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 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.
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.
It was just a few days after we celebrated my daughter Leila’s eighth birthday in March 2020 – the last time my family would be together for a long while, although we didn’t have a clear grasp of what that meant at the time. Leila awoke in the middle of the night with a fever on its way past 105 degrees.
“Oh no,” I thought.
As a third-year journalism major at Stony Brook University, the topic of the coronavirus had already infiltrated my mind because of the many reporting and writing assignments about it.
“This can’t be happening.”
It was three o’clock in the morning. The hospital seemed my only option. I was unsure of what to expect. But I got Leila dressed and carried my lethargic 50-pound daughter to the car to drive sleepily to the emergency room at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. New protocols had just been put in place and it was in the hospital that my little girl wore a mask to protect her from a deadly virus for the first time.
It was so early in the pandemic that what we consider “normal” today wasn’t even what you’d call “a thing” back then. There were no COVID tests. I wasn’t required to wear a mask. And Leila’s symptoms didn’t check off enough warning boxes to be considered anything to be afraid of. Just a kid with a fever. So we were sent home without any quarantine rules to follow.
Although Leila stayed home – on what we didn’t know would be her last few days of in-person schooling – my life as a single mom and full-time college student didn’t stop. Her father, a New York City police officer, didn’t live with us anymore and we decided it was best to minimize his twice-a-week visits because of the climbing virus numbers.
I was in the midst of the most demanding semester of my journalism major and didn’t think I could miss a class. I saw no choice but to bring my sick child with me to school.
I moaned to myself because I couldn’t take a day off from being a student or a mommy. What I didn’t know was that these few days would be the last time I’d be in a classroom as a college student.
The following week was spring break, and I got a slight reprieve as Leila began to feel better. Her school district announced that students would have two weeks off while the nation awaited guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then a message from Stony Brook University popped up on my cell phone.
“I moaned to myself because I couldn’t take a day off from being a student or a mommy. What I didn’t know was that these few days would be the last time I’d be in a classroom as a college student.”
– Stephanie Melo
“Leila!” I shouted. “Guess who has an extra week of spring break?” It felt like I’d won a free vacation.
Pre-COVID, my morning routine went like this: wake up; walk across the hall to Leila’s room; wake up the soundest sleeper you could imagine in an eight-year-old body; make a quick breakfast – vanilla Greek yogurt is her favorite – while Leila brushed her teeth, some more wiggly than others; get dressed; fix the still-warm beds my alarm had pulled us away from as Leila brushed her dark brown hair, which was in desperate need of a trim that would now have to wait; and walk out the door – some days earlier than others depending on whether or not Leila was riding the bus to school.
After our everyday kiss-on-the-cheek-goodbye and my “have a good day,” Leila jumped out of the car – mask free – and I’d turn in the direction of the Stony Brook campus.
Combining the few days she was off from school because of her mysterious illness and the temporary school shutdown, Leila hadn’t attended her second-grade class for about three weeks. Our new morning routine wasn’t much of a routine and it certainly lacked the urgency that had once marked the start of our days.
April arrived with the official notice that Leila’s school would be closed for another four weeks. The difference now was that Leila would be a distance learner – at least for a while. Around the same time, Stony Brook University announced its plans – the rest of the spring semester would be online.
At first, Leila was excited. Using my five-year-old laptop – the only one we had – playing with our cat and lounging around in her pajama bottoms under a blanket so her classmates wouldn’t see the unicorns and rainbows on her nightwear. These were perks to her, especially because she did them while she was in class.
Of course, now her classroom was really our comfy brown couch.
If it wasn’t my turn to use the laptop for a Zoom class, I’d begin the day by asking Leila what she wanted for breakfast – Greek yogurt or muenster cheese were usually on the menu but chocolate chip Eggo waffles and Cocoa Pebbles were also top choices. I’d watch her set up her day from the corner of my eye while casually drinking the almost-cold cup of coffee I had forgotten I’d made for myself.
Our shared 13-inch MacBook Air computer. Check.
Her lavender Jansport backpack patterned with bubbles. Check.
Her still beloved baby blanket – pink with white polka dots on one side and pale green on the other, affectionately known as Blankie. Check.
