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To Keep Students Connected, Duke Built a 'Mini-City' of Support Staff

Isolation Care Team, other units work daily to bring a personal touch to student life during pandemic

Mary Pat McMahon and Gary Bennett, seen talking with a student in the Brodhead Center Wednesday, said keeping connected with students during the semester was a priority.
Mary Pat McMahon and Gary Bennett, seen talking with a student in the Brodhead Center Wednesday, said keeping connected with students during the semester was a priority. Photo by Bill Snead

When Annie Roberts, a senior from Illinois, had to travel home unexpectedly for a family emergency recently, Duke didn’t forget about her.

“I had professors reach out to me,” she said. “The level of support, I don't know if I would have seen that in a normal year. Everyone was very concerned about how I was doing, and that was really, really important for me.”

Across the university, Duke has been pairing its large-scale institutional efforts to contain the pandemic – testing, contact tracing, communicating public health guidelines – with small, personal touches to keep students feeling connected. The road was made bumpier with the spike in COVID cases that forced a week-long, campus-wide stay-in-place order that ended Sunday. But the work to put humanity and empathy at the center of solutions to a practical problem continues.

Student Affairs created seven cross-departmental teams to tackle pandemic issues. The Keep Learning website, which updates students on academic, residential and support services, has responded to over 12,000 enquiries since it was created in March 2020. Previously existing teams from housing and residential life to student health have faced demand four to five times greater than any other year.

“The scope and duration of this effort is just extraordinary,” said Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president of student affairs. “So many nights and weekends, and now season-to-season for a full year, the dedication and relentless commitment of these teams has worked to keep our students safer and Duke's doors open.

“This staff also include a whole lot of moms, dads, and caregivers for school age or younger kids and dependent elders,” McMahon said. “It includes community leaders who have simultaneously shouldered supporting our students while caring for their own loved ones and communities, all impacted by COVID here in Durham. I'm deeply grateful to the families of all of these Duke staff for their sacrifices and support, too. Without them, we would not be here.”

“If we can make today less awful, we're gonna try to make it just a little bit better.”
-- Marcy Edenfield, Isolation Care Team

The Isolation Care Team (ICT) is at the sharpest end of the pandemic on campus, shepherding infected and quarantined students through the isolation process at eight locations.

“If we can make today less awful, we're gonna try to make it just a little bit better,” said Marcy Edenfield. Before COVID, Edenfield oversaw productions at the university’s arts and performance venues. In addition to that, she now runs logistics for the ICT.

“We’re basically running a mini-city,” Edenfield said. Her 17-person venues team, plus redeployed staff volunteering from business and finance offices, the Divinity School and elsewhere, delivers every sheet, every towel, every morsel of food and anything else it takes to get a student through the isolation period.

“If there's a student that needs something, we bring it,” Edenfield said. “For a mom who wants to get a care package to her kid, we have it sent to the Rubenstein Arts Center and we deliver it.

“I talked to a mom the other day and she really just wanted someone to listen to her,” said Edenfield, who has two children of her own, aged 14 and 4. “I told her, ‘Look, I'm a mom, and I'm thinking of your daughter as I would my own.’“

As well as going behind what Edenfield calls the COVID curtain to deliver necessities, the team also checks in on quarantined students just in case they need a chat.

“I always tell people, you have to listen to the quiet ones, the ones that don't say anything,” Edenfield said. “Those are the ones I make sure we call.”

Of course it isn’t just quarantined students who have been feeling isolated, with so many of the typical in-person college experiences streaming online instead for the last year. That’s as true for small-scale interactions as it is for large classes. But connections can be made nonetheless.

The academic guides program, launched in fall 2020 with a gift from the Duke Endowment, embedded full-time academic support professionals in residential quads to advise undergraduates on navigating campus life. When the stay-in-place order was imposed, each guide sent a note to remind every resident in their quad that they were willing and available via Zoom to give extra support or individual attention through the duration of the order. Identity and cultural centers all around Duke have been forging and maintaining online connections with students too.

“I try to make our time on Zoom different than class,” said Elana Friedman, campus rabbi at the Duke Center for Jewish Life. “I try to be someone that's really listening and caring for them. I think the one-on-one conversations are so important to students’ Duke journey.”

Those conversations happen at all hours, early in the morning or late at night, with students on campus or scattered across the globe.

“We can't run into each other on campus on the plaza or in the Brodhead Center, but the ability to just check in and spend a little bit of time together is so important and meaningful,” Friedman said. “I consider it to be sacred. Each of my conversations with students, they're really precious to me.”

The stay-in-place order left many students dismayed at the small proportion of their classmates who violated distancing guidelines at in-person rush events off campus.

“The unequivocal feedback I've heard across the board from students is that it's very clear this was necessary,” said Shrey Majmudar, vice president for academic affairs in the Duke Student Government. “They want the small number of students who violated the Duke Compact to be held accountable, and the other big theme is being cognizant that Duke is in Durham – we have to be very careful for those residents as well, and there's a lot of care and concern from our students to make sure the Durham community, just like the Duke community, is safe.”

Majmudar and others said they appreciate how Duke administrators have involved students in communications about campus life under COVID, to help the messages resonate.

Roberts, the senior from Illinois who is also a resident assistant, serves on the student advisory board that was set up in late spring 2020 to help conceive what the return to campus in fall would look like. She said the board always felt part of the decisions being made.

“There was some tension between what we could and couldn’t know, because everything was in real time,” she said. “But we felt like we could always be involved in really important choices.”

Roberts said a shift in grading schemes to make more courses pass/fail this year was also huge for students.

“That’s been really important for people's academic success and mental health, to know that you don't have to be perfect in this time,” she said. “In college there’s always some level of baseline stress, but this year is just so extreme, I think, if anything happens on top of just normal life, it's almost too much to handle.”

Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, said he marvels at all the ways faculty and staff are supporting students as they navigated this pandemic year.

“Our colleagues responded to the challenge of this year in a profoundly Dukie way,” Bennett said. “All of our student-facing team members — our advisers, academic guides, learning consultants, those involved in experiential education, scholars’ programs, underrepresented student support — worked overtime, engaged deeply with our students and led with empathy.”

Frank Thomas, a senior from Texas, said in the past year he’s witnessed “a level of collaborative communication with students that I’ve never seen before.”

Thomas, who is president of the Duke University Union, said he saw that commitment when the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament was canceled. Various Duke leaders swiftly reorganized to stream famous past men’s and women’s Duke hoops victories on a large scale to recreate some of the March Madness camaraderie.

“The university was willing to dedicate their time and their effort to really holding together what it means to be a Duke student, and that has continued,” he said. “It hasn't been without its challenges, but I think the underlying commitment is definitely there.”

Streaming old ball games might feel like a pale imitation of the real thing, but Thomas said those relatively small gestures matter. In the fall, he and the union were tasked with putting on a small, distanced outdoor craft event on East Campus.

“I overheard someone tell their friend, ‘It means much to me that Duke cares that I have a good Friday night,’ " he said. “That goes to show how something that can seem small on paper can have an impact on people's conceptions of what it means to be a student at Duke right now, and what that experience looks like.”