupt move online, Salcedo-Watson says, she’d already planned on assigning a take-home woodblock-printing project to one of her classes. Hours after she gave her printmaking students the necessary demonstration to complete their projects, news broke that the university was shutting down.
In the aftermath of the sudden announcement, Salcedo-Watson pulled her lithography class together and decided to take the class in an unplanned direction. “Everybody was like ‘what?’ So I pulled in my litho class and I gave them that same woodblock demo,” she says. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening, but I need you to learn this’ and I finished off my classes saying, ‘Okay, we’re not doing lithography.’ Which is completely nuts and abstract.”
“She is very quick when responding via email, which was definitely helpful during these times. You learn a lot in her classes, not only about art but about life too.”
– Melissa Mazza, who took ARS 274 and ARS 375 online, and graduated with a B.S. in studio art with a minor in art history and criticism
Salcedo-Watson reaches off-camera and pulls a stone engraving of a moth into the Zoom window. Lithography, she says, is “basically like super drawing,” and involves pressing a smooth, acid- and gum arabic-treated stone bearing an image drawn with oil, fat or wax onto a blank sheet of paper. It is the basis for the most common form of printing technology in use since the 1960s. In order to transition her lithography class into a woodblock printing class, Salcedo-Watson began producing her own YouTube demos, something she’d never done before, to share with her students.
“I was making like my own little cooking show,” she says, describing her approach to the creation of her demonstrations. “It was a lot of work. It was nuts.”
After classes resumed following the extended spring break, Salcedo-Watson and her students faced new challenges. Although she sent out lists of necessary supplies, there was no guarantee her students would be able to find everything they needed, or that they would be able to attend class the way they had. Salcedo-Watson confronted these challenges head on, encouraging her students to use whatever supplies they could get their hands on and doing her best to meet with them whenever they were available.
“Some of them couldn’t get their supplies,” she says. “So I’m like, ‘You know what? Get a ballpoint pen and piece of computer paper.’ I had students go back to Japan and China, so I was meeting with them at, you know, really, really, really late or really early. That’s what we had to do.”
Salcedo-Watson — who has four college-age children of her own — says the hardest thing to deal with in 2020 was witnessing how her students were affected by COVID-19.
“They were becoming themselves, [growing] into their adult lives and next thing you know, they’re back in their bunk bed with their 14-year-old sibling,” she says. “It was heartbreaking.”
In order to help students mentally get away from the reality of being back home and foster relationships in her virtual classroom, Salcedo-Watson opened her Zoom classroom early just so they could talk to each other without her there. She was also available to talk to her students — many of whom were angry, frustrated or just sad about the situation, she says — to help them get through everything that was happening.
After the semester ended, Salcedo-Watson took a two-week crash course in online teaching from CELT, filling a notebook with information — “trying to be a good student,” she says. When her classes resumed in the fall, she modeled them on what she’d learned over the summer. Her goal was to create an environment where her students could interact and inspire one another and feel that their professor cared about their work and their wellbeing. She turned to VoiceThread to set up a platform her students could use to communicate. With everything still so new, Salcedo-Watson says efficient organization was key.
“The teaching of the studio class was tricky,” she says. “I would draw with them, I’d set up introductions — everything online, folders within folders. It was something that you take for granted, but it’s got to be available, you know.”
The most difficult part of getting her classes organized was the amount of time it took. “I never slept,” Salcedo-Watson says. Between the time it took to set up interactive assignments and to grade and provide feedback on them, she was often awake as late as 4 a.m. “My eyes are still red from that, they haven’t cleared,” she jokes.
Last fall, ARS 491: Experimental Printmaking was able to meet in person, but COVID-19 restrictions forced the cancellation of the regular in-person exhibition of student work — so Salcedo-Watson and the art department moved the exhibition online. While the class faced challenges operating within New York State guidelines for in-person classes, Salcedo-Watson is proud of her students’ work and effort.
“It was tricky because we were packed in, you know, disinfecting everything and keeping our distance,” she says. “Every now and then somebody would be in contact with someone who was sick and it set off a panic. But the exhibitions were really good, so that’s something we’re going to keep. Students will have in-person exhibitions when we can, but it will also be virtual.”