Leila absorbed the sounds coming from the laptop. Her teacher logged onto Google Classroom and greeted each student in each square on the screen. There were bursts of noise at all times because seven- and eight-year-olds hadn’t mastered the act of muting themselves. Dogs barked, younger siblings shouted and parents worked remotely in the background.
There was hardly any structure – it was second grade, after all. Leila spent about half an hour a day listening to her teacher – “How many times does two go into eight?” I heard her ask. But usually the topic of the day was anything but schoolwork.
Instead, Leila’s classmates showed off their pets on screen – our tuxedo cat, Goose, made an appearance. They had conversations with one another, dying for any kind of social interaction and vying for the teacher’s attention. But it was hard for Leila – the glare from the blackboard prevented her from seeing whatever the teacher was showing and the chat function was turned off. Her teacher assigned due dates for the ending of each week, giving Leila a loose schedule to complete homework ranging from science to gym – usually a yoga video or an ABC workout for kids.
During the virtual meets, her teacher read from a book the class voted on. Leila cozied up with her favorite snack, a Chobani S’mores yogurt, and listened to the chapter of the day.
Then, it was my turn to start my school day. I brushed my brown hair into a messy-bun – the most “getting ready” I’d done in weeks – and lowered the brightness on my laptop screen to spare my already sensitive-to-light green eyes. I told Leila to play a game or watch television to limit the number of distractions taunting me from behind the computer screen I was staring at.
Several hours later and I couldn’t handle any more screen time. In between my professors’ lectures and feedback on my assignments as well as peer critiques from my classmates, my attention drifted in and out as I rubbed my eyes, dry from the light of the computer screen glaring back at me.
Leila practicing cartwheels in the dining room with Fuller House, her favorite television show, on full volume was amusing but distracting. And my patience could no longer handle any more of the “MOMMY”s I heard during most of my journalism classes.
“Mommy, how much longer till you’re done.”
“Mommy, what can I have to eat?”
“Mommy, look what Goose is doing.”
“Mommy, what are we going to do when your class is over?”
As an older, non-traditional student, virtual schooling was still foreign territory to me. I love my iPhone 10 XS but I’m not a digital native – I didn’t get my first computer until I was 18. That was 11 years ago. Attending Zoom class while also trying to keep on top of my school email inbox as well as Blackboard for submitting assignments was tricky business. School used to be an outlet for me, the time between classes was when I could have conversations with grownups.
For those of us who have children – and there are many of us – the pandemic turned us into classroom teachers as we needed to assist our kids with remote learning. Approximately 40 student parents responded to a survey last year by the Students with Children club at Stony Brook. And nationally, 26 percent of all undergraduate students – that’s 4.8 million students – are raising dependent children, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Women, of course, are more likely to be balancing college and parenthood, many without the support of a spouse or partner. About 71 percent of student parents are women – and roughly two million of them, or 43 percent of the total student parent population, are single mothers.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone.
For all parents, our homes – our safe havens – were instantly transformed into classrooms. In my case, I was suddenly mommy-college student-grade school teacher. Online school – Zoom for me, Google Classroom for my daughter – seemed relentless. I was in a state of constant worry. I hoped that my WIFI connection didn’t falter, that my headphones picked up every important word of a professor’s lecture and that my daughter – and life’s little emergencies – respected my class time.
Days turned into weeks. Leila’s teacher finally made a schedule for submitting assignments. Aside from the daily read-alouds on Google Meets, I took matters into my own hands for her sake and my sanity. I compiled a list of what was due and made her choose two subjects to complete daily so neither of us would be overwhelmed on Fridays, when everything was due. With the decision to go remote made at the last minute, her schoolwork consisted mostly of busy work – lots of videos and reading on Raz-Kids and interactive math games.
My classes reached an end-of-the-school-year crescendo while Leila began to feel the walls of our home closing in on her. We’d moved into our single-story two-bedroom house just a year before the pandemic forced us inside. Now, we finally, happily decorated Leila’s room as she wanted it – turning the walls into a gallery for all the paintings she was creating during our quarantine. My little girl, who once was mesmerized by unboxing videos, now studied YouTube tutorials to learn how to paint hazy sunsets.
“Once I finish with my schoolwork, it’s hard to sit inside,’ Leila told me one day, “especially since it’s getting nicer out.” I knew what she meant. “And I know a lot of things are happening around the world,” she added, “but I do feel lucky that I get to stay home and be with my mom all the time.”
