“Honestly,” said Deb (Swartzendruber) ’83 Roth, vice president of Student Life, gazing into her computer’s video camera, “I wish I was dealing with curfew violations and messy bathrooms. We know how to handle a student who’s sleeping through class. But a pandemic…” She stops and sighs. “That’s something else.”
Nowhere on campus have the pressures of addressing the worldwide COVID crisis been greater than in the Student Life office in Erb Hall. In addition to the normal stresses of trying to attend to the needs of nearly 400 students, from mental health issues to interpersonal conflicts, Roth and her team of resident directors, resident assistants and support staff have been working overtime to keep the COVID pandemic away from the college’s doorstep, all while trying to maintain the active, involved campus culture that has defined the Hesston Experience for decades.
It’s a balancing act, and it’s not always easy to pull off. “We stumble sometimes,” says Roth. “We’re human. Of course we do. But we get back up, we refocus, we say a quick prayer for grace and understanding, and then we try to take care of what’s important, which is the same as it was before the pandemic: the wellbeing of our students.”
Roth has relied on the help of Angie (Maury) ’94 Teeter, the college’s quarantine coordinator. When a student in isolation needs a meal delivered, Angie’s there. When someone’s running a fever or has lost their sense of taste and smell, Angie masks up and drives them to get a test. She tracks symptoms, test results, close contact lists and quarantine schedules.
“Having the right tools for the job is important,” says Roth. “We’ve developed systems and safety nets. But without good people putting in long hours—I’m talking about Angie here, as well as Terrence (Jones, RD) and Makenna (Grow ’15, RD)— we’d be lost.” She pauses and laughs a little in disbelief. “I’d be lost. Many times, it seemed, that just when we were finding a groove of sorts, new COVID-19 information was revealed by the Centers for Disease Control or a unique contact tracing scenario came our way and we’d have to make adjustments, regroup and keep going.”
Roth was appointed to run the college’s Student Life department in the spring of 2019. Before that, she worked for 17 years in Student Success and supporting students in their academic work and career decision-making, while also providing oversight to academic advising and the ACCESS Lab, which Roth coordinated from its beginning. That commitment to student service made her an obvious choice for the Student Life position. But nothing could have prepared her, or anyone else at the college, for the impact of COVID-19.
With a semester of running Student Life during a world-historical pandemic under her belt, Roth pauses to reflect on what got her through and what keeps her going.
“The endless encouragement of my colleagues; students who do their best to do the right thing, even when it involves tough choices; community partners who are always a phone call away and encourage us to ‘work our plan,’ even though it may look different from other institutions’; the countless hours Angie and the rest of the Student Life staff put in. The COVID Response Team also provides ongoing regular support as we share COVID-related updates three times per week. We aren’t perfect, but we’ve been ‘perfect enough’ to reach this point in the year. All of these things give me the courage to face the semester to come.
“And God’s grace,” she says. “I prayed for God to be ‘big’ and ever-present in our decision-making, especially when fatigue seemed to be getting the best of us. Even in these tough times, God came through in a big way and for that I am grateful.”