When some of her classes returned to campus in the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, Salcedo-Watson was pleased with how her students reintegrated into campus life. While caps on class sizes were still in place, she was grateful to teach and get to know her students in-person again — even if she had to stay six feet away.
“They’re so hungry for interaction,” she says. “They are so engaged with each other — they’re thoughtful, they’re kind, they’re joyful at being back in person.”
“Professor showed us her mettle and grit, and this inspired her students to keep going.”
– Kiana Lom-Landolfi, who took ARS 274 online and graduated with a B.S. in studio art with a minor in creative writing
Salcedo-Watson took her classes to the Zuccaire Gallery in the Staller Center for the Arts to see the exhibitions that were still there and online, so someone besides professors could see them up close. She calls these excursions to Stony Brook’s art galleries “mini field trips” and, while the exhibitions weren’t at the same pre-pandemic level they once were, she says they still provided her students with a “full art experience.”
With everything that’s happened during the past year, Salcedo-Watson’s focus remains on empathy, helping and guiding her students through one of the most difficult situations they’ve had to face. Her greatest responsibility, she says, is ensuring every one of her students is safe.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about communicating and being empathetic and being together,” she says. “I feel a lot more protective of my students — more than ever — because this has been a very painful, confusing time. Trying to be the authority, be a mentor — it’s a bigger responsibility than ever. You have to make sure everybody’s safe before you do what you’re there to do.”
Patrice Nganang: Maximizing Time with Technology
Patrice Nganang sits in his New Jersey home, wearing the same brown sports jacket and darker brown shirt he donned for his faculty photo — featured on the Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature section of the College of Arts and Sciences website. Behind him a glass display case reflects light from somewhere beyond the Zoom window. Books too far away to recognize their titles line the shelves of a white bookcase. The bottom half of a framed painting hangs behind his right shoulder, and the leaves of a plant peek out from the display case on his left.
Nganang is a tenured associate professor of literary and cultural theory and African studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, who speaks four languages and earned his doctorate in comparative literature at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches classes on Black pop culture, African literature, theories of violence and European philosophy, among other, semester-dependent subjects. The Cameroonian-born novelist and poet is the author of 15 books and more than 30 articles, published in the United States, Germany and France.
During the spring 2020 and 2021 semesters, Nganang taught one undergraduate class, AFS320: Black Pop Culture and Terrain — “a study of black popular culture in 20th century America through close readings of text, music, and film,” according to the undergraduate bulletin — along with several graduate courses.
As the university moved classes online, Nganang was ahead of the curve, having moved away from printed materials for his classes around 15 years ago in an effort to help the environment.
“The real issue was that it was abrupt,” he says. “I had around 150 students and we did not know what was happening. I’ve never seen something so poorly managed like COVID — not specifically our university, but the country itself.”
For Nganang, the move to online classes “wasn’t a big deal.” As a writer, he’s comfortable using his laptop every day and believes the transition was overall a good thing for the university. The students, he says, are focused and participation is close to 100 percent now that he can call out to anybody at any time.
“Classes online are better than they are face to face,” he says. “Just to have saved environmental [resources], for me it was the best day possible and I can’t complain. The only thing is I hope something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Nganang says he is fortunate to have been prepared for the move online before it was necessary. His already focused use of Blackboard, the virtual learning program in use throughout the State University of New York system, made it easy for Nganang to continue communicating with his students and ensure an easy transition to a remote classroom. Even if the university had not adopted Zoom — “which is not great,” he says — Nganang thinks there would not have been issues transitioning online.
“Blackboard has so many functionalities that I’ve been using all along — group working, midterms, papers, all those things,” Nganang says. “Even if one had had only what our university could do, one would have solved [problems] easily.”
Despite his indifference towards the Zoom platform, Nganang says, for him and the humanities department, it has been a great experience. While he is looking forward to the return of in-person classes, he thinks Zoom is here to stay.
“I’m happy it’s not going away,” he says, “because it broadened the capacity of things we can do. I can sit here now, and [also be] in a class in Helsinki or in, I don’t know — Calcutta. Before, I would have to pay to fly there — it was such a waste of time.”
Maximizing one’s time and interacting with people is the most important thing for everyone, Nganang says, and this new technology makes it even easier.