In that moment, lockdown didn’t seem so awful. I didn’t think it was possible, but Leila and I grew even closer. We struggled together, we adventured together, and we learned together.
I watched my sweet girl suffer without social interaction with her friends and cousins, texting on her iPad and reaching out on Facebook’s Messenger Kids app – and waiting to see who would respond.
I watched her frustrations build when she didn’t understand a homework assignment.
“Mommy,” she called out one day. “I don’t get my math homework.”
I got off the cozy couch that doubles as our school chairs and walked over to Leila sitting at the kitchen table. My eyes widened as I realized what I was looking at.
“Did your teacher go over division with you at any point when you were in school?” I asked, fingers crossed.
How on earth was I going to teach division?
“It’s the opposite of multiplication,” I started. She looked scared. We shared the same defeated feeling – Leila’s from not understanding my explanation and mine from not knowing how else I could help her.
I tried again – and again. Eventually, we worked it out. And in the year of the pandemic, Leila did indeed catch on to division. She also learned how to tell time on an analog clock and figured out the value of coins.
But day after day, I watched her lose enthusiasm because she already knew what was ahead of us. Another day in the house, sitting on our brown couch, staring at our laptop, trying to ignore the outside panic but also wishing for the world outside to somehow go back to normal.
One day I plopped on the couch and logged onto my computer for yet another day in Zoom School. And I noticed a tab open on a Google search: “Is there a cure for coronavirus?”
My eight year old searched this.
Down the hall from our living room/classroom, Leila sat in her bedroom, under glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling and surrounded by pictures of her cousins and other relatives she’d clipped onto string lights over her bed. Toys from Christmases and birthdays past were scattered about. She admitted she’s afraid life will never go back to the way it was and worries that she won’t have a chance to visit anyone in our family if they get sick.
I sat in the pillow fort she created and decided that despite the stress of handling a global pandemic as a single mom, I would appreciate the bonuses it brought. Outside there were rules to be followed – social distancing and wearing masks and such – but inside my home, I was in charge.
Though it felt like the world had lost its bearings and all semblance of normalcy, it was now my duty to keep some things the same, for the both of us. My first decision – weekends were not be overrun with schoolwork or talk of school. It was a sacrifice I had to make even if I regretted it when Monday rolled around.
If it was nice outside, that’s where we would spend some time together – not cooped up in the house in front of computer or TV screens. After all, we live in a quiet neighborhood where trees and the greenery of the surrounding landscape provide beauty and a feeling of serenity.
Public places with large groups of people were a no-go but venturing outdoors, just the two of us, was still an option. A walk on a wooded trail became a literal and figurative breath of fresh air.
After that first spring of lockdown, summer vacation came and went but the pandemic didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Aside from a remote independent study project I was committed to, I had every intention of spending my summer blissfully unplugged, which I did.
I purchased a bike rack for the car with some leftover Mother’s Day gift cards, which allowed us to take our bikes and venture beyond our neighborhood. We visited the beach and pretended we were on a different island than the one where we live.
With precaution and boundaries, we began to visit some of the relatives we hadn’t seen in months. It felt surreal to hug my 78-year-old grandma and my mom. I felt nervous as I watched Leila hug her family. But my worry faded with Leila’s smiles as she glowed from the attention of the people who love her and whom she loves.
The only intrusions came from Stony Brook University in the form of emails announcing another all-online semester. But Leila was getting a reprieve. She would begin her transition back to in-person schooling two days a week.
Welcome to third grade.
As for me, I was entering my fourth year of college.
Welcome to senior year.
In the middle of it all, I decided to redecorate my house as a way to cope with quarantine.
The couch that I swore was morphing into the shape of Leila’s body was now on the other side of the room. The whiteboard where we kept track of her weekly schedule – now smudged and almost impossible to read – was propped up on a new bookshelf that stood against the cream-colored walls of the dining room. Leila’s brand-new Chromebook laptop sat on the brand-new desk in the living room, handmade by my boyfriend. Two huge additions that would make the months to come more bearable.
This time around, things flowed more smoothly and I knew what to expect to minimize freakouts from both mother and daughter. Under the best of circumstances, juggling your home life and school life is difficult. Doing it as a single mother ups the pressure. Doing it during a global pandemic makes it seem impossible. But the silver lining was that I got to live through it with my little girl.
