March 2020 will likely always be remembered as a pivotal moment in human history.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and less than a week later, Virginia Tech announced the spring semester would be finished via an online format. Many unexpected changes occurred during the weeks and months that followed. It was both a collective and yet deeply individual experience.

Approaching the one-year anniversary of that week, several members of the Virginia Tech community reflected on the past 12 months, what they learned, changed, and for whom they're grateful.

What was the moment when you realized that the year 2020 was going to be vastly different than anything the world had ever experienced?

“I remember when Ohio State was the first [university] that said, ‘We’re not going to go back [for the spring semester].’ That was the moment when I sat back and was like, ‘Wow, that’s one of the top three biggest institutions in the country that’s not going to come back.’  That kind of opened the floodgates for everybody else. It was a paradigm shift. I even think about what we thought we knew then, compared to what we know now. It’s night and day. I remember thinking, ‘This is horrible, but we’ll have August.’ You figured out that by April and May, that wasn’t the case.”

- Sean Grube, director of housing and residence life at Virginia Tech

"When we sent students home at spring break and moved to remote operations for the rest of the spring semester. Normally, the spring is a very active time for campus with student activities leading into commencement, and that regular routine got massively disrupted and focus shifted to communications on public health and safety. The social media content calendar got thrown out the window and was replaced with a constant churn of information to help keep the broader community safe as things evolved with COVID and the restrictions on life that it caused.”

        - Susan Gill, director of new media, University Relations

“The moment I realized that this year was going to be different for me was when all of my friends and I came back from Key West, and Virginia Tech had given us an extra week of spring break. During that extra week, all I remember is constantly watching the news, trying to buy a mask when they were sold out everywhere, not being able to buy hand sanitizer or toilet paper, and realizing that this was very serious. I then remembered forming a group of my friends that were still in Blacksburg as my pod and trying to understand that everything was changing.”

       - Haley Cummings, 2020 Virginia Tech graduate and an account coordinator at 300Brand in Alexandria

What is the most important lesson you learned during the year?

“We were fortunate to have a former Navy Seal address the team last fall. He shared an amazing story about attempting to scale a 200-foot cliff wall during his training. When his eyes started wondering to the ground and then back to the objective, his progress stopped. His instructor quickly repelled down to him and told him to only focus on what was six feet in front of his face. That proved to be a great lesson for us as we attempted to lead our team through an unprecedented season. Instead of worrying about the bigger picture we tried to control what we could control and out narrowed our focus to one task, one practice, one day at a time. That’s a lesson we’ll certainly carry forward."

     -  Justin Fuente, head football coach at Virginia Tech

“Our institutions and communities are incredibly resilient. But I've also witnessed the devastating impact that inequality is having on everything. There has been tremendous loss for communities of color and the poor. And it is not clear how much 'bounce back' will be possible for these communities.”

    -    Sylvester A. Johnson, the founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities

"I’m more grateful than ever for my family, friends, my health, and being part of a community. The staggering losses of so many people to COVID-19 have underscored for me that we’re are only guaranteed today. I’m more focused than ever on not missing a moment."

- Frank Shushok, vice president for student affairs

“It’s a never-ending task trying to inform people about public health and safety, particularly when it completely changes their way of life. Some people resist learning new information, but it’s important to stay vigilant and try to reach as many people as you can, even when you’re exhausted or when they’re telling you they don’t want to hear any more."

- Gill

Did you take the pandemic as an opportunity to change anything in your life in a positive way?

“I was reluctant to take the Metro. I was not comfortable with being in public transportation with a lot of people, so I thought, ‘maybe I can run to the office.’ I wasn’t going very often, so that would be once a week at most … It’s a beautiful run for me. I live in Washington, D.C. It’s the National Mall and then Arlington Cemetery. It’s uphill. It’s kind of tough, so I started running one way [about  7.5 miles], I would either run to the office or I would run from the office, and I was taking Uber [the other way].”

