Questions surrounding the pandemic are seemingly endless.

Virginia Tech students are providing some answers through the university’s COVID-19 helpline.

Every day, six to eight students gather in a cluster of offices tucked behind Lane Stadium to field questions by phone from the community about COVID-19. Since Sept. 2, they’ve answered more than 4,500 calls.

“The helpline allows the community to feel confident about what Virginia Tech is doing to fight this virus,” said helpline worker and Virginia Tech student Alexa Williams. “Getting to be part of such a diverse network is a big testament to how the university quickly mobilized to best care for their students and faculty. The pandemic put me out of work from my other job back in the spring, and I’ve had a few COVID-19 scares myself. I wanted to help students facing the same complications.”

In the fall, Virginia Tech identified the need for a service through which community members could find the answers to all COVID-19 related questions in one place. University leaders realized that it would be much more effective for people to speak with an actual person, rather than typing a question into Google. Susan Gill, who is director of new media for Virginia Tech University Relations, saw an opportunity to lend her expertise and experience communicating through social media and jumped into action.

“I got together with four colleagues to figure out how we could stand this thing up,” said Gill. “It was an opportunity to make sure our messaging everywhere was consistent. Even the people who have the best intentions need some more education sometimes. Education needs to happen, and that’s what the call center is for.”

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The call center launched in August. It started off with employee volunteers who would simultaneously answer the phones while working their full-time positions.

However, over winter break, Gill noticed that students could provide an even more suitable voice while answering questions as they were experiencing many of the same uncertainties as the callers, so she asked students studying public health to help. Forty-five students joined the team in January. Now, up to eight students work the helpline per day, answering calls from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. throughout the week and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends.

“I think it really helps students to hear from other students,” said Gill. “They have a different mindset than I have. I don’t have a college-aged child, but I am a mother, so I feel like I can really be helpful to the parents. I can speak to parents as a peer. Our students have that same experience with their own peers. They have the best authority when it comes to addressing the student experience.”

Answering the questions from community members is not only an asset for the callers; it also provides invaluable experience for the students working the phone lines. Many of the students working at the call center chose to do so because it falls right in line with their career path. The students, many of whom are also involved in COVID Crushers or volunteer with the Medical Reserve Corps, are all conscious of the impact their voice can have. 

“In the future, I would like to work in an advocacy position working on public health policy or in a clinical setting working in women’s or children’s health,” said Niema Smith, a  second year  student at Virginia Tech who is interested in going into public health advocacy field. “Working at the helpline is a great way for me to practice my etiquette and educating others on the latest public health topics while keeping that information easily digestible.”

The students end up answering questions on a very broad spectrum, from how testing works to the length of time for quarantine. Compassion has proved to be the number one asset the students can offer to callers.   

“It comes down to being supportive, empathetic, and available,” said Gill. “That’s all people really want right now, and our students are providing that.”

By Rosie Hutchison '21, intern with Virginia Tech University Relations.

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