Leila turned nine on March 6, 2021. This year there was no birthday party but of course there were presents to celebrate her – purple-and-pink-speckled roller blades, a 40-inch longboard and a bicycle with gears and 20-inch wheels – and to celebrate having survived the past months. Life was beginning to feel slightly more normal. If you didn’t think about it too much.
Before the pandemic, I was a single mom – but somehow it was during the pandemic that I feel like I truly grew as a mother. And I thrived as a student. I made it through all my Zoom classes and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Stony Brook University.
Leila was in the stands at Kenneth LaValle Stadium to watch me graduate – in person. We both wore Stony Brook-red caps and gowns. From the beginning, I told her that she was going to college with me. I figured she deserved regalia of her own. We both made sacrifices and worked hard to reach graduation day.
“If you could say anything to explain this past year, what would it be?” I asked Leila.
“We did it!” she replied.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I told her.
Stephanie Melo graduated with a B.A. in journalism in May 2021. She enjoys opinion writing and blogging and hopes to have her own column someday. Stephanie is bilingual as is her daughter, Leila, which fostered her interest in helping such students. She will continue her studies at Stony Brook University in pursuit of a master’s degree in TESOL, an acronym for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
Stony Brook baseball looked a little different this spring. The team usually starts the season with a few road trips to play against southern teams like Clemson and Texas State, and originally planned to open against Michigan at the Mets’ spring training complex in Florida.
The pandemic had other plans.
Instead, Stony Brook started its season at Joe Nathan Field against Sacred Heart University to mark the first February home game in program history and the first opening day at home since 1996.
In the season-opening doubleheader victory, the field itself looked flawless. The turf glistened as the sun shone above the naked trees behind the first base dugout.
The area around the field was a different story. Only a week after the Northeast’s latest snowstorm, Joe Nathan Field – named for the six-time Major League Baseball All-Star and Stony Brook alumnus – was surrounded by mounds of snow that rivaled the height of the bleachers they blocked. Players struggled to find foul balls that plopped into the snow as if they were looking for white needles in a white haystack.
Aside from the winter wonderland that outlined the field, something else was very different from past baseball seasons.
As players jogged out onto the field, they pulled down the red gaiter face coverings decorated with Stony Brook’s patented Seawolf logo. The rest of the players and coaches kept their faces covered with the school-issued version of personal protective equipment, as the dugout’s tight quarters didn’t allow for much social distancing.
A red ribbon tied from a garbage can to one of the bleacher legs – about 20 feet from the dugout – marked the area that spectators weren’t allowed to cross. Though there weren’t many Stony Brook fans in attendance, about 40 relatives of Sacred Heart players came to support their Pioneers. Everyone in attendance was bundled up in winter jackets and hats, blankets, and of course, everyone’s face was covered by some sort of mask.
On March 12, 2020, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced that all collegiate sports were canceled until the end of the spring semester due to COVID-19.
One year after the announcement, Stony Brook Athletic Director, Shawn Heilbron, reflected on the department’s position as it headed into the 2020 season. “We had an amazing trajectory. I really felt like in our spring, we were going to win a ton of championships,” Heilbron said.
Since Heilbron arrived in 2014, Stony Brook has achieved historic success, highlighted by the school’s first America East Commissioner’s Cup – awarded annually to the strongest athletic program in the conference – just five years later in the 2018-19 season. “We were in a great place last spring, probably the best that we’ve ever been.”
The announcement came one week before the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament and two weeks before the women’s tournament were scheduled to start. While the men’s team didn’t qualify for the tournament, the women were one game away from competing for the first time in the program’s 51-year history.
“At the time, our women’s basketball team was getting ready to host their first ever America East championship game,” Heilbron said. “Things went from we have to have limited fans to no fans to it’s shut down.”
While the athletic department made constant adjustments, players had to come to terms with the season’s abrupt end. The baseball team was fresh off winning the 2019 America East championship and looking to defend its title.
“We had been so ready to compete, to go back-to-back,” senior pitcher Brian Herrmann recalled as he sat in his car after a practice. “We were all just disappointed that we didn’t get that opportunity.”