- Luiz DaSilva, executive director of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, based in Arlington

“While I would not wish a pandemic on anyone, it certainly has brought about disruptive change. Many of these changes are detrimental, but many have been positive. The ubiquitous Zoom meeting, for one, has freed us in numerous ways. It has shown us that many of the barriers we previously put around collaboration are unnecessary, such as physical presence in the office or synchronous meetings. Events that would normally have stifled or delayed work can now be hurdled within a virtual room in ways we would have not considered a year ago. To be sure, there is a tendency to now think we never leave the ‘office’ since we can always dial into Zoom, but provided reasonable rules are in place, I think my ability to communicate and collaborate has increased. And the ability to get diverse teams together without the expense and time of travel is something I hope remains at the forefront of our thinking.”

- Capt. Jamie McGrath '90, U.S. Navy (retired) deputy commandant, 3rd Battalion, Corps of Cadets

“On the personal front, I've made much more time to engage with my family. I've also been more deliberate about expanding the way the Center for Humanities is advancing its work. We now have a podcast series that will continue to be part of how we engage publicly. Oh, and I actually streamed 'Sharknado' (that was around January). It really helped to take my mind off some worries and stress of the pandemic.”

- Johnson

“Working from home gave many of us unexpected time with our families, which was a positive by-product of the quarantine. Being at home during that time heightened my awareness of the challenges so many other families were trying to cope with in terms of remote learning, as well as helping children deal with separation from their friends and their routines. As parents, we’ve tried to make even more of a commitment to participate in family activities that don’t involve a screen. Whether it’s meant taking the girls fishing, playing sports, or enjoying the outdoors in Southwest Virginia, we’ve made a concerted effort to create more quality family time.”

- Fuente

"For decades, I’ve long been a regular visitor to the gym, and I haven’t been back since March of last year. I bought a bike and I’m now a regular rider and have learned every mile of the Huckleberry Trail. Not only is it a workout, the beauty is stunning and renewing. While disruptions are rarely appreciated initially, they do jolt us into 'seeing' and trying new things. This has certainly been the case for me."

- Shushok

Who could you have not have survived the year without and why?

"The pandemic has been a challenge, but it has also provided an opportunity to put ourselves to the test: the ability to lead during the most difficult of times. While we all face our own challenges, we are not alone. Currently, as the regimental commander, I have the privilege of working with some of the most disciplined and hardworking cadets in the regiment. Everyone has contributed to making our organization better every day. Above all, it is the cadets in the regiment who give me the strength to continue, to not give in to the pressures around us, but to embrace these challenges head-on as we push forward."

- Omar Djienbekov, Corps of Cadets regimental commander and senior double majoring in Russian and national security and foreign affairs

“Wow! Where to start? Immigrant laborers who continued to harvest food that lands on our grocery shelves. Medical workers, including those who clean hospitals and medical offices. The building and grounds staff at VT who have kept our buildings clean and safe. I could not have continued to work without VT's IT teams ensuring our technology was in place and functioning. As a faculty member, I have read a lot over the years about how essential academic faculty are to the university. But I kept realizing that the 'essential workers' at our colleges and universities are non-faculty staff, not academic faculty. I think we have to change significantly how we tend to imagine who is at 'the center' of higher education. And because I have spent so much more time at home, I have to acknowledge my spouse who took the lead on ensuring our daily protocols shifted to optimize our safety and minimize risk of infection.”

- Johnson

“My colleagues, particularly in University Relations, but also on other teams across campus. We plowed through the work that needed to be done; we made each other laugh or listened when someone needed to vent; we raised our hands when someone said 'help!' even when it felt like we couldn’t handle one more thing. I can’t wait to see everyone in person again.”

- Gill

“My family has been especially supportive of my nonstop motion this year. My three kids, one a Hokie, one in high school, and one a freshman at another college, have been up close feedback loops for how profoundly this year has affected young people. They reminded me every day to stay empathetic and receive generously the disappointment and anxiety that so many felt.”

- Shushok

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone and Travis Williams

Share this story