“So many things you took a week off for, you can solve them in an hour,” he says. “A meeting with 70 people, 200 people — it is on Zoom and it is solved. After COVID, I’m sure that experience will not die.”
While the new use of technology has been an overall positive experience for Nganang, some things are still easier to do in person, in the classroom. Showing films has proved challenging because of anti-piracy overlays that prevent them from being broadcast over Zoom. But Nganang is confident this issue will be solved, given enough time.
“There are some films, some clips you cannot show,” he says. “I’ve had to change some things on my syllabus because legally, I won’t be able to screen [them] in my class — but I’m sure in one year, three years, those kinds of things will be changed.”
Despite these drawbacks, Zoom has allowed him to consider the inclusion of various archives into his classes — especially the archives of colonial powers, a major area of Nganang’s research. Now that many archives in the United States, England, Germany, France and Belgium, among other countries, have been digitized, he says he is looking forward to integrating archival work into future courses.
“I’m looking forward to composing new classes that will tap into that potential,” he says, adding that he’s come back to what he was doing a decade or so ago — “working with archives, photos,” he says, “and we had exhibitions, and these things are easily done on Zoom because you can share the screen. You don’t have to rent a huge hall for people to see.”
One thing Nganang says he wasn’t looking forward to was the return to campus. “I have two offices, I miss neither,” he says. The move to remote learning allowed him to spend his time much more effectively. What once were meetings are now emails or Zoom calls or texts over Whatsapp — a voice, video and text-messaging platform. And he says he does not regret having to go remote for those things to happen.
“Because I commute, I wasn’t in my office that often anyway,” he says. “I never use my phone in my office, even emails we only send for official use. So there is an evolution of all that which makes it really interesting to look at — having standing offices, because I only even used to go in there for two or three hours.”
Nganang adjusts himself in his chair and looks past the Zoom window for a moment. A thoughtful expression and slight smile pass over his serene face. While so many have lost loved ones, including Nganang, he says that “across the board” he remains optimistic for the country and the world as it rebounds from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The sun is coming back,” he says. “Any crisis also opens up new windows and those are potentials and possibilities. And if we focus on those, we will realize that we’ll not close the COVID chapter totally, because we’ll pick up so many pieces and keep them, and those pieces actually make me happy.”
Nick Wurm is a senior journalism major with a concentration in science and the environment. He is a winner of the Student Media Council Award for best writing, and serves as managing editor of The Stony Brook Press, the university’s culture magazine. It’s taken him more than 10 years to get here, but he plans to graduate in December 2021.
With eyes closed and head titled downward, participants in the mindfulness meditation workshop hung on the counselor’s every word.
“Bring attention to the top of the head and notice any sensations that you feel there,” Susan Byrne, a senior counselor at Stony Brook University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, said in a slow, soothing voice.
The students followed her instructions as she talked them through a breathing exercise, then moved on to a meditative practice called a body scan that focuses awareness on each part of the body to isolate and banish feelings of tension, pain or discomfort. “Now, gently become more aware of your surroundings, opening your eyes when you’re ready.” Her words were almost a whisper.
Gradually, at their own pace, the attendees fluttered their eyes open as they peered at their laptop screens. The counselor engaged in a few minutes of reflective discussion with the students. And then, the Zoom meditation workshop ended.
Byrne, who is trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive therapy, offered these weekly meditation workshops during the spring 2021 semester. It was just one of many programs offered by departments within the Student Health, Wellness and Prevention Services that help pandemic-weary students de-stress during these most stressful times.
Approximately 75 percent of college-aged Americans have reported facing mental health issues stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These can range from lack of focus and motivation to anxiety, depression and even suicide. About 25 percent of young adults report having thoughts of suicide, according to the same CDC report. Zoom Fatigue and COVID-burnout may not be official clinical diagnoses but they are common conditions that have crept into everyday conversation and that speak to the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion the pandemic has wrought.
The mental health professionals who run Stony Brook’s Student Health, Wellness and Prevention Services – including CAPS and the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO) – couldn’t have predicted the length and depth of the pandemic, but they did anticipate some of its consequences. And so as classes moved online, the university’s psychological support services and wellness programs did as well. After almost a year and a half, virtually all such services and counseling sessions are virtual, although the return to in-person classes means the eventual return of more face-to-face appointments.
