Fall 2020

Earlier this fall, SILS Alumni Association Communications Director Jennie Goforth (MSLS ’10) asked other SILS graduates to share how COVID-19 had affected their professional lives. As the following edited responses demonstrate, some transitions went smoother than others and much uncertainty remains. 

Remembering we’re only human, even with all this tech

Elisabeth Schwalbe Ball (MSLS ’91), Librarian, Florida State College at Jacksonville
When COVID moved us to 100% remote work in March, the Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) librarians’ learning curve in virtual steepened. LibChat screen sharing, Big Blue Button conferencing, WebEx integration, Canvas course embedding were all new technologies to tackle, but there was (and still is) a wonderful “culture of clemency” when using these tools. Dropped conferences, unforeseen microphone and camera issues, breakout room failures – we accept all with a sense of humor and a “carry on” attitude that liberates us from any idea of perfection.
When I hear “we’re all in this together,” I specifically picture the FSCJ library staff succeeding remotely, with some bumbles and laughter along the way. This “culture of clemency” has strengthened my compassion for our students, who are in a learning curve of their own.

Sustaining students in an unsustainable situation

Kathleen Byrne Heidecker (MSLS ’96), Assistant Professor, Library Information Resources HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College
Our department was able to pivot to remote quickly and adapt to using online tools and systems because we already had been working toward efficient blended service. But with our college leadership committing to a remote work environment until mid-May 2021, the dread and disconnect have resurfaced. 

Students are struggling for all of the reasons discussed in higher education media. Yes, we were able to send a student a hotspot, and another when the first didn’t work. The second didn’t work either, so now they just do all of their work at someone else’s house. IT is now recalling all equipment from our adjuncts. Like most community colleges, we rely on adjuncts to teach, and taking back laptops, hotspots, webcams, headsets, etc. deprives them of adequate teaching tools. 

We are working extraordinary hours to support students and saying yes to almost every request, but after two years without a COLA and a vote of no-confidence, this is not sustainable. I work with tremendous people and we will continue to serve our students with joy and professionalism, while encouraging each other in spite of everything. 

Let the sunshine in

Heidi Butler (MSLS ’00), Local History Specialist, Capital Area District Libraries
For the first time in literal decades, I’m not working in a dusty basement or annex, but instead on the all-season porch of my home where I have windows and daylight and nature all around me. Although it is not always easy to work with archival materials from home (so many spreadsheets and database cleanups) looking out a window has been so helpful for keeping positive during this challenging time.

Graphic of woman working at table with dog nearby, man walking with a mask and backpack.

Detouring with Dad

Justin Watt (MSIS ’04), Fresno, Calif.
After spending the whole of 2019 on a self-funded sabbatical, I begin poking around for jobs at the end of January of this year. I had a good interview in early February, and then, radio silence. By the end of that month it had become clear why. Four months later, I’d put almost 60 different plants and trees in the ground, built a fence, and completely overhauled our irrigation system. Thinking it was about time to start looking for jobs again, I asked an innocent question of my 71-year-old father in June, “Would you have hiked the Continental Divide Trail this year if not for the pandemic?” His answer sent me in another direction. Over the months of July, August, and September, I supported him as he hiked over a thousand miles from South Pass, Wyoming to Cuba, New Mexico (read more on my blog, justinsomnia.org). Now I’m home again, and I’m not sure what’s next.

Finding ways to train without travel

Tyler Dzuba (MSLS '11), Manager, Learning and Organizational Development, DeEtta Jones & Associates
Before, 40% of my work was on the road. I delivered workshops and training for libraries (among other industries) across the continent. This lifestyle was a change from my comfortable and very-much-in-one-place librarian job, but it excited me and kept me connected to new skills and people every day.
In March, everyone canceled or postponed their workshops. I didn’t really care to travel either—or spend three days in a cramped conference room with 40 people—but with most of my small employer’s revenue coming from this work, we needed to figure out a different path fast.

After a brief period of flailing, we noticed that our clients were going all in on online training. We had set up a few online programs in the past year and a half: what’s a few more? By the end of April, I had developed six new courses, with a few more in the hopper. Over the summer, I designed a flexible structure for large online conversations. Now, we’re redeveloping our most enduring in-person workshops as remote trainings. It’s hard work, but we’re moving forward.

Remote is now the whole gig. And I still get to deliver workshops and trainings to support managers and leaders, just with fewer planes in between.

