As students and faculty adapted to new ways of learning and teaching, hundreds of staff members worked behind the scenes this semester to ensure that campus operated as smoothly and safely as possible. And while all employees deserve kudos for adjusting their work routines and going above-and-beyond, here are eight who exemplify the commitment and versatility of the Hamilton community.
So much of what it takes to maintain Hamilton’s spectacular buildings and grounds revolves around meticulous planning. Everything runs on a schedule. But like Mike Jasper said, “COVID really created a sense of the unknown.”
As the semester evolved, new challenges continued to emerge. “Initially it was assisting with getting classrooms ready and helping with the logistics of testing protocols to get students to campus,” Jasper said. “Then came all the new entities like the outdoor canopies and the outdoor fitness center. Then came the first positive COVID results, which seemed like they affected even more how we were servicing the areas for students to make sure they stayed safe.”
The challenges of maintaining outdoor dining and classroom spaces, combined with Central New York weather, kept grounds crews busy. Fortunately, Mother Nature cooperated, and outdoor gatherings continued well into November.
“Sounds cliché, but it was truly a team effort,” Jasper said when asked about one of his biggest projects — creating an outdoor fitness area. The project began when the old tennis courts were sealed to provide a stable floor space to handle the equipment. Next a tent company was brought in to create a configuration that would maximize the space and conform with social distancing protocols. The Hamilton plumbing and electric shop worked to get power for the machines and lights to the area. The campus grounds crews were instrumental in moving and setting up equipment.
“Hamilton is a close-knit community with so many people willing to work outside the box to make things happen for the students,” Jasper said. “There is a real can-do spirit here that makes it feel like we can overcome any obstacle.”
“It wasn’t always fun, it wasn’t always glamorous, but we are all in this together and made it work,” said Steph Kowell, who divided her days between the sports medicine clinic and Hamilton’s COVID Testing Center.
Thanks to enhanced safety protocols, many sports team practices took place even though formal competition was canceled. “A big challenge for our staff was addressing how to deliver the best injury care while maintaining risk-reduction strategies,” Kowell said. “Like many others in health care, we had to adapt and utilize telemedicine visits when possible. This was something totally new for us, and overall I think it worked out better than we anticipated.”
When not tending to aches and scrapes, she volunteered at the testing center, monitoring that nasal swab samples were taken correctly. Director of Sports Medicine Scott Siddon said that Kowell “ended up being a rock star, not only doing her own testing shifts but even filling in for our staff’s shifts when needed.”
Kowell takes that compliment in stride. “I have always felt the Hamilton community believes strongly in supporting others when needed,” she said. “Our staff in the sports medicine clinic takes a team approach to our operations by always helping each other out through constant changes, so applying that same mentality to the testing operations was no different.”
What was different? “One thing I found particularly interesting when having conversations with students was finding out what sort of new hobbies or interests they decided to try for the first time to keep themselves entertained,” Kowell said. “Some worked out better than others — let’s just say we saw quite a few injuries come into our clinic from skateboard accidents!”
Not only did Najee Evans find himself adjusting to the “new normal” brought on by the pandemic, he did so in a new job. Evans joined the Hamilton community in July as an area coordinator overseeing seven student residences from Dunham to Griffin Road Apartments.
The most challenging part of his semester was ensuring that students kept up with the enhanced social distancing and safety protocols while also enjoying a meaningful residential experience to supplement their academic learning. Engaging over Zoom, he worked with student resident advisors (RAs) to help them brainstorm creative and fun ways to develop interactive programs within Hamilton’s policies.
“My RA staff and I have been doing an amazing job building a professional relationship through icebreakers that allow everyone to build trust and respect amongst one another,” he said.
Evans also deals with students on issues such as roommate conflicts and homesickness, and, when necessary, he refers them to the appropriate Hamilton resources. Plus, he has the task of conducting COVID-19 Community Agreement violation hearings, which he sees as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of adhering to Hamilton’s carefully crafted safety measures.
“Moving to a new state and starting a new job during a pandemic was not easy; however, Hamilton’s staff, faculty, and students have done an incredible job welcoming me to campus,” he said. “When the semester became overwhelming, I constantly recited my favorite scripture, which says, ‘And we know that all things work together for the good … [Romans 8:28].’ Knowing that everything is working together does not mean the absence of adversity; rather, it is knowing that I will always be victorious despite adversity.”
In a typical semester, Mike Houle manages requests for use of College vehicles and organizes transportation for students to and from medical appointments via Uber. This fall, Uber gave way to a shuttle service with student drivers — think the Jitney, only busier! Houle credits the work of the “amazing student staff” for the program’s success. “Knowing that our drivers were tested for COVID on a regular basis eliminated us having to worry about students being transported by someone who may not have been tested,” he said.