“Moving to virtual learning, our socializing becomes virtual and we might feel more isolated,” said Lara Hunter, a clinical social worker who is the assistant director of CAPS. “And feeling isolated is one of those things that can have a negative impact on our mental health.”
Caroline Gallagher, a sophomore technological systems management major who lived on campus during the spring 2021 semester, understands what Hunter is saying.
“I’m kind of confined to my room most of the day,” Gallagher said at the time, explaining that she reached out to CAPS in the beginning of her freshman year because she had problems managing her time and felt overwhelmed. “And then at night, it’s always like, well, I could go to sleep, but also I could do this work that I need to do so I feel like mentally I really don’t ever turn off in the way that maybe I could when classes were in person. And I think, too, that’s kind of affected the way that I interact with people.”
To mitigate feelings of isolation and anxiety, new and existing workshops and webinars introduce students to coping techniques. For example, an existing three-part webinar called “Anxiety Toolbox” teaches students how to recognize and deal with anxiety. Workshop supervisors help students develop plans to manage anxiety and form more effective, personalized strategies.
Since the pandemic began, two new workshops were created: BRIDGE, or Building Relationship and Dialogue Effectiveness, and Seeking Serenity, in which students learn strategies to manage overwhelming emotions and distressing situations. Program creators at CAPS noticed that students were struggling in their relationships as well as juggling multiple stressors, unhealthy living conditions or family environments. Counselors started a peer support group but participation fell short compared to wellness programs, such as Susan Byrne’s popular “Mindfulness Meditation” group.
In March 2020, when students went home for virtual classes, CAPS had one week to shift to telehealth visits and virtual doctor and counseling appointments. This transition resulted in a sharp decline in total demand for the university’s counseling services and programming last year because many students were no longer on campus.
Julian Pessier, director of CAPS, explained: “The 25 percent decrease in the number of clients who have utilized us over the whole course of the whole year, was largely driven by that initial period where people didn’t know how to contact us and so we had to do a whole bunch of publicity to get the word out.”
Despite this, there was only an approximately 10 percent decline in counseling appointments during the pandemic year, meaning people using these specific services were now staying longer, according to Pessier’s reports. Summer and winter sessions also became busier as students learned more about telehealth and realized they didn’t have to seek out counseling in their home communities.
Accessing information about mental health care continues to be a challenge, especially among college students across the country. In a data report by the Healthy Minds Network and American College Health Association, 60 percent of students surveyed on 14 college campuses, indicated that the pandemic has made it more difficult to access mental health care.
Online therapy has benefits in terms of easy accessibility for off-campus and international students. But the therapeutic process can be more effective with eye contact and non-verbal communication, which certainly get lost on Zoom.
“In terms of human connection it’s a little bit more challenging,” Hunter said. “In trauma treatment, one of the things that actually helps our brains heal from the trauma is eye contact and on Zoom it’s a little bit harder to make eye contact.”
When creating workshops and programs, there are a few key principles that program designers at CAPS keep in mind, one being relevance. Is this information relevant to what students are experiencing? They also work to make sure the content, language, and platform used is both appropriate and understandable.
Evaluating the program’s effectiveness and accuracy is important as well. Is this program or group providing students with useful skills that they can apply to their own lives? Is it addressing what it was intended to address?
“In trauma treatment, one of the things that actually helps our brains heal from the trauma is eye contact and on Zoom it’s a little bit harder to make eye contact.”
Lara Hunter, clinical social worker and assistant director of CAPS
“I think the seminars held by CHILL and other student-led organizations can be more effective than ones held by the university, simply because they teach skills that students can continue to use on their own,” said Aamna Atif, a senior psychology major who is vice president of the Humanology Project, an advocacy club that aims to reduce stigmas surrounding mental health through student-written articles and literature.
As its name implies, the Center for Prevention and Outreach, located in the Stony Brook Union, focuses on prevention and intervention services. It uses a public health approach model to gather student feedback and gauge the campus climate on a variety of topics such as substance abuse, sexual violence and mental health. The center also hosts health workshops and engages students in discussions – one of the most popular being the “Let’s Talk” program, which features one-on-one, week-day meetings with counselors.
Psychologist Danielle Merolla, the center’s assistant director, works to mitigate some of the stigmas surrounding mental health issues and the barriers facing those in need of professional help.
