Spending 10 days in on-campus isolation in February was stressful and traumatic for Oliva Ferrare, a first-year Virginia Tech student. She was separated from her normal life and friends, isolated in New Hall West, and she didn’t feel well, with fatigue, coughing, aches, and chills from COVID-19.

But a few things helped to make her experience bearable — constant food and other deliveries from friends and daily phone calls and text messages with her student advocate, a university employee who was assigned to her for support. 

These are some of the new services that Virginia Tech has added this semester to support students like Ferrare who must spend 10 to 14 days in a quarantine or isolation residence hall because of a positive COVID-19 test or exposure to someone who has the virus.  

The new features include a student advocate program, welcome desks at each residence hall for receiving deliveries and communicating with students, and an outdoor courtyard. New Hall West is the isolation residence hall, while East Eggleston Hall is the quarantine space.

“We got so much joy from receiving packages or getting deliveries,” said Ferrare, who shared a room with two friends who also had COVID-19. “Especially when people dropped off items for our room or fun activities and different foods, it was like people actually wanted us to feel okay while we were stuck inside.”

Monika Gibson, assistant dean and director of student services at the Graduate School, handles deliveries for students at the welcome desk at New Hall West. Photo by Christina Franusich
Monika Gibson, assistant dean and director of student services at the Graduate School, gathers deliveries at the New Hall welcome desk. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

The front welcome desk areas are open from 11 a.m. to about 7 p.m. daily, and they are the central places for food and other outside deliveries for students in each residence hall. Employees who work or volunteer at the desks deliver the items to students’ rooms, placing them outside of the doors.

The desks also stock items that students may need while they are there, such as extra toothbrushes, laundry detergent, and shampoo.

“We have a mini hotel concierge service,” said Sean Grube, director of housing and residence life at Virginia Tech. “I think it’s a great service to our students.”

Additionally, a new courtyard area between New Hall and Smith Hall is available for Hokies in quarantine and isolation to visit daily, by shift, depending on each person’s medical status. They sign up for specific afternoon time slots.

The private, fenced space offers WiFi, benches, and a propane heater for cold days.

Regardless of February’s cold and rainy weather, Ferrare said she found the outdoor area to be a much needed respite during her isolation. 

“I signed up for courtyard time almost every chance I could, so I could get a moment alone,” she said.

Koryn Freeman is a student isolation assistant who works in New Hall West. Photo by Christina Franusich
Koryn Freeman is a student isolation assistant who works in New Hall West. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

In addition to welcome desks and a courtyard, Virginia Tech enlisted faculty and staff throughout  campus to serve as student advocates. Student advocates volunteer to be paired with each student entering quarantine and isolation, helping them with everything from knowing what to pack for their new living quarters to directing them to the places on campus for answers to certain questions. After a short training session, each advocate spends at least 20 hours a week checking in daily with students by phone or text. The same advocate sticks with them throughout the entire 10- to 14-day period.

“You don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to have worked in student affairs, it’s just listening to students,” said Martha Glass, assistant vice president for administration with the Division of Student Affairs and one of the managers of the program. “What we want the advocates to do is just be that caring person. We need Hokies with heart.”

Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 dashboard provides a total number of students in quarantine and isolation each day. The numbers have declined now, compared with levels earlier in the semester when Stephen Kleiber, assistant dean for finance and administration in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, volunteered as a student advocate. Kleiber is one of about 22 student advocates who has served for four-week time periods this semester.

“In my job, I don’t get to have a whole lot of interaction with students,” said Kleiber, a Virginia Tech alumnus. “This was an opportunity to engage with students and give back to the university.”

Kleiber spoke with students by phone, text, or Zoom during the day and evening, depending on their availability. It’s not always easy for students to find out that they have to move into quarantine or isolation, but Kleiber said he was impressed with how many handled the challenge with a positive attitude.

“The amount of work that we put into helping these students was so worth it to see and hear their response to the situation,” he said.

Without her student advocate, Ferrare said her experience in isolation would have been even more challenging.

“My student advocate, Sam Buchanan, was sent to me from heaven,” Ferrare said. “She called or texted me everyday and listened when I had any sort of concern or anxiety about my situation. Even after I left New Hall West, she kept in contact with me to make sure I was adjusting back to normal life.”

Delivering heart-shaped Valentine’s cookies was just one of the ways that Wendy Halsey decided that she could help brighten the day for some of Virginia Tech’s students living in campus quarantine and isolation space. 

Shortly after Halsey, who is assistant vice president for facilities operations at Virginia Tech, joined the university’s student advocate team in February, she baked heart-shaped sugar cookies, packaged them in individual bags, and delivered the treats to the group of 20 students assigned to her. 

For the next four weeks, Halsey would communicate with these same Hokies daily by text or phone, talk with their parents, and even share workout videos from her friend who is a trainer.

Through her time as student advocate, Halsey said she saw a rare glimpse of the work that the Division of Student Affairs does to support students.

“It gives me so much admiration for how much work that requires,” she said. “I can respect that we have people doing that every day for our students.”

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

Share this story