President, senior share stories of coping with coronavirus on public radio and podcast

The calendar keeps flipping forward, replacing winter with spring and planting Commencement just weeks off. But coping with the coronavirus pandemic continues to color Norwich University’s narrative and draw outside media interest.

On March 23, President Mark C. Anarumo went on the “EdSurge Podcast,” a national higher-education show; a day later, senior Juliet Sear went on Vermont Public Radio’s “Vermont Edition.” Both explained how Norwich’s administration and students worked collectively to prioritize mental health and look out for one another. 

These appearances followed national coverage of Norwich’s coronavirus coping in The New York Times (a story that made the front page of the March 5 Kindle edition) and Anderson Cooper’s “Full Circle” online newsmagazine.

“We all basically right now have chosen to not spread COVID by following the rules.”Juliet Sear, Norwich University senior

Sear, a senior from Johnstown, New York, joined two other Vermont college student journalists — Rebecca Flieder, editor-in-chief of Northern Vermont University, Johnson’s community news website Basement Medicine and Aris Sherwood, managing editor of the Castleton University’s Spartan student newspaper. Sear, who has written for the Norwich Guidon student newspaper, is making a documentary about the student experience during the pandemic.

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Norwich University President Mark C. Anarumo speaks to the community in a January video on Facebook. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

As he had with CNN’s Cooper and Times New England Bureau Chief Ellen Barry, Anarumo discussed living in Wilson Hall, a Corps of Cadets barracks, to experience how the students were living. Anarumo will repeat the exercise Monday, moving into Dalrymple Hall.

Anarumo told “EdSurge Podcast” host Jeff Young how the spike in COVID-19 positive cases, which once exceeded 80, sparked the need to reinstitute modified in-room quarantine to save the semester. (The in-room quarantine kept students in their rooms except to use the bathroom or collect takeaway meals. This was on top of a two-week-long quarantine at-home before arriving on campus and a brief in-room quarantine to start the semester.)

“(COVID-19) just went very, very quickly through the campus, and then we were sitting on, given our prevalence rate, what could be called an outbreak,” Anarumo said. “I said, ‘That’s it.’ We have a very small window of time to put a lid on this thing.”

Mental health focus

Anarumo told Young that watching the degrading mental state of his two college-age children, a daughter at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and a son at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, put mental health top of mind. So did the memory of two student deaths at the Air Force Academy, where Anarumo had worked before he took Norwich’s reins in June 2020.

Anarumo planned to spend time living in campus dorms even before the coronavirus pandemic; he’d said so during the January 2020 university town hall announcing his presidency. Anarumo said he moved into Wilson Hall, and campus’s only remaining single-occupancy room, earlier this semester over the objection of some colleagues and community members.

“I said, ‘You know what? This is the perfect time to do this,’” Anarumo said.

Anarumo described posting his cellphone number on the dorm room door and having cheeky students photograph and share it virally. Calls came around the clock, he said, frequently starting by voice chats migrating to video. Often he’d exit his room to find students lingering at the bottom of a stairwell, eyes peering over face masks, waiting to talk to him.

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Student journalist Juliet Sear, a Norwich University senior, in March shared her perspective on the Spring 2021 semester and coping with COVID-19 on Vermont Public Radio. (Photo by Norwich University Athletics.)

As he’d done previously, Anarumo described some students in tears, urging him to keep campus open. This was their freshman year, their senior year, they’d say; campus was a haven amid the pandemic.

“Please don’t give up on us; we really need to be here,” Anarumo recalled one student saying.

As much as he understood the students’ desire to stay, Anarumo said staying wouldn’t be worth a mental health breakdown. So, he told them they could leave and study remotely stigma-free, getting prorated room and board refunds. He also decided that as COVID-19 positive cases dropped and the lockdown ended, in-room quarantine couldn’t recur.

“We must never put (students) in in-room quarantine again — that is not sustainable for individual mental health,” he said. “I also (said) in my commander’s intent … we will have 1,500 positive (COVID-19) cases before we will have one suicide on this campus.”

Listening actively

During “Vermont Edition,” hosted by Jane Lindholm, Sear described testing positive for COVID-19, entering isolation and joining Anarumo and other isolated students on Zoom to discuss mental health and other concerns.

Anarumo wanted to hear everything, she said.

“A lot of things changed after that (meeting),” she said. “He was definitely very responsive to the way we were feeling.”

For example, she said, isolated students were allowed to get coffee from a Keurig in a lounge and students who’d breached protocol, leaving their rooms to check on isolated peers weren’t punished. Keeping collective welfare, Anarumo explained, matters above all.

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Norwich University students have found outdoor, physically distanced ways to recreate as the weather has warmed and the semester marched on. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

Nevertheless, she said, living with diminished social options and feeling COVID-19’s lingering risks have been emotionally taxing.

“You obviously don’t want to spread COVID more, so, it’s kind of like, ‘What’s more important?,’” Sear said. “We all basically right now have chosen to not spread COVID by following the rules.”

Norwich Career and Internship Center Associate Director Meghan Oliver called into “Vermont Edition,” describing stints volunteering at the Plumley Armory testing site and an elevated campuswide mood after the second modified in-room quarantine ended. 

Oliver asked the students whether they’d have lived the 2020-21 academic year differently, perhaps staying away for a gap year or just studying online. Sear said she understood why some students chose to stay off-campus, freeing them from having to move on- and off-campus as circumstances shifted. She said she’d moved off-campus to live with friends.

“Some people might have done it over,” she said. “But those that are staying on campus, they probably would have disagreed with that. They’d probably have just stayed.”

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