Herrmann was especially disappointed because he hadn’t pitched since he suffered a season-ending elbow injury on April 13, 2019. The injury required Tommy John surgery – named after the first athlete to undergo the procedure that repairs a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) – which typically takes about a year of recovery. The 22-year-old multidisciplinary studies major was expected to return in mid-to-late April of the 2020 season, but the shutdown forced him to wait much longer.
Meanwhile, the softball team was looking to avenge its 2019 loss in the America East championship and was about to take a 10-4 record into a tournament in Seattle. But it was canceled before the players departed for Washington. Next up were the scheduled games in Delaware the following week – canceled before the NCAA announced that the remainder of the spring season was also canceled.
Outfielder Shauna Nuss, who is from Westampton, N. J., knew she’d be able to get home easily. But she was concerned about her teammates who live on the West Coast because they weren’t sure if they’d be able to fly amid the panic.
It was only Nuss’s freshman season, so the 20-year-old knew her team would have more opportunities to make a run at an America East championship and play in the NCAA softball tournament, which she’d dreamed about for a long time. But she wasn’t so certain about some of her older teammates.
“At the time, we didn’t know if our seniors were going to be able to come back and play for us,” she said. “Out of anyone in the locker room, they were crying the most because they thought they had their senior season stripped away. To see them heartbroken because they didn’t think they were going to come back was hard to watch.”
A few weeks later, the NCAA Division I Council voted to approve an extra year of eligibility for all spring sport student-athletes whose seasons were canceled because of the pandemic. This reprieve was a major relief to all spring athletes, especially seniors, and helped bring a sense of clarity to a confusing and unprecedented situation.
Work Out From Home
As the pandemic became more serious, it was clear that athletes wouldn’t be returning to campus before the end of the semester, so the athletic department shifted the focus to keeping them engaged virtually.
“While we were at home, we were just trying to set up Zoom meetings and we tried to do virtual workouts, which eventually got shut down,” Nuss said over Zoom from her small dorm room. “Trying to stay connected was our focus.”
Nuss said her coaches checked in with her and her teammates regularly to make sure they were staying in shape and keeping up with their schoolwork. With gyms across the country closed or operating at limited capacity, finding ways to work out was challenging, but the athletes had to make do.
Coaches and trainers sent their players multiple versions of every workout to accommodate everyone’s access to equipment. Assistant Director of Athletic Performance Kate Newell and her staff sent surveys to find out what equipment athletes had. “Some people have bands, some people have full gyms in their houses, some people have one dumbbell. So, it was a wide range of what everyone had,” she said. They sent instructions on how to do each workout with no equipment, with limited equipment, and with full equipment.
“One way that our department stuck out was we were able to individualize things for kids and do things on a one-off basis,” Newell said, adding that athletes texted her throughout the summer asking for new workout programs when they got new equipment or gained access to gyms. Getting feedback and encouraging creativity was key to keeping athletes active at home.
“With gyms being closed, it was really hard to find a barbell and heavy weights. It was kind of about maintaining what you had, rather than gaining,” Nuss said. “It was really up to us to be responsible and to take care of those workouts just so we could keep the same championship mindset in our heads.”
While baseball coaches checked in with players, Herrmann and other seniors messaged younger players to make sure they were being responsible.
Herrmann’s disappointment came with a personal silver lining – the shutdown actually helped his recovery. If he had returned to the mound in April, as planned, he would have been limited to 50 to 70 pitches for his first few outings so he could build up to the more typical 90 to 100 pitches per game. The extra time allowed him to rebuild his arm strength, relearn his throwing mechanics and regain a feel for his changeup and curveball grips.
Between early April and late June 2020, the rate of positive COVID cases in New York State plummeted from a 14-day rolling average high of 45.6 percent to 1.0 percent. Confidence was growing that schools could reopen and fall sports would resume.
“I didn’t think we would be completely open for business, the way it had been, but I thought we would play,” Heilbron said. “I really didn’t think that we would be in a situation where we were – as we got into July – talking about canceling.”
Early last summer, athletes shared Heilbron’s confidence that Stony Brook sports would return in the fall. Senior volleyball player Kiani Kerstetter returned to Stony Brook from her home in Cardiff, Calif., in early July to start training for the team’s August preseason.
But Heilbron gradually became concerned as positive cases continued to pile up across the country and other schools questioned the return of sports.
