A Shared Purpose

When a Pandemic Closed Colleges Around the Country, UMW’s Commitment to Community Allowed It to Aspire to Something More

By Emily Freehling

As last summer ended, President Troy Paino was losing sleep, dogged by pandemic-related ethical questions.

Can the university bring students back to campus while prioritizing their well-being and that of faculty and staff? What about the university’s responsibility to the community? And what sacrifices must members of the Mary Washington community make for the common good?

It was, he said in a Sept. 1 video, “among the most difficult decisions I have had to make.”

The announcement that UMW would move forward with its plan to bring students back Sept. 10 – three weeks after classes had started in a 100% remote format – came as many other colleges were experiencing outbreaks and sending students home soon after their own move-in days.

But Paino had faith in Mary Washington – in the months of planning by administrators, faculty, and staff, and in the students themselves. A successful fall semester on campus was possible, he believed, if everyone kept sight of the shared purpose.

In a year when many Mary Washington traditions had to be put on pause, the university leaned on its community values. Developed by students, faculty, and staff, and adopted by the Board of Visitors in 2018, ASPIRE – the acronym for those values – took on more meaning than ever when put to the test of a pandemic.


The three-week delay of move-in day was an opportunity to watch and learn.

News of outbreaks at other universities reminded students and staff that a semester on campus wasn’t going to happen without sustained discipline and adherence to distancing measures, said Jeffrey McClurken ’94, Paino’s chief of staff and UMW’s co-coordinator of the COVID-19 Implementation Team. He serves along with Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Tim O’Donnell.

The delay gave UMW a chance to set up one very public mechanism of accountability, a campus-wide online COVID-19 dashboard that published daily reports on the number of cases, positive tests, and quarantined students throughout the school year. At the end of the fall semester, that dashboard showed that UMW had kept its COVID-19 case numbers lower than nearly any other school in Virginia.

McClurken and other administrators attributed this partly to the Mary Washington culture, and a campus life that is driven not by Greek rush and big football games but by close relationships and personal accountability.

McClurken said he’ll never forget a story he heard from the mother of a student about her son on move-in day.

“He came over to tell his mother goodbye, and he says to her, ‘Don’t worry, Mom. I’m not going to be the reason we have to go home,’” McClurken recalled. “I think we saw some version of that hundreds of times.”

Heather Mullins Crislip ’95, rector of the UMW Board of Visitors, kept close watch over UMW’s COVID-19 dashboard as the year progressed. “I am in awe of the strength of our community and the way they took responsibility for keeping each other safe,” she said.

She recognizes that students made sacrifices to keep case numbers low.

“They really stepped up and took their duty to others seriously, but it has come with big costs … with not being able to have the full social experience,” she said.


After tackling the spring 2020 semester, when students suddenly went home to complete courses already in progress, the four-person team at UMW’s Center for Teaching and Digital Learning Support knew that planning for both a virtual and in-person fall semester would require a lot more work.

They also coordinated efforts with others working to connect students with CARES Act money to purchase computers or hot spots, and providing resources to faculty members. A major focus was building a community where faculty could share ideas about teaching under pandemic limitations.

Victoria Russell, director of the Center for Teaching, worked with the Digital Knowledge Center’s Cartland Berge and Shannon Hauser ’10 to create ReFocus Online, a four-week virtual teaching course for UMW faculty and staff.

ReFocus became so popular – and met such a need that summer – that colleagues at other universities used it.

Faculty put in the hours to shape their courses to pandemic realities, said Director of Digital Learning Support Jerry Slezak. They “rebuilt and reimagined courses over a summer when they were supposed to be taking a break,” he said.

Russell attributed that dedication to the focus UMW puts on recruiting faculty who are passionate about teaching, working with, and mentoring students. “You are hired at Mary Washington because you are a good teacher,” she said.

In his online classes, Associate Professor of German Marcel Rotter focused on harnessing that awkward moment when people are filing into a Zoom meeting and nobody knows what to do. He came up with trivia questions and other activities students could latch onto from the minute they connected.

As the year progressed, Rotter noted more blank screens, as students opted not to turn on video. He didn’t require it, recognizing that many students were working with slow internet speeds.

“A student last semester had to travel an hour to his grandparents’ house just to have decent enough Wi-Fi to participate in class,” he said.

Ashleigh Foster ’21, a history major from Dumfries who commuted to campus, said switching between in-person and virtual modalities took a toll on students and faculty. But she appreciated that her professors went to great efforts to create as normal an experience as possible.

In a course taught by McClurken, who is also a professor of history, she felt so confident in expressing herself through assignments, blog posts, and discussion that she gained a special camaraderie with her classmates, she wrote in and end-of-semester blog post. “Enabling the students to lead class discussions and to help design major projects really gave me a sense of responsibility and ownership,” Foster said. “Throughout discussions, it was great to have such an inviting space to share thoughts, opinions, and experiences among my peers. We had the chance to address very relevant issues. … I loved just getting to hear so many opinions about many of our topics.”

The Zoom platform didn’t prevent McClurken and his colleagues from developing real and deep bonds with students, he said. “We want to get back to our in-person world, but our UMW faculty made very real and powerful connections with students over the last year.”


The uncertainty of the fall semester took athletics off the table, meaning fall and winter athletes lost a season of play. As spring approached, university leaders were determined that spring athletes, who’d already lost their 2020 season, would not miss a second one.

