Susan Trolier-McKinstry photo

Struggling to Connect

MATERIALS SCIENCE PROFESSOR Susan Trolier-McKinstry ’87, ’87 MS, ’92 PhD EMS taught a “mixed-mode instruction” section of MATSE 400 last fall, with up to a third of the class eligible to participate in person at any given time. “That would lead to up to 30 people being eligible to be in the room at a time; in practice, the number who physically come is very much smaller—typically between four and 10,” she says. “That’s, in part, because all of my classes are available via Zoom as well.” She says some students responded well—“They really like the opportunity to watch a lecture more than once, to go back and hear things a second time, or a third time, or whatever it takes for them,” she says—while others chose to participate asynchronously, doing class work on their own time.

In her MATSE 400 class, known as “crystal chemistry,” students are typically tasked with building chemical structures using model kits. Trolier-McKinstry (above), the Flaschen Professor of Ceramic Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, says she was still able to make use of models, but not always at the level she’d have liked. “I teach people. I don’t teach subject matter,” she says. “Normally when I teach, I’m watching for what is understood and what is not understood. I’m watching eyes. And I simply haven’t as many eyes that I can physically watch. And one of the challenges then is that it’s harder to do pacing well, so I’m relying more on instincts. I’m not able to provide the same level of connectedness.”

Chris Kiver photo

Working Hard to Stay in Tune

IF YOU HAPPENED TO PASS by the Nittany Lion Inn parking deck last fall and thought you heard choral music, you probably did. The university’s Concert Choir and Glee Club were forced to get imaginative in seeking alternative spaces for rehearsals, including the inn’s parking structure, says choral director Christopher Kiver (above). “Sometimes you’re working with a full group, sometimes with a smaller group,” says Kiver, “so it’s been a challenge.”

Technological solutions also leave much to be desired. While Zoom is suitable for most classes and lectures, the tech requires an upgrade to avoid the delay that occurs when multiple users try to sing at the same time. “Unless you invest in particular software and hardware, it’s impossible to have videos and sound happening synchronously from more than one source,” says Kiver. “If you and I were to start singing ‘Fight on State,’ one of us would be a little bit ahead of the other.” Students participating via video have to mute them-selves and follow along. “Then I just check in with them, and ask one person to unmute and sing,” says Kiver.

Despite the restrictions, and classes being a mix of in-person and remote learners, Kiver says he was spending more time with students—primarily over video—because he’s been trying to make sure that those who have to tune in remotely understand the concepts that were discussed in class. “I think I’m doing a fair job of checking in with the students, particularly those who are remote learners, to make them feel as though they’re not being sidelined or that they’re not less important than the people on campus,” he says.

Kate Solomon photo

Planning a THON Without Precedent

KATIE SOLOMON TOOK OVER as executive director of THON on March 20, 2020, right around the time when the explosion of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. forced campus closures and quarantine restrictions that ushered in a new era of endless Zoom sessions and working from home. It’s certainly not what she signed up for, but Solomon (above) has taken it in stride. “I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to find strength in others,” Solomon says. “I’ve learned to see the bigger picture, when before I was so used to being narrowly focused and keeping my head down in my work.”

That work prominently includes planning for a “hybrid” virtual event to replace the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. “We’re trying to hold true to providing a 46-hour experience, because that’s what we’ve always done, just to create some semblance of the traditional THON experience,” Solomon says. “We’re trying to hold on to the 46 hours, and staple events like our pep rally, our family hour, kids’ talent show, and fashion show—all of those things we hold close to our hearts because they are what makes THON so special.”

It promises to be a THON unlike any before it. Solomon can’t predict what the final fundraising total will be, but says she is mostly trying to worry about what she can control and what needs to be done to pull off the event. “We’re trying our best to face the unknown with grace and positivity, and realism,” she says, “but always keeping in the back of our minds the impact this organization has.”

Tyler Guarino photo

A Positive Test, and a Long, Boring Bubble

When his roommate tested positive for COVID-19 in late August, junior Tyler Guarino (below) knew the quarantine process would be a chore—14 days of staying in and avoiding people. On the last day of that process, Guarino himself tested positive, ensuring a much longer ordeal. After his own positive test, Guarino, a nursing major at Penn State Hershey, was sent to one of the local hotels set aside for students requiring complete isolation for 10 days. “I basically couldn’t leave,” he says, “and I was in there by myself. We had to get food from Grub Hub or Uber Eats, and then they just reimbursed us all the money that we had to spend. I literally didn’t leave the hotel room for 10 days.”

An asymptomatic Guarino could still attend classes via Zoom, but being in isolation meant he couldn’t complete any of his required clinical work. It also meant he pretty quickly got bored. “I have some weights and some bands, so I made sure I brought those so that I could at least work out,” he says. “But it was slow days in there.”

