Perseverance Through Challenges Promises Bright Futures at WLU
By ERIC AYRES
WEST LIBERTY –Students, staff members and faculty at West Liberty University have been able to navigate through unprecedented challenges through the past calendar year during the coronavirus pandemic.
With the right combination of planning, talent, perseverance and grace, those at WLU have been able to adapt to the challenging times, and they continue to do so heading toward spring of 2021. Rising to the occasion in the face of adversity is something that has become expected from the Hilltoppers, who have found ways to achieve success time and time again throughout the history of West Virginia’s oldest institution of higher learning.
Yet like other colleges and universities, West Liberty University found 2020 to bring huge obstacles with little time to prepare early last year.
“When COVID-19 hit back in March, it brought about many unbelievable changes to campus, classroom instruction and student life,” Maureen Zambito, director of media relations at WLU, said. “West Liberty University was prepared however, since the Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT) meets monthly to prepare for all kinds of safety issues. CIRT was aware of the pending national health crisis early and followed the CDC recommendations in a timely fashion.”
Pandemic planning actually began back in January and February at WLU, Zambito said. “However, it was still unprecedented that students were not allowed to return to campus from spring break, and we had to make arrangements for all staff other than the absolutely essential campus employees, to work remotely. Faculty too had to learn a new way of teaching and master Zoom, hybrid and all kinds of remote options.”
Beyond this major change, the necessary safety protocols were enforced such as wearing of masks, social distancing and use of increased hand sanitation options.
“Our maintenance department installed countless sheets of plexiglass for sneeze guards and worked with CIRT to meet other needs,” Zambito said. “All meetings took place on Zoom.”
Many other things were added to campus, like social distancing floor markers, room signage advising campus of occupancy limits, more hand sanitizer dispensers and PPE machines to dispense free masks, gloves and sanitizers to both students and employees. Other things changed on campus. For example, water fountains were covered, takeout food options were increased and arrangements were made for isolating sick students and caring for their needs.
“Single dorm rooms were offered to all students,” Zambito said. “Campus move-in and move-out days were altered by our Housing Office in a major way that kept students and visitors safe.”
Winter break was extended from Thanksgiving to Jan. 19, and spring break for 2021 is cancelled at WLU. Sports had to be delayed, and changes in that area are additional safety issues that still impact all student-athletes, Zambito noted. No fans are permitted even now, as teams begin to compete during the spring semester.
“It has been a mammoth effort by all staff and faculty to provide the quality educational product and student life options that WLU is known for,” Zambito explained. “But WLU is committed to the safety and learning of our students and with endless hours of planning, lots of plexiglass and prayers, we have pulled it off.”
Now the university continues to test students throughout the semester as required by the state of West Virginia and follow all CDC protocols. They also have a dedicated email available for questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, as well as a webpage westliberty.edu/coronavirus.
“West Liberty University is proud of its effort during this unprecedented emergency of a pandemic,” Scott Cook, CIRT chairman and vice president of student and enrollment services at WLU. “We have remained active and safe, providing a quality education to our students on the Hilltop.”
The major impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on WLU and other colleges has been a reduction in revenues. Funds allocated from the CARES Act and from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act are helping to reduce the impact of loss revenue, according to WLU Vice President of Finance Roberta Linger.
The WLU Foundation also stepped up and raised emergency funds with its Helping Hilltoppers Campaign to assist students struggling to return to the classroom during the pandemic.
“We realized the need for emergency assistance last spring and began this effort by turning to our donors, friends and alumni, WLU Foundation Executive Director Angela Zambito-Hill said. “We were immediately rewarded with a matching gift, then another large gift and another. The Helping Hilltoppers Campaign is now nearing $75,000 and has helped 220 students.”
The students, much like the faculty and staff at WLU, have adapted to the many changes.
“We had an excellent response by faculty to the many changes brought on by the pandemic, Assistant Provost Jeremy Larance said. “Some of our teachers were so surprised by how well some of the new course delivery methods worked that they plan on using them long after the pandemic is over. One of the silver linings from this unexpected year will be that our future students will benefit from the innovation and resources we had to develop over the past three semesters.”
Cook added, “Students overall have been very responsive to our requests for masks, social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, testing and reporting symptoms and much more. We are grateful to our students for following the many rules and tolerating the many changes that the pandemic caused.”
Most agreed that the increased strength in online delivery of classes — along with a heightened attention paid to safety and health — are among the silver linings brought about by the pandemic. There is another strength notable in the sense that WLU has worked together to provide whatever is necessary during this very challenging time. Employees volunteer to assist at COVID-19 testings and take on additional duties of caring for students.
“Our Student Health Director Christy Bennington has gone above the call of duty in taking good care of campus in every way and put in endless hours of overtime,” Cook said. “She is assisted by nurse Dawn Gainer.”
Many traditions had to change, but everyone rolled with the punches.
“Topper Station, WLU’s streaming platform, took on the never-before duties of streaming two commencement ceremonies and ensuring the graduation remained a festive, enjoyable event for our graduates,” Vice President of External Affairs Jason Koegler said. “Topper Station also filmed hundreds of hours of classes for faculty and students, and covered many community events as a pandemic outreach.”
While everyone is eager for life on campus to return to a sense of normalcy, WLU is marching ahead and prepared to meet any of the challenges that may arise in the future. The response to the most challenging chapters in history foretell a future that is sure to be bright.