Ensuring that each vehicle was disinfected promptly after each trip was an essential part of the new safety protocols since Houle and two other Campus Safety colleagues, Kelle Chrysler and Dustin Briggs, were on call to transport students to isolation immediately after a positive result was reported. This required them to don full PPE gear as they made trips to and from area hotels to ensure that students had the resources necessary to work remotely.
“There were many [students] who were worried and a few who were scared,” Houle said. “During our conversations things seem to calm down for them. The conversation always ended with the students being grateful for what the College has been doing to keep everyone safe. They were very appreciative.”
If this weren’t enough, Houle also worked with HamVotes to coordinate getting students to the local polling location on Election Day. He’s quick to point out he couldn’t have done any of this without the help of his assistant, Darlene Bourgeois.
Stop by for a quick bite at Howard Diner and there’s a good chance Heather Daniels will not only strike up a conversation, but also know your go-to order before you even say it. Students are amazed not only by her uncanny memory, but how her sunny personality can brighten even the toughest days.
“I truly enjoy getting to build bonds with the students,” Daniels said. “I’m always babbling about my kids and the sports they play or other activities they are in, and when a student participates in the same activity it gives us something to talk about. I love being able to ask how their game went or how the play is coming along. It kind of makes it feel like they’re my own kids!”
Reflecting on the semester, Daniels said she appreciated how everyone from students to her co-workers can adapt to anything and just take things in stride — even challenges such as adapting to the protective Plexiglas and masks. “It made it so hard to hear students, and we couldn’t even try to read lips,” she said. “I’m pretty sure students ended up with food they didn’t ask for or left without food they wanted. Sorry again, kids! You were all really good sports about it.”
Dave Saxe supervises 17 custodians who work in various residence halls, Taylor Science Center, Johnson Health and Wellness Center, and the athletics facilities. His team, along with the rest of his Facilities Management colleagues, spent the summer preparing for fall. Their action plan paid off.
Among the custodians’ major tasks was disinfecting all classrooms in between each class, which required some to adjust their daily routines. Several changed shifts from the typical 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. to 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m. In addition, enhanced PPE required them to don Tyvek suits and respirators when working in areas directly exposed to someone with COVID.
In order to respond to situations as they arose, Saxe and fellow custodial supervisors Patty Critelli and Robin Treen, along with Custodial Manager Mike Strong, routinely took calls summoning them to campus late into the evening or on scheduled days off.
“My biggest takeaway from this semester is how we all came together to make this semester safe and successful,” Saxe said. “It just reinforced what I already knew about the custodial department and Hamilton as a whole. We are able to rise to whatever challenges are presented to us and work as a team to solve them.”
John Geissinger is one of several dozen Hamilton employees who completed contract tracing training. These volunteers are matched with students placed in isolation if they tested positive for COVID-19 or into quarantine if they were exposed. Volunteers check in with students each day to monitor how they’re feeling, deal with any problems, and generally just chat.
“All of the students that I was in touch with had a really good understanding of why they were in quarantine and were great at following the protocols to keep themselves and the greater community safe,” Geissinger said. “We connected each day with either a phone or Zoom call. It felt very similar to the recruiting calls that we as coaches make to interested student-athletes.”
By chatting each day for over a week, contact tracers and students develop bonds that both find rewarding. Since some students were in quarantine over Halloween, Geissinger's family made candy-filled gift bags to keep spirits up. “During one of my first contact tracing conversations, it came up that the student attended a rival high school to the one I attended,” he said. “It was fun to find out that shared experience with a student who I may not have crossed paths with otherwise.”
Claire McKenney’s typical pre-COVID workweek revolves around on-campus events and 25Live, the College’s events scheduling system. She assists users throughout campus who have questions entering their events, conducts system maintenance and reporting, and hosts training sessions for students and employees. This semester, all that was put on hold as she shifted to help manage Hamilton’s COVID Testing Center in Tolles Pavilion.
Responsible for recruiting and scheduling volunteers, McKenney coordinated the work of 61 College employee volunteers and several temporary employees hired to help sign in students, faculty, and staff when they arrived and monitor them as they self-administered the nasal swab test.
“Having the volunteers really saved us in a big way,” McKenney said. “We were able to send out a request to our listserv and would have a quick response almost every single time. I am so thankful to everyone who played a role in the efforts to keep our students on campus for the semester — WE DID IT!”
Photos by Nancy L. Ford