On July 17, the America East Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association, in which Stony Brook’s football team plays, announced that fall sports would be postponed to the spring semester.
“I was surprised that the season was canceled,” Kerstetter said. “If I knew it was going to be canceled, I probably would’ve stayed in California a little bit longer.”
After these announcements, the athletic department’s focus shifted once again. This time, the goal was getting athletes back on campus and training in the fall to create a sense of normalcy. Following NCAA and America East guidelines, teams held limited practices in the fall semester and gradually worked up to full-team activities.
COVID protocols allowed only 20 people in the weight room at a time, meaning larger teams like football, lacrosse and baseball had to train in multiple groups. “My fall was much crazier than it normally would be,” Newell said. She recalled her head spinning after training three groups of lacrosse players in a two-and-a-half-hour period, but she was happy to have the athletes back in the weight room.
Heilbron noted that all Stony Brook students faced a lack of social activities on campus because of the pandemic, but having athletes back with their teams restored their sense of community.
Thinking back to the fall 2020 semester, Nuss smiled as she relived the softball team’s socially distanced pizza parties and pumpkin-carving day. The team practiced less in the fall than they typically would – eight hours a week instead of 20 hours – but these team-bonding activities allowed the players to socialize.
The baseball team didn’t have these kinds of activities, so Herrmann hosted a few socially distanced events at his parents’ Northport home to keep the team together and meet some of the newer players.
But Kerstetter only saw her teammates in the fall while working out or at practices. The only senior on the team, Kerstetter found it difficult to be a leader for her younger teammates. “I couldn’t see the freshmen outside of the gym, so it was just hard getting to know them more because I wasn’t able to be around them that often.”
Like all students, Stony Brook athletes had to move to online learning. “I definitely miss just being on campus and seeing people,” Kerstetter said. “Not having in-person classes was weird for my last semester, just that I didn’t get to be in a classroom and know my classmates.”
Returning to Stony Brook gave athletes a sense of familiarity, but they missed the social aspect of campus life, which continued during the spring season.
Each sport had different safety protocols that were determined by a combination of NCAA, America East and Stony Brook University campus guidelines. For example, volleyball players were required to wear masks during spring-season matches, which meant they only had to get tested for COVID-19 once a week under NCAA guidelines. But those guidelines were superseded by Stony Brook’s more stringent rule that all athletes get tested at least twice a week.
Fans weren’t allowed to attend indoor sports, meaning the volleyball team played in empty gyms the entire season. “The crowd is definitely my favorite part. I love playing in front of people,” Kerstetter said. “It wasn’t what I expected my senior night or my entire senior season to be like.”
Athletes weren’t allowed to meet off the field or use the locker room. Softball players would usually help each other apply makeup and style their hair in the locker room before each game, but now they were expected to get ready in their dorm rooms and show up to the field ready to play.
Herrmann said the locker room was the most common place to hang out with his teammates and get to know each other. Usually, he would be in the locker room before and after classes, workouts, practices and games.
Practices mostly remained the same, the athletes just had to be diligent about social distancing and wearing masks. Nuss described softball practices as “very businesslike,” which had seniors worried about how they were viewed by freshmen because they couldn’t see each other off the field.
“I think we’re missing some part of team bonding,” Nuss said at the time. “Not that we don’t have as much fun as we can, because winning is fun, but we don’t have fun outside of softball that we might have in a normal season.”
Traveling for road games changed dramatically. Nuss recalled her team being “stuffed in a van together” when they traveled to New Jersey to play Farleigh Dickinson University at the start of the 2020 season. During the spring season when the team traveled, they took a coach bus with one player occupying each row. Masks, of course, were mandatory.
While on the road, athletes had to carry take-out food back to their hotel rooms to avoid potential exposure to the coronavirus. “We can’t leave the hotel rooms anymore, which is a bummer because I always love going in the hot tub after a long game to decompress,” Herrmann said.
The baseball players would usually get together in a hotel room to watch pro games in their down time, but COVID-19 prevented that, too.
Grateful to be Playing Again
Despite all the changes, athletes were happy to be playing again. Seniors like Kerstetter – who returned to California with a degree in health sciences to intern at WAVE Agility and Strength, where she will share her experience in volleyball and training with young athletes – and Herrmann, who will be starting his career as an electrical engineer, weren’t even sure they’d have a chance to finish their collegiate careers, so they were thankful for the spring season.