He was able to catch up on the work he missed, but the semester was still a grind. “It’s been rough on everybody,” he says, noting that the campus issued directives for students regarding travel and socializing—for the first eight weeks of the semester, students at Hershey were not allowed to visit others’ apartments or travel more than 30 minutes from campus. If nothing else, he says the shared experience of being in a de facto bubble has drawn the nursing students closer together. “All of us have gotten really close here, but it’s still kind of weird and different,” he says. “We hang out in the bubble. We don’t really go anywhere else.”

Erik Cagle photo

For OPP, Safety Drives Extra Effort

There is a sense in the Office of Physical Plant, particularly among its custodial staff, that they are on the front lines in the pandemic fight—that their work is essential in keeping the university community healthy, says Erik Cagle (above), custodial operations manager at University Park. “All of the custodians are very aware of the responsibility they have, especially during this time, to help keep the students, faculty, and staff safe; they feel like they’re kind of protectors for those individuals,” Cagle says. “Since COVID came along, it’s been evident just how important our operation’s been. I think it’s really hit home that, Hey, we matter.”

The pandemic has prompted OPP to take on added cleaning measures in classrooms, labs, and other facilities. Custodians have increased the frequency of cleaning rooms and the types of surfaces disinfected. “We had to put an emphasis on frequently touched surfaces,” Cagle says. “Any surface that a person could touch with their hands, we’re going to focus on cleaning that. It’s not that we’re not concerned with aesthetics, but we’re definitely prioritizing the disinfecting duty and making sure that the facility is safe and healthy for students and faculty and staff.”

In classrooms that in the past might not have been cleaned daily, OPP has increased the frequency of cleanings and made available ample disinfecting wipes. Additionally, hand sanitizing stations were placed in high traffic areas around classrooms and offices. “I’d like to think that our cleaning operation has contributed significantly to keeping [outbreaks] from happening,” Cagle says. “I’m very proud of our university, and in particular our custodial operation.”

Pooja Debroy photo

The Daily Drag, and an Occasional Dance

Among other things, the era of pandemic restrictions and working from home will be remembered for the monotony. “It feels like I’ve been reliving the same day,” says junior Pooja DebRoy (above), who took all of her classes remotely from her home in Pittsburgh last semester. While she was grateful to be able to reconnect with her parents, it was hard to shake the feeling of having lost out on a true college experience. “These are supposed to be your most formative years,” she says. “When I look back on it, I’ll feel that I haven’t gotten the most out of this time.”

In DebRoy’s case, the monotony of routine, and of not being able to see friends or attend events, manifested itself in her schoolwork. “I’ve lost a little bit of motivation to complete assignments as quickly as possible,” she says. There are aspects of in-person classes that she can’t replicate in an online, remote setting—meeting new people, forming study groups, asking a peer for quick clarification. “It’s been more difficult to stay focused during lectures.”

One silver lining for DebRoy has been the ability to stay connected with her dance team, Penn State Natya, the university’s classical Indian dance squad. Each member is expected to join each virtual meeting prepared with a routine choreographed to a particular piece of music. “We do that on our own and then present that to the team,” she says. “Then we all collaborate that way.”

She keeps reminding herself to look for the positives, and to understand that she is staying home to do her part in containing the virus. “I’m doing this to help keep everyone safe,” she says. “In the end, it’ll all be worth it. That’s kind of what keeps me going.”

Chris Holobar photo

It's Quiet at the Library, Even by Librarian Standards

Despite social distancing requirements that forced the University Libraries to remove many of the desks, chairs, and kiosks, and to replace some in-person help desks with virtual touch-screen assistants, the libraries have seen their fair share of usage since classes resumed last August. “The students, they’re definitely taking advantage of our virtual services and they’re taking advantage of the physical space to the extent that we can provide it—even though it’s much reduced from what we would typically see,” says Chris Holobar ’99 Lib/Lib, manager of lending and reserve services at Pattee and Paterno Library.

Prior to the pandemic, Holobar (above), who oversees the borrowing of materials and the monitoring of electronic reserves, had more interaction with students, particularly those who worked for the library. “My job is more behind the scenes at this point,” he says. And while the students who come in are using the available resources, the actual number visiting the library was down significantly; he likens the fall semester traffic to a summer session.

The library has made most of its reserves available online and, for those still in the library, increased the amount of cleaning and sanitizing. Staff are wearing masks and washing hands more often, while gloves are made available for those who want to use them. “It is odd, not just for the students that use our facilities, but even for our sta‰ , who have really pulled together to meet the challenge,” Holobar says. “It is definitely a different environment.”

Heather Luse photo

Still Baking, Complications and All

AT THE PENN STATE BAKERY, one of the first treats to fall by the wayside due to restricted campus activity last year was the Mexican chocolate cake, one of the bakery’s most popular desserts. In an effort to reduce the spread of germs and minimize human contact, the bakery has been individually packaging all of its items, which are primarily sent out to campus dining halls; the Mexican chocolate cake, served warm in a catering pan, is a no-go. “Warm things just don’t happen,” says Heather Luse, the bakery’s executive pastry chef, “but almost everything else we do is perfectly fine.”

