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Life Interrupted

Clinical Accuracy, an oil painting by Associate Professor of Art Todd Arsenault ’99 created in response to the pandemic.

Clinical Accuracy, an oil painting by Associate Professor of Art Todd Arsenault ’99 created in response to the pandemic.

Dramatic changes to routines and plans become the norm as the world, and the college, responds to the coronavirus pandemic

by Lauren Davidson (with contributions from MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson)

  • JAN. 27

    Dickinson in China studyabroad program suspended for spring 2020.
  • FEB. 23

    Classes temporarily suspended at the Dickinson in Bologna program and students asked not to travel outside Bologna.
  • FEB. 28

    Dickinson in Bologna and Dickinson in Korea study-abroad programs suspended for spring 2020; all Dickinson students required to leave Italy; no Dickinsonsponsored travel permitted to Italy, China or South Korea.
  • MARCH 5

    Dickinsonians urged to avoid unnecessary travel, particularly international travel, over spring break; all members of the community returning from abroad required to self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to campus; college administrative departments begin reviewing business continuity plans to consider how essential functions could be maintained if employees were required to work from home.

At 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17, Henry Cohen ’20 found a comfortable spot on the floor in his parents’ Washington, D.C., home. He opened his laptop, navigated to the Class of 2020 Facebook group and clicked “live video.” For the next 20 minutes, he led classmates who tuned in through a meditation exercise. They were able to connect and focus on stress relief and self-care while selfisolating or being quarantined around the country and the world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, roommates Fiona Farrell ’18 and Hannah Fabiszewski ’17 were busting out dance moves, reenacting movie scenes and eating spoonfuls of mayonnaise—all for a good cause. They launched their Instagram account @cashforcovid in mid-March, to post videos of challenges they complete in exchange for donations to support Feeding America and Meals on Wheels. As of mid-April, they had raised more than $4,000, and their efforts were featured in a Philadelphia Inquirer story.

These are just two examples of the many ways members of the Dickinson community have sought to stay connected, informed and engaged during this new normal as the spring semester was completed online and residents around the world complied with stay-at-home orders. Everyone got fluent in Zoom, Microsoft Teams and FaceTime. Staff set up workstations at their dining room tables. Faculty members modified their syllabi to be teachable from anywhere, across time zones. And students hunkered down to finish their semester off campus.

But before we talk about how the semester ended, let’s go back to how the semester began. News of the dangerous spread of COVID-19 started to dominate the news cycle in January. Dickinson activated its emergency response team to monitor the situation as well as rapidly changing information and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). In the gray boxes is a timeline of the college’s response to the coronavirus, as well as some key developments.

Life Interrupted Headshots 2

Above: Screenshots showing Dickinson faculty connecting with their students virtually. (From left: Resident Director of the Italian Studies Program in Bologna, Italy, and Contributing Faculty Bruno Grazioli; Assistant Professor of Political Science David O’Connell; and Associate Professor of Psychology Suman Ambwani)

  • MARCH 6

    First two cases of coronavirus reported in Pennsylvania.
  • MARCH 10

    Spring break extended an additional week, to March 21.
  • MARCH 11

    WHO categorizes COVID-19 as a pandemic.
  • MARCH 12

    All remaining Dickinson study-abroad programs suspended for the semester; Centennial Conference Presidents Council (CCPC) temporarily suspends athletic practices and competition.
  • MARCH 13-14

    Dickinson in NYC and the Washington Center programs suspended; President Donald Trump declares a national emergency; Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf closes K-12 schools throughout the state.

Communicating Through the Crisis

From the beginning, President Margee Ensign committed to frequent and transparent communication with the Dickinson community. As weekly emails turned daily, messaging was expanded onto a COVID-19 dashboard landing page, which includes a complete archive of email messages and robust FAQ pages for students and staff. (View the dashboard.)

In her March 18 email, Ensign stated, “The spread of COVID-19 and the actions being taken to mitigate its effects have led to unprecedented actions both here in Carlisle and across the world. We are, all of us, finding our way through these uncharted waters. Here at the college, we appreciate your thoughtful support and your patience as our very resilient and courageous community continues to respond in a responsible and timely manner.”

