Top-notch study resources, award-winning food, and abundant engagement opportunities make up much of what’s known as a normal campus experience in Blacksburg. To maintain those hallmarks during historically abnormal times, Virginia Tech employees turned to something else very normal for Hokies – a commitment to serve.

“We believe in fostering a sense of belonging, purpose, and community,” said Heather Wagoner, director of Student Engagement and Campus Life (SECL). “It was critical that we got creative to ensure our students still had these vital opportunities. I couldn’t be prouder of the SECL team and our colleagues for giving it all we had for our students.”

Despite the ongoing restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, SECL offered more than 300 in-person programs and more than 700 programs in either a virtual or hybrid model. They also helped other on-campus groups by translating the official state guidance into user-friendly guides for decreasing the risk of virus transmission while hosting events.

“I’ve been in event programming a long time and this year everything took twice as long and twice as many people,” said Gina Tamburro, SECL associate director. “It was about making the event as safe as possible and being smart about how we leveraged out resources.”

They are just a few examples of the countless Virginia Tech faculty and staff whose service during the COVID-19 pandemic is celebrated in Hokie Highlights.

Part of SECL’s effort including shifting their focus from more large-scale events – 800 to 2,000 people – to doing a higher volume of events with smaller numbers of participants. They also had to prepare indoor spaces around campus, such as Breakzone, to allow for the required physical distancing, and they created a new outdoor space on Dietrick Lawn.

Spencer Stidd, assistant director of Event Services, said of the many lessons learned, the positive response of shifting their ticket office to more of a virtual operation stood out as change that may live on after the pandemic.

Another area of SECL that quickly shifted gears was Production Services. Generally tasked with audio-video support for in-person events, the pandemic pushed the team into assisting campus groups in creating virtual offerings.

“It was a lot of bringing gear up into the office and testing things,” said West Livingston, assistant director of Production Services. “It was, what problems can we create right now, so that when they happen in real time, we can mitigate that really quickly.”

Livingston said for the first time his team also took on content creation by helping create online welcome sessions and workshops for different campus departments.

“I think we hit a pretty good spot where we were able to make collaboration happen as close to what we could do during normal times,” Livingston said.

Recreational Sports was another area of campus that strived to provide students with engagement experiences as similar to that of a nonpandemic year as possible. According to entry swipes, almost 390,000 Hokies entered either Rec Sports’ facilities in McComas Hall or the new Rec Sports Field House. Other highlights include more than 23,000 students attended a group exercise course, either safely in-person or virtually, and more than 13,000 took part in intramural sports.

Of course, keeping students’ activity level up meant they also needed to stay fueled, and at Virginia Tech, that’s traditionally been one of most highly ranked efforts in the nation.

Along with providing meals for students in isolation or quarantine, Virginia Tech Dining Services served 4.2 million meals during the 2020-21 academic year, with more than 2.4 transactions taking place through Grub Hub.

“It was really about the student experience,” said Brian Grove, senior associate director of Dining Services. “We tried to make it as normal as possible in the new way we had to operate. That’s what drives us, day in, day out, we’re always going to strive to provide great food and great service to our students and I’m so proud of our team members.”

Many challenges accompanied achieving that goal include communicating with customers behind both face coverings and plexiglass and reducing most area’s seating capacity to less than 50 percent. Grove said the addition of a touchless pay optional via scanning a Hokie Passport and the students’ flexibility greatly helped during this time.

“There was a major concern, us thinking we’d have really long lines, but that never really occurred,” Grove said.

Dining Services also strived to maintain a sense of normalcy with their traditional special events, such as the annual Chili Challenge, for which they’ve become well known.

“It would have been easy to say, we’re not going to do any special events this year, but for us, to keep it normal, we kept the special events,” Grove said. “That was really important to our team.”

students working on a project
From left to right, architecture students Cat Piper, Eric Hoffman, Leon Shen, and Chritopher Tucker install plexiglass dividers that were designed by the CAUS Living Learning Lab students to create a COVID friendly workspace in Newman Library. (Ryan Young / Virginia Tech)

The desire to serve also fueled University Libraries’ efforts to keep their operations as normal as possible for students and a commitment to Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission motivated their work to also continue serving the community.

“It was just part of Ut Prosim for us,” said Robert Pillow, assistant director of University Libraries for building and user services. “We do serve the community, not just the students and faculty, so we wanted to make sure we were available to everyone.”

During the summer of 2020, when the physical spaces were closed, the staff facilitated contactless grab-and-go and drop-off systems for checking out materials. A total of 1,450 items were checked up during that period, Pillow said.

University Libraries also extended loan periods for people who had left campus in the spring until the start of the fall semester and provided pre-paid mailing labels for materials that users wanted to return earlier.

Pillow said they also used the summer months to prepare for the in-person fall 2020 semester. They removed about 70 percent of their seating capacity, created an online reservation system for study spaces, and worked with the College of Architecture and Urban Studies to create transparent barriers that allowed for relatively safe cluster seating.

Originally there was concern the limited seated would lead to overflow issues, but Pillow said the lack of amenities allowed – food and drink – and the limitations on gathering, as well as the abundant online resources available, prevented that from happening.

Visits to the online database search portal Library Guides rose to 920,858 from August 2020 to May 2021, as compared to 617,421 visits during the same time period during the 2019-2020 academic year, according to Lesilie O’Brien, University Libraries director of Collections and Technical Services.

“Library Guides are used for help with research, courses, finding materials in the library, subject collections, and more,” O’Brien said. “During the pandemic, we created even more guides to help students find online textbooks and to let people know about free online resources.”

 A special guide listing more than 600 eBooks on remote instruction and supplement print reserves and created by Research Guide Edward Lener was visited 1,242 times during fall 2020.

O’Brien, who also oversees lending to off-campus users, said figuring out how to best support Hokies during the past school year had been an evolving process, especially as public health guidance related to surface area exposure to COVID-19 shifted.

As fall 2021 approaches as people return to Blackburg, much of campus life is expected to shift back to pre-pandemic norms. The adcademic year will likely look different from the previous, but it will be the very same spirit of services motivating the Virginia Tech faculty and staff to help Hokies get the the most from the experience.

— Written by Travis Williams

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