Through the COVID-19 crisis,
crux of community continues for Bucknell
by Matt Hughes
illustration by gwen keraval
Our Pandemic Spring
Through the COVID-19 crisis, crux of community continues for Bucknell
by Matt Hughes
illustration by gwen keraval


omething about a cherry blossom abhors solitude. From the ancient alleyways of Tokyo’s Sensoji Temple to the banks of the Potomac to Bucknell’s own Malesardi Quad, their audacious pink blossoms draw us from our winter’s seclusion to convene and reconnect beneath their boughs. In late April on Bucknell’s campus, the Kwanzan double cherry blossoms were again in full bloom outside Bertrand Library, but their pageantry was different this year. The revelers were absent, the quad and buildings around them silent.

This was a different spring for Bucknellians, as it was for everyone else. All but a fraction of students had left campus, and employees and alumni were staying away too, in efforts to protect one another. All have suffered; some much more than others. But alongside the pain of physical absence there was also hope, community and creativity that shone through. Working through these unprecedented challenges together but apart, the University community — students, professors, alumni alike — awaited the day when it could reunite beneath those stunning fuchsia blooms, as different and changed people, perhaps, but maybe closer than before.

As Bucknell looks forward to resuming in-person classes in August, we look back on what a tumultuous season meant for Bucknellians, as a university and as a community, and how all worked through it together.

‘Safety Is Not Negotiable’

In her seven years as Bucknell’s medical director, Dr. Catherine O’Neil had battled outbreaks of the flu and mono as well as smaller flare-ups of more serious conditions such as viral meningitis. At a university where more than 90% of students live on campus, preventing the spread of communicable diseases is a challenge under normal circumstances, despite robust student health services and a high vaccination rate, she says.

Bucknell administrators began assessing the threat the coronavirus presented in early January, weeks before the first case was confirmed in the United States. Discussions then concerned students studying abroad and spring-break travel. By late February, as the disease spread through Europe, University leaders began seriously preparing for the possibility of the virus reaching campus, and O’Neil offered a sobering assessment of what that arrival might look like: “We wouldn’t have been able to manage it,” she says.

“Having 3,700 potential COVID-positive people in this community would have put every other member of the Lewisburg and Danville communities at risk,” she adds. “Hospitals would be overwhelmed.”

As the virus continued to spread, the grim realization dawned on University leaders that total isolation would be impossible, especially after students left campus for spring break on March 6.

Four days later, President John Bravman decided the University would move to remote instruction for the remainder of the spring semester, sending students home to learn, and faculty to teach.

“Safety is not negotiable, and we made a judgment based on health and safety,” Bravman says.

“We knew that time was ticking, so the more lead time we could give to students out on spring break, the better off we would be.”

Getting Home

Safety was also a major concern for the 260 Bucknell students studying abroad during the spring semester. With so many students in so many places, there was no one-size-fits-all solution to bringing them home. The Office of Global & Off-campus Education’s priority was making sure all students studying abroad could return to their homes safely, then ensuring they could continue their studies to earn credit, says director Stephen Appiah-Padi.

“Once they came back, we had our people contact each student about arrangements to finish their courses and to work with third-party providers to ensure that they get something refunded, if possible,” he says, noting that his office continued negotiating and advocating for refunds for students into the summer.

The first problem for Clara Mankowski ’21, a biology and environmental science major studying with a field-based program in Cambodia, was just getting back her passport, which she had just sent to the Cambodian government for a visa extension. Her program was able to intervene and expedite processing, but she was still three flights (from Siem Reap to Bangkok to Abu Dhabi to Washington, D.C.) from her home in Severna Park, Md.

Meanwhile, Miao Mai ’21, an accounting & financial management major from Beijing, was spending the semester at a partner study-abroad program in Vienna. Bucknell recommended she return home to China, but the price of a one-way ticket home had shot up thousands of dollars, and Mai would have to spend her first two weeks home quarantined at a hotel, a challenge to her studies. After conferring with her country’s Austrian consulate, she decided it would be best to stay in Austria for the rest of the semester. She completed her studies remotely, but was disappointed to miss out on so many of the in-person experiences that make studying abroad worthwhile.