As of the end of March, only a handful of essential employees remained on campus to support the approximately 140 students who petitioned to remain in residence due to circumstances that prevent them from leaving. These include students from locations where travel is prohibited by the CDC and WHO.

Academics Go Online

During spring break and the one-week extension that followed, faculty were tasked with re-creating their plans for the remaining weeks of the spring semester into coursework that could be created, shared and disseminated online. That’s a tall order in this close-knit liberal-arts community, where no distance-learning program exists and where workshop-style and active-learning classes, student-faculty research projects and small-group discussions are hallmarks of the educational experience.

Some professors had prior experience through digital humanities projects and programs like Dickinson’s Willoughby Institute for Teaching With Technology. Others had never used any online instruction technologies. Most were somewhere in between.

Dickinson’s Library & Information Services (LIS) division stepped up to the challenge. The academic technology department had four days to develop software recommendations and create tailored training sessions and four days to deliver face-to-face training to professors. The team created a dedicated website on Moodle and posted the workshop videos, along with additional resources for remote teaching. Staff members remained available to advise professors one on one.

Learning and accessing remoteinstruction tools was just the beginning. Professors had to factor multiple time zones into their plans—a major consideration at Dickinson, which draws students from 49 countries. Professor of Mathematics Dick Forrester has many international students in his classes, so he knew real-time videoconferencing wouldn’t work. By creating narrated PowerPoint presentations, recorded as videos and uploaded to Microsoft Screen, he made lectures available on demand. He also held virtual meetings during the regular class times and recorded them for students who couldn’t attend.

  • MARCH 16

    Dickinson announces that the remainder of the semester will be completed online; Gov. Wolf orders all nonessential businesses to close; no visitors allowed on campus, and admissions launches virtual visit options for prospective and admitted students.
  • MARCH 19

    Ensign hosts a virtual meeting for students and parents, along with Provost and Dean of the College Neil Weissman and Vice President and Dean of Student Life George Stroud; CCPC cancels athletic competitions for the remainder of the spring season; a student who returned to campus from abroad is tested for COVID-19.
  • MARCH 20

    Gov. Wolf orders all nonlife- sustaining businesses to close; Dickinson is permitted to continue to house and feed the 130+ students remaining on campus.
  • MARCH 23

    Dickinson announces that Commencement for the class of 2020 will be postponed.
  • MARCH 25

    An email to the alumni community announces that Alumni Weekend is canceled.

Professors teaching lab, workshop, performance and exhibition-based courses faced additional challenges. The chemistry department simulated experimentation by using GoPro cameras in the lab and sharing videos. Director of Dance Sarah Skaggs employed a combination of techniques—soliciting videos of students dancing on their own and twice-weekly synchronous videoconference meetings (requested by her students). After a virtual warmup session at the end of March, Skaggs notes, “We had a blast. It was like being on the Brady Bunch or Hollywood Squares,” referring to the video blocks that appeared on the screen, showing all of the dancers as they planked and pliéd together. “After the class, they said they felt much better. Dancers need to see each other as they chat, train and perform.”

In the case of the art & art history and theatre departments, students and faculty worked together to present a virtual senior studio art exhibition, a livestreamed dance concert, a virtual cold read of a play and a virtual Mermaid Players cabaret.

In addition to all of this, faculty members shared words of encouragement on social media and used real-time online meetings and virtual office hours to remain connected to their students, while posting pictures and videos highlighting their at-home workspaces.

“These are scary, confusing and stressful times,” says Stephanie Uroda ’23 (chemistry, neuroscience). “Although I would much rather have in-person teaching, I think my professors have done an excellent job at making the best of a bad situation and doing all they can to make sure we can succeed.”

Life Interrupt Headshots 1

Above: Associate Professor of Italian and Film Studies Nicoletta Marini Maio greets her students via videoconference; Contributing Faculty in Music Greg Strohman shows his at-home studio; and President Margee Ensign connects with the Dickinson community during a virtual town hall.

