March 24, 2021 | Matt Kucinski

Two women in masks are helping out as a student awaits surveillance testing.
Staff volunteers doing surveillance testing in the Huizenga Tennis & Track Center at Calvin University.

A pastor, a police officer, and a professor walk into a room …

No, this doesn’t come with a punchline.

This is Tuesday morning at Calvin University.

University pastor Mary Hulst, director of campus safety Bill Corner, and Spanish professor Dwight TenHuisen are each seated in a partition inside the Huizenga Tennis & Track Center ready to assist with surveillance testing.

On the way to see them, community members are greeted by Jen Penning, who works for Calvin’s January Series.

Then, as they head down lane three of the track, they run into Sharolyn Christians, the executive assistant to the president, or perhaps Robin Zylstra, department assistant for Student Life.

Skills in waiting

“It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said John Witte, dean of students, who these days is also one of the lead organizers of all of Calvin’s COVID screening clinics. His role has included training volunteers, coordinating logistics, ordering tests, set up and take down, inviting students, recording results, and helping with all the details around positive case protocols.

“I used to manage some standardized testing for the state of Michigan and Calvin,” said Witte, who also serves on the university’s COVID Response Team, “so I figured my logistics experience might be helpful in this—and wow, has it ever!”

Erica Boldenow, assistant professor of biology and public health, is one of Calvin’s contact tracing leaders, and she is responsible for the data behind Calvin’s COVID-19 dashboard. Like Witte, this skill is one that was waiting in the wings.

“I wanted to help during the pandemic, and I have a skill set that’s particularly useful during this time,” said Boldenow. “It’s great to be both practically useful and philosophically useful.”

Setting up for success

Kristen Alford is leading the contact tracing effort alongside Boldenow. And Alford’s fingerprints have been on many of Calvin’s efforts to date. She helped put together the playbook for the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities (MICU) near the start of the pandemic, which helped Calvin and other institutions get setup well for a pandemic year, worked with the Kent County Health Department (KCHD) to develop Calvin’s contact tracing protocol, and is part of the COVID Response Team where she lends public health expertise to the university.

“As a public health professional, it was important for me to contribute to these efforts,” said Alford. “I’ve been thankful to be able to use my professional skills during this challenging time.”

While Alford, Boldenow, and Witte had skills necessary for the response, as did their colleagues in Health Services and the Center for Counseling and Wellness, many others on campus simply knew there was work to be done and wanted to help. More than 100 faculty and staff have volunteered to take on official roles (contact tracing, surveillance testing), while many others have adapted to serve students in new ways.

Supporting and serving students

Most people at Calvin know Julie Yonker as a beloved psychology professor, but this year some also know her as a COVID-19 case investigator. She calls students on behalf of Calvin and KCHD who have tested positive to obtain the information necessary for contact tracing and symptom monitoring.

“In Health Psychology we learn about the importance of our social connections for our physical and mental health. When a student contracts COVID and needs to be isolated, the sense of social isolation is profound,” said Yonker.

“As a COVID case investigator, I hoped to chat a bit with the student to bring some social connection and to encourage them to reach out via phone or media to feel a sense of connection with others. As a parent myself, I wanted the parents to know there was a kind and caring voice working to support, encourage, and empower their child/student to persevere through a difficult time,” added Yonker.

On the home front, Jay Wise, director of college housing and operations, is one of many in residence life who has expanded his role to coordinate care for students placed in quarantine or isolation.

“We all are working together, health services staff, dining services, residence life, facilities, contact tracers, and several more behind the scenes to try and determine what is best for each individual student,” said Wise. “We have the goal of communicating with each student individually to see what works best for them given their circumstances.”

And Wise literally delivers great service to those isolated or in quarantine: taking their garbage out, bringing them supplies, even delivering their mail from their dorm room to their temporary quarantine or isolation living space—all outside his typical job description.

A waiting list of volunteers

And the number of faculty and staff raising their hands to help even exceeded the need.

“I volunteered to help out with testing, and I’ve served two shifts” said Micah Watson, professor of political science, and director of the Paul B. Henry Institute. “We were over-staffed, so while I’m on a substitute list, I’m no longer needed for those shifts.”

It’s a good problem to have. And those willing to pitch in and help over the past year stretches beyond employees of the university to students, alumni, and friends of the university.

“Calvin community members have been willing to step up,” said Alford. “So many faculty, staff, and students have graciously volunteered their time with our contact tracing efforts. Further, community members are stepping up to find creative ways to support each other—whether through bringing baked goods to students in quarantine or isolation, buying Adirondack chairs at Lowe’s, building a fire pit for students to gather outside, or creating new and safe ways to gather.”

In this together

“There are tons of stakeholders and tons of people volunteering to get things done,” said Boldenow. “Lots of people are eager to help and are also stretched extremely thin right now, but still manage to put tons of effort in.”

“The Calvin community has shown incredible resilience, grace, and patience through all the challenges this past year,” said Yonker.

“We have a lot of people on all levels doing more, and doing the unexpected, doing things they would never have anticipated given their background and training. And it’s encouraging,” said Watson.

“We’re making it through,” said Witte, “with light appearing at the end of this tunnel, and real hope for an end to this.”

It should be noted that in addition to all the faculty and staff who took on secondary roles during the pandemic to help out with the emerging needs, all professors have adapted to offer instruction both remotely and in-person, a major feat in and of itself.

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