“Safety is not negotiable, and we made a judgment based on health and safety. We knew that time was ticking, so the more lead time we could give to students out on spring break, the better off we would be.”
President John Bravman
A Pandemic Becomes Reality

When Bucknell announced on March 6 that it would transition to remote education, it was one of the first schools to do so, and unlike the few that preceded it, was not in an urban center or hot spot for the virus. Nor was there a confirmed case.

For many in the Bucknell community — students, parents, faculty and staff — the announcement was the point at which COVID-19 went from an abstract, looming threat to an immediate, immense disruption. In Lewisburg, as in much of the U.S., public schools, restaurants and retail shops were still open, and few people were working remotely. Shock and disbelief were natural reactions.

“Understandably, most students and parents responded very immediately, emotionally and reactively,” says Leah Mallett, Bucknell’s associate director of digital & social media, who struggled to keep up with the more than 600 comments and questions (Will we get our money back? Can’t you stay open for the seniors?) that poured in across Bucknell’s channels within days of the announcement. Some students even started a Change.org petition appealing to Bravman to reconsider.

As days and weeks passed and state and local governments imposed physical-distancing guidelines, opinions were less negative — although it didn’t make the move any less challenging or disappointing for students, especially those in the senior class.

“I keep thinking that I’ll never be able to walk into the Bison and be surrounded by faces that I know or go to the library and just be a student,” says Arianne Evans ’20, senior class president. “It’s a really hard thing to swallow to know that you’re no longer a student in the same way that you used to be.”

Now home in Los Angeles, Evans says the shift to remote education left her class with a lack of closure — “there wasn’t a chance to say a proper goodbye” — on top of other challenges her classmates faced.

“People’s jobs are getting postponed. Some don’t really have stable home lives to go back to,” she says. “No one really wants to go home and move in with their parents after graduation, but we’ve been forced to move on with such a different plan than any of us had imagined.”

Bravman is sympathetic to those responses — “I feel so sorry for them,” he says — and has vowed to give the graduates the Commencement ceremony they’ve earned. At press time, that ceremony was tentatively scheduled for spring 2021.

Still, some experiences just can’t be replicated.

The Unfinished Season

As a senior playing in the Patriot League women’s basketball tournament, Ellie Mack ’20 knew every game could be her last with the Bison, but she didn’t expect such an incomplete conclusion. At the season’s start, the team goal was to repeat its 2019 conference tournament win and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, and the women were on track after a commanding 87-61 victory over Army in the tournament quarterfinal March 9. Learning after practice the next day that Bucknell had suspended in-person classes, they had even more to play for.

“We told each other that we don’t know how long we’re going to be here, but once our season’s over, then we’re going to have to go home, so we’re playing to win a championship now,” Mack says. “We’re playing to stay together as a team.”

Two days later, Mack and her teammates saw those hopes dissipate too, as first the league, then the NCAA Tournament were canceled. While it was a stellar season — the Bison were named the league champions, and Mack was the Patriot League player of the year — memories only dulled the pain.

“It felt like something was ripped away from you,” Mack says.

While her days with the Bison have come to an end, Mack’s career isn’t over. Due to an injury that left her sidelined her first year, she has a year of NCAA eligibility and plans to play as a graduate student for another college. For now, she’s doing solo shootarounds in her parents’ driveway.

Home for Those Who Needed One

Athletes were sent home once their seasons were suspended, but Bucknell continued to be a physical home for about 200 students, who for various reasons petitioned to stay on campus. The University continued to provide housing through the semester for these students while taking precautions that included extra cleaning, free to-go meals three times a day at the Elaine Langone Center and relocating students who would have been the only occupants in their residence halls. Bucknell Student Health remained open for those students, with Public Safety offering medical transportation if needed, and the Counseling & Student Development Center providing services remotely.

According to Amy Badal, the Fritz Family Dean of Students, many of those remaining were international students, while some had medical conditions that made travel during the pandemic risky.

Peter Kaladius ’21, an electrical engineering major from Egypt, initially asked to stay because he had secured a coveted fellowship at Georgia Tech for the summer. Kaladius soon saw that opportunity evaporate, but by then it was too late to go home; Egypt had closed its airports to all inbound flights. Kaladius booked a flight for May, by which point he hoped the Egyptian government would ease restrictions.