  • MARCH 26

    Ensign hosts a virtual meeting for faculty and staff, along with Weissman and Vice President of Finance & Administration Brontè Burleigh-Jones; Ensign shares during virtual meeting that the student who was tested for COVID-19 was confirmed negative.
  • MARCH 30

    Ensign hosts a virtual meeting for alumni; Gov. Wolf adds Cumberland County to the stayat- home order and extends the closure of schools and businesses indefinitely.
  • APRIL 7

    Day of Giving raises more than $670,000 for the Emergency Response Fund.
  • APRIL 20

    Gov. Wolf extends Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order to May 8.

The Recruitment Must Go On

As it became clear that certain traditional recruitment events and programming would no longer be possible, Dickinson’s admissions staff began planning and implementing contingency plans. Everything from travel to high schools and receptions around the world for admitted students to the traditional campus tour and information session had to be rethought.

Thanks to quick planning the week prior, on March 16, a robust virtual visit website was launched. It not only includes extensive digital resources like thematic photo galleries, a video playlist, links to social media platforms and a YouVisit virtual tour, but it also offers the first of many new ways for prospective and admitted students to connect with the campus, including virtual Q&As, hosted through Zoom.

And while communication with all prospective students remained important, connecting with admitted students was critical, as they lost the ability to visit schools to which they have been admitted to help them make their final college decisions. Dickinson’s admissions team committed to individual outreach to every admitted student and to identifying ways students can still enroll even though their senior year of high school was disrupted. In addition, admissions worked with admitted students regarding extensions to the May 1 enrollment deadline.

“We are here for you,” says Cathy McDonald Davenport ’87, dean of admissions and vice president for enrollment management. “It may not be sitting together and talking in admissions, but it will be online, over the phone, over email. We will do what we can to ease the nervousness and uncertainty as best we can. Dickinson is a resilient community, and we will do what it takes to provide guidance and assistance to prospective and admitted Dickinsonians.”

Photo by Ed Webb

@ed_webbFor all our wonderful students missing the @dickinsoncollege @dickinsoncol campus: we miss you, too! #dsonphotos #carlislepa

Fundraising Shifts Gears

In March, an Emergency Response Fund (ERF) was established, enabling donors to direct their gifts toward Dickinsonians who find themselves in challenging financial situations due to COVID-19. This became an area of emphasis for the annual Day of Giving, which was held April 7 as scheduled—due in large part to an outpouring of support from alumni asking how they can help—in order to raise these important funds and connect the Dickinson community during this challenging time. Farrell and Fabiszewski (the @cashforcovid duo mentioned eariler) brought their social media prowess to the day, unlocking several spoof videos as donations to the ERF poured in. And once 1,000 donations to the fund were acquired, the Dickinson Board of Trustees pitched in an additional $500,000.

And the Dickinson community stepped up in spades, making more than 3,000 individual gifts and raising more than $1.3 million, which is a new fundraising record for Dickinson. And nearly half of that money went toward the ERF. (Read more at

Shortly before Day of Giving, the Office of Advancement made the difficult decision to cancel Alumni Weekend, originally scheduled for June 12-14. But plans are underway to share some aspects of the weekend virtually and bring reunion classes back to campus once it is safe to do so.

Whatever the Future Brings

As this issue went to press at the end of April, just about everything has been put on hold or moved online. The Office of Student Life worked with student clubs to set up virtual events, and the Center for Advising, Internships & Lifelong Career Development transitioned a number of in-person events to virtual to ensure students still had all the interviewing, job search and networking support they needed. The athletics department, along with individual teams and coaches, shared shout-outs through social media to celebrate the achievements and accolades of student-athletes.

The class of 2020 will not walk down the old stone steps on May 17, but Ensign committed to an on-campus ceremony at some point. How will we celebrate the newest members of our alumni community? And what will a virtual Alumni Weekend look and feel like? Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, stay connected to your college—your Dickinson family.

We look forward to sharing the myriad ways members of the Dickinson community have made a difference during this crisis, from sewing masks to serving on the front lines as medical professionals to supporting those in need. Email: to share your story.

Check out to view a collection of web stories about how members of the Dickinson community near and far have responded to needs and challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more from the spring 2020 issue of Dickinson Magazine.


Published May 13, 2020