By Shrey Majmudar (interviewer)
A group of Duke University senior students in the capstone course of the Science and the Public certificate program spent the spring 2022 semester delving into how an array of artists, administrators, students, and musicians created and found community during the pandemic.
With instruction from Rose Hoban and Anne Blythe, from NC Health News, and their instructor Misha Angrist, a professor of the practice at the Duke Social Science Research Institute and senior fellow in the Initiative for Science & Society, the students collected oral histories that give a panoramic view of how individuals lost and found fellowship amid COVID-19 and what impact that will have on post-pandemic.
Shrey Majmudar (Duke University, Class of 2022) centered his oral history interviews around the following theme: “How did students and administrators help the student body find community and take care during the pandemic, whilst doing so themselves, as student/staff leaders?”
To gather perspectives on this chosen theme, Shrey sat down with Duke’s two most senior leaders in charge of the undergraduate experience, Dr. Gary Bennett: Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Mary Pat McMahon: Vice Provost/Vice President for Student Affairs. He also interviewed Amy Powell, the Vice Dean of Students who oversaw Duke’s mental health services and senior Ysanne Spence, the former President of Duke’s programming & community-building body (Duke University Union).
Shrey explored the challenges faced with those tasked with helping Duke students create and maintain community. At times, these officials were successful, but they also faced difficulties and tragedies as they dealt with students’ overlapping housing, academic and mental health challenges while simultaneously trying to keep themselves healthy and balanced.
Gary Bennett and Mary Pat McMahon
Gary and Mary Pat described their vast roles along with some surreal and indelible memories from the early days of the pandemic, particularly the fact that they had both returned from Duke Kunshan University in China just a few weeks prior to March 2020. They also described many of the monumental actions they had to take during this time, for example, making decisions on international students’ housing, pass/fail grading for all undergraduates, etc.
“I realized things were gonna be very different [when] we were writing the message that said, ‘Hey, spring break’s gonna go an extra week, and you’re not coming back,'” Mary Pat said. “It was really that first phase was getting MiFis (wireless hot spots) to students in non-wireless spaces, shipping people’s cellos home, going back and getting retainers out of people’s rooms.”
Gary and Mary Pat spent some time reflecting on students’ emotional and mental health, in light of the two back-to-back suicides and provided intimate detail on their responses to these tragedies and how they helped support the student community & the two students’ families. They each pull back the curtain on their home & personal lives during the first-half pandemic, describing how it was impossible to escape their Duke responsibilities and the stark lack of work-life balance.
“There were times when it was exhilarating, to be able to make progress in some of these, and there were times when it was deeply inspiring, and there times when it was just completely emotionally draining,” Gary said. “At times, it was just painful.”
Listen to Gary and Mary Pat’s interview here:
Amy is a social worker who came to the Dean of Students Office in 2008 after working in the Duke University Medical Center; she served as Vice Dean of Students until April 2022.
Amy recounted the early days of the pandemic in Spring 2020 — halfway through the semester — as she and her team had to rapidly pivot to supporting students who remained on-campus as well as the thousands who were asked to stay home. She shared details such as how she was pulling all-nighters to get everything done.
She also delves into a sensitive topic: how she and her colleagues across Student Affairs responded to two back-to-back student suicides early in the pandemic, employing strategies to bring people together — both virtually and physically — despite COVID-19 concerns.
In her interview, Amy shared some personal reflections on how she led during this challenging time and how she kept herself mentally healthy with the continual work and changes created by the pandemic. She described the first two years of the pandemic as a ‘fog,’ something that is omnipresent in her mind and yet difficult to parse.
To wrap up the interview, Amy ended with reflections on the pandemic and her work-life balance, as well as what she believes is in store for Duke’s Wellness Units.
Amy had announced her departure from Duke at the end of the 2021-22 school year by the time of the interview during the spring semester of 2022.
Listen to Amy’s full interview here:
Ysanne Spence was a senior at Duke University studying cultural anthropology and public policy with a certificate in child policy research at the time of her interview in the spring of 2020. She was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica before completing high school in Florida. At Duke, she participated in the BUILD pre-orientation program as a participant and a crew-leader, the FOCUS program, DukeEngage, Duke University Union’s First-Year Intern Program and was been their vice president of administration, vice president of external affairs, and finally, the president.
Ysanne started her oral history by providing a background of her many involvements at Duke, particularly with Duke University Union (DUU), the University’s primary programming and community-building organization. She shared anecdotes from the early days of the pandemic, when she was ripped away from the student community and thrust into a home environment which was not conducive to balancing all of her university commitments and getting school work done.
“I remember I was just losing it. And I was just like, ‘I can’t handle this, like there’s too much going on, I don’t know how to navigate this new space,'” she recounted. She sought support from her student advisor from the Duke University Union, Francesca Santos.
“And I remember what she said to me, her first response was just like, ‘breathe, like you need to breathe, like you’re not giving yourself grace and like, understand that this is hard for everyone and everyone is going through this difficulty and you just need to figure out how to navigate this space.’ And I don’t think I ever did. That’s the thing. I don’t think I ever really did figure out how to navigate working at home.”
After returning to campus, Ysanne helped lead Duke’s COVID-19 response by meeting with multiple students and providing feedback to staff. She also shared how she felt disheartened because she felt much of that work was swept aside by university authorities.
She spoke of students’ needs for community as they continued to weather the pandemic, and also some of the ways DUU put on programming, employing a variety of tips and tricks such as ‘to-go’ events that were socially distanced. Ysanne shared some lessons from the pandemic that she hopes DUU will carry forward, such as meeting students where they are, creating better work-life balance and partnering with administration.