“I keep thinking that I’ll never be able to walk into the Bison and be surrounded by faces that I know or go to the library and just be a student.”
Arianne Evans ’20, senior class president

Until then, he played it safe. Elected captain of the Bucknell Cycling Club for next year, Kaladius loves to ride his bike in the springtime, sometimes making a nearly 50-mile loop around Lewisburg and Mifflinburg, through the rolling hills of the Buffalo Valley. While solo outdoor exercise was still allowed under the state lockdown, Kaladius dutifully followed his mother’s advice to stay inside as much as possible. He and a friend staying with him in Carey House, the international affinity residence, took turns walking the two blocks to pick up their meals at the Elaine Langone Center and two blocks home to eat. Beyond that, he stayed mainly inside, focusing on his five classes, spending his free time hanging out with his housemates or watching YouTube videos about cycling and his other favorite pastime, chess.

The University continued to provide housing during the summer for international students (fewer than 100 in total) who could not return home due to travel restrictions in their countries.

‘An Opportunity to Engage’

Bucknell’s faculty and staff made their best efforts to provide continuity for Kaladius and all students learning in a very different environment. Never having offered remote instruction, the move to online teaching seemed antithetical to the sort of education the University prides itself on: small classes with close interaction with faculty, a residential living-learning experience, hands-on research and experiential learning opportunities. Perhaps counterintuitively, those same factors enabled Bucknell to pivot to online instruction in ways larger universities struggled with.

“One of the most important things is that I can still have individual conversations with them,” Professor Evan Peck, computer science, says of his students. “I can’t be there in person, but that personal interaction doesn’t change. One of the reasons that we teach at Bucknell is that we see our students as real living, breathing people; we care about them.”

Peck and other professors did not simply shift their classes to virtual spaces and continue to meet as originally scheduled. With students spread across time zones and some sharing spotty internet access with family, to do so could have created additional hardships at an already trying time. Instead, Peck recorded short instructional videos and gave assignments that students could access over a longer span. He also made himself and his TAs available for one-to-one help in between — sometimes for up to 40 hours a week.

Called asynchronous learning, the approach was the preferred method at Bucknell, because it enabled students to balance their education and other demands the pandemic forced upon them.

“I don’t want this to supersede their commitments to their families and their communities,” Peck says. “But I also want to give them an opportunity to engage with their education — and enjoy it.”

Faculty also found creative ways to adapt the experiential components that distinguish a Bucknell education.

Dance classes, where students normally gather in one space to choreograph a piece, adopted a chain-letter approach, with one student performing a few videotaped steps, another a few more, until the professor stitched together the final performance.

Geology classes that connect students with central Pennsylvania’s unique geological features shifted to virtual video tours of those same regions, including a fossil-filled nearby quarry and the mostly abandoned town of Centralia, where a mine fire still smolders underground.

Even Bucknell’s gamelan — the room-sized agglomeration of gongs, chimes, drums and other traditional Indonesian instruments — went virtual, as music professor Bethany Collier’s course experimented with a digital gamelan created by music alumna Abby Dolan ’19.

Some classes even shifted their studies to examine the pandemic itself, enhancing the connections between their studies and the real world around them. Students in Professor Reggie Paxton Gazes ’04’s science communications course examined the media’s portrayal and dissemination of information about the pandemic, and developed instructional videos for their peers. Others kept coronavirus journals or examined the pandemic in the context of historical outbreaks such as the bubonic plague. And a large contingent of engineering faculty and students created personal protective equipment for caregivers fighting the pandemic (for more information, see Pages 10 and 13).

“When you have something like this happen, it really shows your true nature,” says Joe Tranquillo, professor of electrical and biomedical engineering and director of Bucknell’s Teaching & Learning Center, about Bucknell’s faculty and their pivot to remote education. “I think what this has shown me is that the culture of teaching and learning is not just alive but is absolutely thriving here.”

President Bravman notes that he too was inspired by the flexibility and creativity shown by Bucknell’s faculty amid the crisis, as they strove to preserve “the essence of Bucknell” amid unprecedented challenge.