“People are not putting themselves in context of this time, and affording themselves grace,” Merolla said, adding that this only exacerbates stress and anxiety. “There’s an increase in a negative sense of self that’s happening. This is why the early prevention lens that we come from in CPO becomes so important, because I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to, that when I help put it in context of this time, it can alleviate some of that harsh aggressive criticism.”
Merolla also supervises several peer-educator groups like CHILL and Global Minds Alliance, both year-long internships. These peer educators inform and empower other students through social media posts and informational “Minute on the Minds” videos, presentations and programming. In a “Minute on the Minds” video from last November, CHILL peer educator Anthony Pantaleo advises students to refrain from relying on others for validation and instead reflect on things they love about themselves.
“We’re really trying to model healthy behaviors that can correlate with healthier outlooks for our mental well being,” said Dena Spanos, a graduate student who oversees two peer-educator groups. Getting enough sleep is one such behavior, she said. “We know that in order to really have normal, healthy cognitive function, we need to have seven to eight hours of sleep at night. But most college students don’t do that.”
CPO’s methods of wellness and de-stressing encourage healthy habits that students can practice on their own. But some students have found ways to relax through newly discovered hobbies. Resident assistant Olivia Kato is no exception.
“I take walks, eat with friends, and play my guitar. I also watch a lot of YouTube. Playing guitar, seeing people, and watching YouTube aren’t anything new. Wellness walks on the other hand, are something new,” said Kato, who, in her pre-pandemic life, used to walk about five miles a day. “Not only does walking help me take my mind off things, but it also helps my back decompress from slouching at my desk all day and gives my body some type of cardiovascular exercise.”
Last year, Dr. Sana Malik and Dr. Ijeoma Opara – professors in the School of Social Welfare – received a $5,000 seed grant from the State University of New York to research the impact of social distancing on mental health and substance use during the COVID-19 outbreak. They surveyed more than 650 people between the ages of 18 and 35 from across New York State – including more than 450 Stony Brook students. Approximately 80 percent of participants reported experiencing some form of anxiety and depression in the two weeks before taking the survey. Data collection and analysis are ongoing.
“This really indicates for us that services are needed,” Malik said, “that we need more interventions specific to this population, that there are real concerns amongst college students and young adults in terms of the disease as well.”
The consensus among professionals and students alike is this: most college students are mentally and physically exhausted, probably for a number of reasons. But the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns and quarantines have exacerbated feelings of self-doubt, stress and loneliness among young adults and has led to high levels of anxiety and depression.
“There were times I felt burnt out because of the pandemic and depressed because everyone was dying, and I didn’t know what to do,” said Tathiana Piquion, a senior health sciences major who moved off campus more than a year ago and has yet to return. “I felt a lack of motivation especially because I had family members who were getting sick.”
As restrictions ease and students settle into face-to-face classes and the campus comes back to life, CAPS, CPO and the Student Health, Wellness and Prevention programs will continue to reach out to students and incorporate peer-to-peer support online and in person.
“Meeting students exactly where they’re at, I think, is the most important thing for mental health outreach,” Dena Spanos said. “I think we’re just going to continue to see things grow. And I do think that it will impact the mental health of students now, but in years to come as well.”
CAPS provides students with psychological and psychiatric support and resources through therapy, counseling, and wellness workshops.
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 upcomingperformance. 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.
Gabby Pardo graduated in 2021 with a B.A. in journalism and a minor in creative writing. She is working on a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies through New York University’s department of XE: Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement. At Stony Brook, she was managing editor of The Statesman and news editor of Shades of Long Island. Her work also appeared on WSHU Public Radio.
The COVID-19 pandemic set the clock backwards on closing the gender gap in academic publishing. With daycare centers and schools closed, women in academia, especially those who are mothers, were saddled with the extra burdens that came with working and teaching from home. The stress led them to lose sleep, cut back work hours and interrupt their career plans.
Stacey Finkelstein, an associate professor of marketing at Stony Brook University, is one of these moms. Her five-year-old daughter, Maddie, attended kindergarten virtually. Finkelstein said 24 hours was not enough time in a day to handle Maddie’s online school and her own work at the same time.
