The door to Smith Memorial Student Union, boarded up and covered with signs about the closure of campus. Alex Wittwer/PSU Vanguard

On the clock, online

Student employees adapt to campus shutdown

“The closure of campus and its immediate aftermath was a massive adjustment, especially since I was there on the day that we had to close, and it was pretty brutal,” stated Louise Adkins, a student employee at the Montgomery Service Desk, a division of PSU Housing and Residence Life. 


“We only had a few hours warning us that everything needed to be closed down, and we were given almost no information or guidance in terms of what was going to happen next,” Adkins stated.


Across PSU, student workers have been forced to adjust to major workplace changes as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. The abrupt nature of the campus-wide shutdown left many students anxious about their employment statuses and uncertain about the future of their work.


“There didn’t seem to be consideration or concern given in regard to making the transition less abrupt for us or for everyone who relies on our services,” Adkins stated. “Instead, notification of our closure was almost immediately given out, and instantly that set off a blowback of confusion and frustration from residents—particularly over the abrupt shutdown of package services.”


Moxxy Rogers, a peer mentor for the University Studies department at PSU, has found that remote work fundamentally challenges her ability to connect with the students she mentors.


“I feel online mentoring severely limits my ability to interact and help my students,” Rogers said. “I miss them very much. It’s painful not being a part of their lives in a physical way when I used to see them for at least five hours a day, twice a week. Now we send each other video updates and it’s nice, but it’s not the same.”


Supervisors of student employees have made concerted efforts to support workers and to quickly adjust to the new remote environment. 


Rose Bosely, the access services assistant manager at the Branford Price Millar Library, also supervises student employees in her department. 


“In our department, our main priorities for student employees have been providing a safe environment for on-site work and remote work options whenever possible,” Bosely said. “Library administration has thoroughly supported those goals.”


The access services department at the library employs 25 student workers. However, many are taking the term off. 


“Nine students are still working on-site on tasks that can be completed while social distancing, and eight students have recently begun working remotely on online projects provided by other library departments,” Bosely said.


As a result of the campus shutdown, access services cut back its available hours for student employees. Kaitlynn Duncan, a student worker in the department, encountered a variety of personal challenges as a result of the reduction of hours. 


“Because we’ve cut back on so many hours and due to remote learning, I have to fit as many work hours as I can between classes,” Duncan said. “Most of my classes fall in the 10 a.m.–5 p.m. range that we are allowed to work. As a result, I’m not able to get my full 20 hours a week.”


Before the campus shutdown, Duncan also held a work study position in the Architecture Digital Lab at PSU. Her on-campus position was cancelled during finals week of winter term. However, her department has allowed her to take some online learning courses relevant to her position so she can maintain eligibility for work study funds.


The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) Dean’s office has had a relatively smooth transition to remote work. Clare Quinn and Kristie Kolesnikov, both supervisors of student employees in their department, have spearheaded the efforts to adapt. Quinn is the office coordinator and Kolesnikov is the executive assistant to the dean and office manager. 


“All of our student employees were given the choice to take the term off and we would hold their position or to work and they all chose to stay,” Kolesnikov said. “We created our virtual front desk as a way to create some work for them and to provide a resource for our PSU community. We also have started at the beginning of the term a weekly one-hour team huddle. During these meetings, we do some training and check-ins.”


CLAS’ Virtual Front Desk is operating from 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Friday. When members of the university log on to the Zoom meeting, they are greeted by a virtual panel of eight student employees who are prepared to assist with any inquiries they may have. 


When asked about their experiences adjusting to a virtual customer service setting, the student employees at CLAS said the transition has been relatively smooth. However, there are still some fundamental challenges.


 “I’ve found that I need to find a really quiet space where I live in order to properly do my job, which can be pretty difficult at times,” said Dameria Villalobos, a student employee in the CLAS dean’s office.


While many students have adapted to remote work, the fluidity of this transition seems to rely on a multitude of variables, such as the strength of online infrastructure in their department and the length of time the department had to transition to a remote setting. For those whose departments were blindsided by an abrupt decision to close, a lot of frustration lingers.


“I would hope that once state guidelines start to ease that the university may loosen their restrictions enough to allow the Montgomery Service Desk to physically reopen,” Adkins stated. “But the abrupt, callous and carelessly haphazard way in which they ordered the desk’s closure is a testament to how much the university seems to undervalue the work that student employees do.”