On Feb. 28, 2021, Herrmann pitched in his first game since injuring his elbow 687 days earlier. The Seawolves ultimately lost the game, but Herrmann was thrilled to be back on the mound. “I was filled with emotions when I came out of that game,” he said. “It was probably the best feeling ever.”
Kerstetter’s parents usually made the trip from California to watch her play as often as they could, but the pandemic prevented them from traveling. While Kerstetter couldn’t play in front of a crowd on her senior night – a ceremony for graduating seniors before the last home game of the season – her parents surprised her by showing up to celebrate her career.
As her parents watched, Kerstetter’s coaches presented her with a plaque before her last game, against the University of New Hampshire.“They were able to make it to that game and watch me one last time before I finished up my college career, which was great.”
And although he wasn’t playing any sports, Heilbron was happy to see a year’s worth of adjustments culminate in bringing athletics back to Stony Brook. It was challenging in the beginning to figure out the practice schedules of 11 teams as well as adjust to the changing schedules of opponents. But the department collaborated to make sure the athletes could play.
“It’s been really rewarding to see our athletes compete, to see them happy,” Heilbron said at the time. “The student-athletes, they just want to play. They want to get out there and do what they love to do with the people they love.”
With the joy of playing came the competitive spirit of sports as the Seawolves retrained their focus on winning championships.
Under normal circumstances, the volleyball team would have made the America East playoffs with the fourth-best record in the conference, but the top two teams at the end of this unique season played in a championship match. Their season came to a disappointing end, but they weren’t expected to be a powerhouse this year.
Six seniors departed after the 2019 season and five freshmen entered the lineup in an unprecedented year. The volleyball team’s inexperience showed early in the season, as it lost its first five matches. As the season progressed, Stony Brook won seven of its last ten matches and finished with a 7-8 record, better than the 9-17 season in 2019.
Kerstetter was part of Stony Brook’s championship lineup in 2017 and 2018, and while her team fell short this season, she’s confident that her teammates have a bright future.
Despite all the changes this season, the softball team stayed focused to get back to where its season ended in 2019 – the America East championship game. “You have to keep in mind the end of the year goal. That ring, that championship,” Nuss said.
One game away from securing home field advantage in the playoffs, the softball team finished the regular season in second place in the conference. The softball team worked its way through the first two rounds of the America East tournament but ultimately lost in the championship round to first-place University of Maryland, Baltimore County – the same team that beat Stony Brook in the championship in 2019.
Meanwhile, the baseball team finished the regular season in first place, thanks in large part to a 10-0 start in conference play, the team’s best start since it joined the America East in 2002. Stony Brook hosted the America East tournament at the end of May, but the baseball team’s effort to defend its 2019 title controversially fell short due to inclement weather.
After losing the first game of the double-elimination tournament, Stony Brook bounced back with two straight wins to get to the championship round. Needing two wins against New Jersey Institute of Technology to reclaim the America East title, Stony Brook took an early 1-0 lead on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
The rain intensified in the third inning and three straight walks loaded the bases for the Seawolves. But before the team could extend its lead, the game entered a rain delay and was eventually suspended.
The two teams were scheduled to resume playing the next morning, but the rain continued and the America East announced at 12:42 p.m. that the remainder of the tournament was canceled. As the only unbeaten team in the tournament, NJIT received the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
For the second year in a row, the team had no control over how its season ended.
Despite the heartbreaking endings, Heilbron feels that the spring season can only help Stony Brook regain its momentum and propel it into the fall. “Even though all the results may not be what we want them to be, it really is about continuing to build and moving forward,” he said.
Heilbron understands that anything can happen now that the fall semester is in full swing with residence halls at near-full capacity and 80 percent of classes being conducted in person. “We’re looking forward to getting back and supporting all of our athletes at the highest level,” he said before classes resumed. “We’re going to plan to be up and running full steam ahead and that’s certainly the hope.”
Heilbron believes that much success awaits the Seawolves in the seasons ahead as they regain momentum and get back to where they were before a global pandemic hit.
Matt Lindsay is a senior journalism major and applied math and statistics minor at Stony Brook University. Matt intends to pursue a career in sports journalism after he graduates in December 2021. He writes for the sports and opinions sections at the campus newspaper, The Statesman.