“I feel like I’m trying to wring productivity out of a place of absolute exhaustion,” said Finkelstein, who has a doctorate in business. “I feel like I’m working harder than I did as a Ph.D. student and that was really tough.”
Early career academics and doctoral students bear the brunt of the pandemic’s effect on women academics. Kehinde Cole had her first child, a boy, a year ago – just one month before the campus locked down. At the same time, she was trying to finish her Ph.D. in integrative neuroscience.
“It’s affected my research over 80 percent,” Cole said. “I can’t be in the lab. I can’t do anything. The least I could do is maybe when he’s napping, I can go hop on a call or ask my partner to hold him while I go join a meeting.”
And when her son was exposed to COVID at daycare, things only got worse. “In terms of actual research? Zero. I couldn’t do anything at all,” Cole said.
Cole expected to graduate in May 2022 but is now forced to stay longer at school until she can complete her research. Academic promotion and admission into postdoctoral programs rely mostly on getting published, so much so that the expression “publish or perish” often holds true.
“If I’m not publishing, no one is really looking for me,” Cole said. “I’m gonna perish, literally. No one will look at me.”
If mothers like Cole can’t get published, the gender gap in pay and promotions that so many have been fighting to close will only grow wider.
A recent study showed that in STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and math – women’s research hours fell by nine percentage points more than men’s in spring 2020. COVID-19 has inspired research in many STEM fields. But according to an analysis of pre-published manuscripts in medRxiv – an online archive and distribution service for unpublished papers in medical and health fields – representation of women researchers in the early phases of their careers fell by 44 percent that spring. The service hosts preliminary research in the health sciences that has yet to be peer reviewed.
Molly King is a sociologist from Santa Clara University in California who co-authored a paper titled “The Pandemic Penalty.” King analyzed two other preliminary research servers, called preprint repositories, focused on biology and economics research.
“What’s notable about our findings that there is a large gap in the last authorship position and that this underrepresentation is getting more inequitable during the pandemic,” King said. “That’s important because this last authorship position is important for retention and promotion in tenure.”
The last authorship position is usually reserved for the lab director or the head of a university’s research department. Fewer women in this important position means that during the pandemic, senior women were either stepping down from these high-level jobs or weren’t getting promoted.
“Closing the gender pay gap will enable women to purchase childcare, to afford help around the house, to do the kinds of things for their family that enable them to focus on their research and teaching.”
– Molly King, a sociologist at Santa Clara University in California and co-author of a paper titled “The Pandemic Penalty”
Stony Brook University, like many other institutions of higher learning around the country, allowed academics to add a year to their tenure clock because of the pandemic. It’s a good start, King said, but it’s not enough to fix gender inequity.
“It’s definitely not a panacea,” she said. “In fact, there’s some research that shows that setting the clock back doesn’t necessarily help women. It can in some ways harm them and it does push back the promise of security.”
There is some hope that the pandemic’s effects will motivate universities to review how advancement works, especially for women who are caregivers. King said introducing a flexible benefit to hire house help and acknowledging biases in hiring and promotion can help. But she added that closing the gender pay gap, a fight that has been ongoing for decades, is the biggest step universities can take.
“Closing the gender pay gap will enable women to purchase childcare, to afford help around the house, to do the kinds of things for their family that enable them to focus on their research and teaching,” King said.
The bipartisan push for more government-supported caregiving programs could be pointing to a shift in thinking, Julia Bear, associate professor of management at Stony Brook, said.
“Time will tell if we do get a silver lining from the pandemic,” said Bear, who studies gender gaps in the workplace. She said she hopes the silver lining is that “we value caregiving and actually put our money behind that as a society.”
The clock is ticking, especially for caretakers like Cole. But if universities listen to women, especially moms, there’s still a chance to reverse the trend.
“That, for me, is proof enough that we need more allowances,” Cole said of having to push back her graduation a year – “more funding, more opportunities to be able to get where we need to get, despite having a kid. A kid should be a plus.”
A plus that won’t force women to choose between career and family.
Listen to more of Niki Nassiri’s report:
Niki Nassiri is a senior journalism and women’s and gender studies major. They are the news editor at the Stony Brook Statesman, where they’ve been writing since 2018. Niki is a production intern at Sesame Workshop and has worked as a multimedia intern at the ACLU. After graduation, Niki hopes to create media that connects people and builds a better world.