Luse (above) has been working at the on-campus bakery throughout the pandemic, and other than she and the rest of the bakery’s 18 employees wearing masks, the only other significant change is the packaging of items. “Before, for desserts and stuff going to the dining commons, we’d just send those out on sheet trays,” Luse says. “Now we’re individually packaging every piece of dessert, every cookie, every cake slice, every muffin—literally thousands of pieces of packaging every day.”

The time spent packaging each item reduces the staff's ability to bake as much as it normally would: One dining commons requires 60 dozen 1-ounce chocolate chip cookies every day, or 720 pieces of packaging for one location. “Our mindset is a production mindset anyway, so now that’s just another part,” Luse says. “It’s just another step, but it’s a process that we do well and it’s a process that we know. It’s a lot some days, but they’re happy to be working.”

Ben Locke sitting photo

Counseling in the Time of COVID-19

ABOUT A QUARTER OF THE STUDENTS who sought help from Penn State’s Counseling and Psychological Services last fall cited COVID-19 as a reason, says CAPS director Ben Locke (above). One area where the pandemic was having an impact was with students experiencing eating disorders; Locke cites social isolation as contributing to more severe symptoms in some students: “It’s not as if the prevalence of eating concerns has grown dramatically or exploded, but what I’m hearing from our clinicians is that when we are seeing people with those concerns, the severity is higher.”

While it can be effective, remote counseling poses challenges. “Zoom is an amazing tool, but it’s also inherently limiting by not being face to face, in-person,” says Locke. “It makes some things much more complicated. Students preference prior to COVID consistently was in-person services.” Locke notes that “Zoom fatigue” also is a real concern: “You can end up in scenarios where you’re spending 8–10 hours a day in front of a screen with no breaks. That’s not healthy long-term.”

Meanwhile, Locke says CAPS counselors are managing to hold things together as well as they can. “Everybody on my team is impacted by COVID just the way everybody else is—working remotely, managing parents, managing loved ones who are sick, supporting children who are of all ages and with all different kinds of needs,” he adds. “We are doing everything we can to take care of each other and accomplish our job responsibilities while also trying to take care of ourselves.”

Meghan Reese photo

Missing the Routine, and the Roar of the Crowd

When the Big Ten announced the postponement of most fall sports until this spring, athletes like field hockey standout Meghan Reese had a semester devoid of the usual intense preparation and competition. As restrictions relaxed and limited practices were allowed, some sense of normalcy returned. “At the beginning it was a little hard just not being able to compete every weekend,” Reese says. “Just having practice and being able to be with the girls and the coaching staff, I was really grateful for that—it definitely helped with everything.”

To help fill the void, complement her training, and keep her mind focused, Reese (above) took up yoga. “It’s not really my thing,” she says, “but I found throughout this time that it’s something that I’ve really come to enjoy—yoga, meditation. It’s something that I use to break up the day. It’s very relaxing and helps me stay grounded.”

Staying grounded has helped the junior biobehavioral health major as she tackles a schedule of all-remote classes. It was an adjustment, but Reese discovered that an all-online slate can have its advantages, such as being able to watch a Zoom recording of a lecture after the fact to see if she missed anything.

Once games resume, Reese and her teammates could face the challenge that their classmates in Beaver Stadium seemed to struggle with in the fall: being unable to feed off the energy of a home crowd. Reese knows the team would “have to find another way to get us through—we’re going to have to rely on one another to really push and get us back up to the energy to fight to the end.”

Deric Liang photo walking

Making the Best of It, With a Song in His Heart

Deric Liang will remember the challenges of his fall semester—just one in-person class and the rest remote, and greatly limited social gatherings—but he won’t allow himself to think he was robbed of the true senior experience. “Having that mindset would stop me from being as productive and as happy as I could be,” says Liang (above). “I think it’s definitely unfortunate, but I’ve lived my life with the attitude of rolling with the punches, and just taking the situation the way that it is, instead of saying stuff like, ‘Oh, I wish that these external factors could have played out differently.’ I don’t necessarily feel robbed. It is unfortunate to not be able to have more in-person experiences, and to not have the opportunity to interact with all my professors in-person. But I think we just have to take it as it is. And I’m just trying my best, given the circumstances.”

For Liang, a senior double-majoring in statistics and economics, flexibility has been key. Whether that means Glee Club practices in the Nittany Lion Inn parking deck or classes with only a handful of other people, Liang is trying to remind himself to look for silver linings. “Glee Club is special, because I think music-making is very essential to a lot of people,” he says. “It’s how they express themselves. It’s how they relieve stress. And it’s how they balance their life sometimes—a lot of us in the Glee Club are non-music majors, myself included, and are, during the rest of their day, doing a lot of very intensive material. It’s nice to be able to come into a space and be able to unlock your more creative side and express yourself in a way that you can’t through your regular classes.”