“I am so grateful that we found a pathway,” said Athletic Director Patrick Catullo ’95.

Competition started in early March and employed rigorous protocols that exceeded NCAA standards. All student athletes were tested weekly, and everyone involved in an intercollegiate competition was tested within 24 hours of a game or event.

A typical weekend for Catullo and his staff involved testing the bus driver before a team hit the road, testing referees and officials at the Battleground Athletic Complex, making sure only approved spectators were admitted to home games, and ensuring that they kept to their assigned seats.

Students also followed “monitor, mask, distance, and clean” (MMDC) measures that became a mantra on campus as the year progressed.

Facilities staff had worked overtime during the preceding summer to set up classroom and
campus spaces for social distancing, while the Office of Procurement searched the country to ensure that masks and cleaning supplies were available for anyone who needed them.

University leaders realized early on that peer-to-peer reinforcement would be an important way to encourage compliance, so the Center for Community Engagement, along with offices such as Athletics and Student Affairs, launched the Eagles Care Ambassador program.

Forty students volunteered, signing up to wear brightly colored shirts and offer friendly reminders to students to stay distanced, limit the size of groups, and wear masks.

Briana Rojas ’21, a biology major from Fredericksburg, said it wasn’t always easy approaching students she didn’t know and reminding them of the rules, but she was grateful to play a role in keeping campus safe.

“If I can help keep the numbers down so that we can remain on campus and everyone’s being safe and we don’t have to be anxious, then that’s a role I want to play,” she said.


The James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC) has always been a hub where students from a variety of backgrounds can ask: How do I find my place here?

When in-person classes shut down in spring 2020, center Director Marion Sanford and her team launched a flood of emails, calls, and texts, checking in with students and helping to meet their needs.

In late spring and summer, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor led many students to seek advice from Sanford and her team about joining protests in Fredericksburg and around the U.S.

“Everyone was so impacted with what had happened,” Sanford said. “We were talking to students and guiding them, sending them information and resources” to help them use their voices and to effect positive change.

The center’s annual Social Justice and Leadership Summit had to be canceled in March 2020 during the shutdowns, but the JFMC held a summer social justice summit via Zoom.

Jessica Machado, director of the Office of Disability Resources (ODR), felt it also was critical to ensure that UMW’s differently abled students received special outreach. Her team participated in numerous diversity and mental health-related capacities across campus, she said, “to continue to provide as much support as we can.”

ODR led efforts to partner with groups including the JFMC to help students navigate the pandemic. The two offices worked to create inclusive virtual programming for October, Disability Awareness Month. Another substantive step forward came when ODR and the Center for Teaching and Digital Learning Support joined forces to help raise accessibility awareness in teaching practices within the digital learning environment.

The ODR developed an advisory committee of students with disabilities to provide regular feedback, Machado said. “It provided a way to further engage with our students.”


A centerpiece of monitoring potential virus spread on campus was the testing operation in the William M. Anderson Center. Dodd Auditorium Director Doug Noble and Director of Conferencing and Scheduling Susan Lafayette took on this endeavor after the pandemic shut down the in-person events that are the focus of their regular work.

UMW tested a sampling of all residential and commuter students upon entry in the fall, with random sampling occurring two days a week to track virus spread on campus. Greater availability of testing in the spring allowed entry testing of all students, as well as testing of 300 students a day, twice a week in the spring, Lafayette said.

One January day, 900 students were given tests before moving in for the spring semester. Noble logged 14 miles on his step tracker as he walked around the basketball court delivering results to individual students in a way that others wouldn’t overhear.

Random testing meant many students came in more than once, and Noble and Lafayette were impressed by the students’ commitment to doing what was asked of them.

“The students really wanted to be here,” Noble said. “They stepped up to follow the rules that allowed them to come to campus. I think it speaks to the character of the students we bring to Mary Washington.”


Good Neighbor Day is a favorite campus activity for Allison Grant ’21 of Oakton. The annual day of service for students involved in Community Outreach and Resources, or COAR, takes students into Fredericksburg neighborhoods to help those in need of assistance.

The event was canceled last spring, but Grant, the COAR staff director, wanted to bring it back in 2021. Like all UMW service activities, Good Neighbor Day had to work within rules allowing no more than 10 people in a group, with all activities outside.

When the event arrived on a Saturday in early March, one group of students helped fill raised beds at Downtown Greens, a community garden in Fredericksburg. Another built a community garden at the UMW apartments. A third helped the university landscaping crew, and two other groups led cleanups along the Rappahannock River.

Such thoughtful workarounds were necessary for projects to continue during the fall and spring semesters, said Leslie Martin, director of the Center for Community Engagement.

“What I have seen is a lot of creativity and surprisingly impactful projects,” she said.

University students, staff, and professors have gotten involved in the wider Fredericksburg community in new ways – helping a downtown merchants’ group raise money for bike racks, boosting city tree-planting efforts, and supporting the city’s efforts to tell a more inclusive story of Fredericksburg’s history.

Students also worked tables during the 2020 election season to help their peers navigate the complicated process of requesting and filing absentee ballots.

Grant said community service opportunities had been a huge benefit for her during a year that at times felt isolating.

“Virtual learning can be so lonely. It has many benefits, and I have experienced those, but there is something about walking into a classroom and running into a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or joking with a professor,” that happens in person, she said. “What this is teaching us is how much we need each other.”

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