“If you want to define the core of this university, it’s a great faculty working with students in small groups,” Bravman says. “Within that broad description, which is so potent and special, there’s a lot of room for innovation, for modification. And this is sparking some of that.”

Recognizing the stresses COVID-19 created in student lives, including financial hardships and the need to care for ailing family members, a faculty-led Academic Response Team also made temporary changes to academic policies for the spring semester. Included were the options for students to withdraw up to the last day of classes without penalty and to convert grades to pass/fail after final grades were submitted, with a note in their transcript about the disruption caused by COVID-19.

‘A Sense of Normalcy’

A Bucknell education is about much more than what happens in the classroom, and the many offices that support that education continued to aid students from afar. The Writing Center and Teaching & Learning Center, which offer peer tutoring, advising and study groups, shifted online. The Center for Career Advancement likewise offered services remotely, including career counseling, mock interviews, LinkedIn profile reviews and one-on-one pre-health and pre-law advising.

Other efforts shored up the strong ties that unite the Bucknell community. Shortly after closing due to social-distancing measures, the Samek Art Museum launched a virtual art wall where members of the greater Bucknell community could post images of art they’d created while at home during the shutdown. Submissions ranged from abstract works by renowned artist and Bucknell trustee Makoto Fujimura ’83, P’13 to colorful cloth surgical masks that Elizabeth Swank Richer ’00 sewed for care workers to miniature Civil War figurines painted by Bison sports fan John Ivan. Later, the museum began projecting works from the crowdsourced exhibit in the window of its Downtown Gallery on Market Street for passersby to enjoy. All of it, says Samek Director Richard Rinehart, is meant to draw on art’s “surprising capacity for healing and connection even in dire circumstances.” (For more on the art wall, see Page 64.)

For many students, rec sports leagues and workouts offer a healthy distraction from their studies and daily stresses. When Bucknell closed its athletics and recreation facilities, per state orders, recreation staff devised the next best thing — hosting tournaments through sports video games such as NBA 2K20, FIFA 20 and Rocket League as well as Fortnite. In addition to blowing off steam at a stressful moment, gaming allowed now-distant friends and acquaintances to connect over voice chat as they competed, says Scott Lotze, Bucknell’s intramural coordinator.

“We were trying our absolute best to provide as many programming opportunities to our students as possible,” he says. “I truly wanted students to feel like they are a part of something.”

For some, religious identity provides a sense of belonging, and Bucknell’s chaplains and religious groups felt a calling to fulfill that need, taking their services online. Christian services, Muslim study groups, Zen meditation and even a Passover seder via Zoom meeting helped students maintain their spiritual community while apart.

Employees from across campus also pitched in to let students know their presence was missed, recording inspiring video messages at home, often with pets included, while a community-building team of offices across campus coordinated and shared these efforts through a new website dubbed Bucknell Strong.

In late April, alumni were welcomed into the effort through Bucknell United, a multifaceted campaign to aid students in the ways they need it most. Besides offering support for scholarships and the areas of greatest financial need, alumni were invited to “help hire the herd” by sharing job opportunities or creating virtual internships and “externship” job-shadowing activities — critically needed resources for students whose plans were uprooted this spring. And all were invited to share words of advice and encouragement with the students.

These community-building efforts aimed “to bring a sense of familiarity and routine to their lives that were so abruptly disrupted,” says Badal, the dean of students. “Online experiences help students maintain connection to the University and to one another, and are a gentle reminder that Bucknell is still here, whether our students are on campus or learning remotely,” she says.

Bucknell also provided more direct support for those who needed it. When the transition to remote education was announced, the University offered free shuttles to area airports to help students get home and worked with families to ship belongings home. The Student Needs Fund, an account that’s often tapped to help students experiencing food insecurity, found new purpose, assisting more than 75 students who needed help getting home or simply a lifeline.

Evans, the senior class president, says all of those efforts — as well as more informal outreach from professors, staff and fellow students — have made a difference, even if they couldn’t replace what’s been lost.

“I feel very cared for,” Evans says. “I feel prioritized by my professors, by the administrators and by President Bravman. I understand that never at any point are they not putting the students and our best interests first. The number of people who’ve reached out — whether they’re students, professors or mentors that I’ve had on campus — really speaks volumes to how much the community cares about one another.”