Coping with cuts and chaos

Matthew Wood (MSLS ’12), Editor and Writing Trainer, Valnet, Inc.
Already working as a remote editor, not much changed for my work, except our compensation. Valnet is a web content company, and the price of internet advertising plummeted early during the COVID-19 lockdown. As a result, all writers and editors took a temporary 30% pay cut. This was just as I jumped from the editorial team to the training team, resulting in some real financial chaos. It’s no fun to sign a contract for one amount of pay, and to be asked to take a large pay reduction about three days later. And payroll got confused as well, leading to some chaos that’s only now getting straightened out. 

My point – whether you were already working from home or not, there’s no way this chaos isn’t effecting you.

Graphic of man balancing child and a cat on each foot while trying to have a conference call on a laptop.

Home, but not alone

Corey J. Webster (BSIS ’13), Web Developer, Financial Independence Group 
As a Web Developer, I have long had the opportunity to work from home a few days here and there. But as soon as COVID-19 revealed itself as a worldwide pandemic, going into the office was no longer an option. I built a workstation in my kitchen, ran an ethernet cable across the room, and bought monitors and accessories to resemble my in-office setup. The biggest adjustment was not having immediate access to a babysitter. My wife, brother, and I would have to divide our time to make sure our toddler was occupied and looked after. She’s been delighted to have so much more facetime, and luckily at her age, she hasn’t known a world without masks.

From virtual to flexible

Sara (Thomas) Cooper (MSLS ’16), Reference & Instruction Librarian, Nova Southeastern University
Starting in March, the entire University went virtual. Some departments had more difficulty with this than others, but our library and specifically the reference department transitioned pretty seamlessly since we already offered a range of modalities for our services and use distance education technology regularly. 

Returning to campus [this fall] was incredibly stressful at first, especially since Florida’s state government is notoriously bad at anything requiring planning, funding, or limiting people from harming themselves and others. But the University has a heavy focus on natural and physical sciences, and medical professionals and epidemiologists headed our reopening task force. 

Thankfully, we’re one of the few universities that have resumed in-person classes with very few cases of COVID-19. Students are allowed to attend in-person or virtually for almost all classes, which are taught BlendFlex (in-person and remote); most students currently attend virtually. 

Classrooms have been retrofitted with cameras, microphones, and better sound systems. Masks are required on campus, folks are mostly compliant, and Public Safety enforces it well. A lot of our cool new collaboration-friendly furniture has had to be stored for physical distancing, but it’s otherwise going surprisingly well.

Online just in time

Brad San Martin (MSLS ’17), Digital Archivist Apollo Theater
I have been working for the past two years on getting our collections digitized and searchable via a secure private web-based database platform. While I still have a lot of materials to digitize, we were able to get the platform online in early 2020, which turned out to be incredibly fortuitous. 

While most of our artifacts are in our offices, which are currently closed, I can search them and review (and share) digital surrogates from home, allowing me to continue to be productive and helpful to the organization. Now that our programming is entirely online, having access to our library of digital videos and photos from anywhere has been an incredible asset, and we’ve been using the materials for education, fund-raising, and marketing – in addition to assisting researchers, journalists, and fans. So while my location has changed, a lot of my job has remained the same.

Staying cool and connected

Hongyi Dong (MSIS ’19), UX Engineer, Evalueserve
This isn’t my first remote job, but this is a first for many of my U.S. and international coworkers. Both my biggest goal and challenge have been my ability to empathize with others’ difficulties in the midst of this pandemic. Whenever I end up in a tense situation during a conference call or upon seeing a heated email reply chain, I remind myself that (A) I should approach the conversation with the attitude of a mediator, and (B) I should trust that things will improve in time for everyone. It’s not easy and I don’t always succeed in maintaining a cool-head, but I do my best. Because, what’s worse than missed deadlines or budget cuts? Teammates that miscommunicate and harbor resentment while talking about missed deadlines or budget cuts. I also try to reach out people in my network to check in on them, whether it be former colleagues or classmates, to see if they need any help with job search or life in general. In times like these, a helping hand is more valuable than ever.

Related alumni news 

Leah Wright Stephenson (MSLS ’97) was named Educator of the Month for April by Botetourt County Schools in Virginia. Stephenson, who also holds a degree in educational leadership from Virginia Tech, has been with the school system for 18 years, first as a librarian and then in her current role as an Instructional Technology Resource Teacher. In an article in the Fincastle Herald, Stephenson talked about the challenges that came with the COVID-19 transition to remote schooling. “The technology team has been very busy during this time, helping teachers, and troubleshooting problems with hardware and software,” she said. “However, there is nothing better than being able to help someone find a solution to their problem. That is one of the reasons why I love my job.”

Return to 2020 Newsletter Homepage