Reflecting On One Year Into the Pandemic: Staff Profiles

These staff profiles of community members who worked through the spring and summer of 2020 during the onset of the pandemic were done as interviews by students in Professor Diane Anderson’s course, Literacies & Social Identities, which explores various facets and relationships with literacy. They are a response to what we saw as the need to document the experiences of EVS, Dining Hall staff, Bookstore, and other staff on our campus who did not have the privilege to work remotely. 

Any questions can be directed to Professor Anderson at danders1@swarthmore.edu.

Editor’s note: March 11, 2021 marks one full year since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we at The Phoenix would like to thank every EVS and Dining Services staff member who has worked throughout the pandemic and made it possible for students to safely stay on campus. As we wrote in a staff editorial this week, many students left campus on a random Saturday in March 2020 and awaited a return to campus that would not happen. EVS and Dining Services have always played an essential role on campus, feeding students and taking care of campus spaces. EVS and Dining Services especially deserve thanks and appreciation, however, for everything they have done for students and for the broader campus community during  the past year.

The college has welcomed two cohorts of students back to campus in the Fall and Spring semesters, and it is imperative to acknowledge that these returns could not be possible without the immense work of EVS and Dining Services, who have had to take on personal risk to ensure the campus community’s safety from COVID. These staff profiles from Diane Anderson’s Literacies and Social Identities course highlight just a few of the people who keep both students and the broader campus community safe every day. The profiles, a substitute for the Learning for Life component of the class, highlight both staff members’ roles on campus and their personal passions.

The Phoenix has added minor cosmetic edits to these profiles.

Vivian Hart
Mia Kwan

Vivian Hart has worked at Swarthmore College for 35 years. She began working as a technician in Environmental Services on Sept. 16, 1985. Over the years, Vivian has worked hard to keep campus facilities in excellent condition. As an original member of the Learning for Life program, her devotion to the college extends far beyond her prescribed job. Vivian’s contributions to the community were recognized in 2006-07 when she received the Kathryn Morgan award. When asked about how it felt to be honored, Vivian responded, “It was really exciting because I didn’t think a person in our position would be acceptable to [receive] an award like that.” In addition to earning this award, Vivian is most proud of the cordial relationships she has maintained with all of her colleagues.

Little did Vivian know that her vast experience working in Environmental Services would prepare her well for the unexpected outbreak of COVID-19. Even though most students did not return to campus after spring break in March of 2020, ample and important work remained for EVS technicians to keep the campus clean and safe. When faced with the challenge of working during a pandemic, Vivian courageously rose to the occasion. “I always say this is the job we chose so this is what we have to do,” she insisted. During this novel time, Vivian learned to adapt to new safety measures including social distancing, required mask wearing, and regulated building access. Considering some staff were unable to work during this period, Vivian explained, “We had to cover a little bit more than we normally do.” She stated, “Experiencing something new is always a challenge but this was one of the biggest.” Although working was “different” and sometimes difficult, Vivian reassured, “It was okay. We survived.”

As an essential worker, the risks of contracting COVID-19 extended to members of Vivian’s household. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Vivian and her family have become accustomed to new practices. When returning home from work, Vivian makes sure to “disinfect” and “spray down everything” in consideration for the health and safety of her household.

Outside of her job, Vivian loves spending quality time with her family. She enjoys walking, playing solitaire and scrabble, and reading her Bible. While unable to attend plays, concerts or church because of COVID-19 restrictions, Vivian has learned to make the most out of her current circumstances. Rather than allow fear and paranoia to dominate her life, Vivian has found it comforting to watch things that make her laugh and “act goofy sometimes.” She stressed how important it is to “try to keep a positive mind and keep positive people around you that can make you laugh, jump, do anything silly. You don’t need to be serious all of the time.”

         When asked how Swarthmore College can better support its essential employees during the pandemic, Vivian replied, “Keep doing the best that they can to try and keep getting everyone tested and make sure everyone feels comfortable because we all have lives after work.” Additionally, she emphasized the importance of being mindful as well as “considerate of people’s feelings” and “not so much judgmental.” Over the years, Vivian has reached the understanding that “we all want the same things,” therefore, you should not “judge one for all” or “criticize” others because “you are no different from someone else.” She also advised, “Keep Learning for Life. It is really nice to have. I hope it doesn’t go away.”

Shelly Mattison
Sam Abdushukurov and Cindy Lopez

In normal circumstances, the work of Environmental Services staff is overlooked; however, with COVID-19’s prevalence, that work has turned out to be essential to the continued functioning of the college. Shelly Mattison takes pride in being a part of the environmental services staff at Swarthmore. She loves her job and strives to do it well, contributing to the cleanliness of numerous buildings in Swarthmore. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, she felt devoted to her work more than ever. During the blurry period of uncertainty, Shelly took great care to disinfect her assigned areas, stating, “It was crucial to properly disinfect for students’ safety.” She continued her service to the Swarthmore community throughout spring and summer and beyond.

In her words, Shelly’s work was not affected much during the pandemic, though her schedule fluctuated a bit. During the May-June period, she worked two days a week, which later changed to three and then five days. Her commitment, however, remained intact: disinfecting buildings thoroughly, taking care of offices in the absence of administrative staff, and ensuring a clean environment. At first, the pandemic situation left her uneasy, however. She remembered how scary and worrisome the initial stage of COVID felt. She recalled seeing the campus almost empty, with the only students remaining being those who were unable to go home. She worried not only about her own health but also students’ health, especially considering the college did not start testing staff weekly until students arrived for the Fall semester. The college’s initial steps of weekly check-ins and providing sick leave to staff with doctor’s notes worked to lessen her fears slightly. Once weekly testing was introduced, she felt more at ease coming to work.

Outside of the pandemic, she enjoys Learning for Life. She credits L4L for her interest in trying different foods, stating she has learned a vast array of cuisines from the other students and staff in the program. Along with cooking and trying new foods, she notes shopping, decorating, exercising, and watching Netflix as her main hobbies. While her favorite activities haven’t been impacted much by COVID-19, she has had to change some of her routines. She can no longer go to the gym, where she used to lift weights, and has now created her own unique indoor routine. She works out six days a week, with Sunday being her rest day. She used to go to church on Sundays; now, however,  she listens to the sermon online weekly and receives a monthly prayer book, which she reads on the train on her way to and from work. Another favorite pastime of hers is spending time with her grandchildren, but unfortunately, she has not seen them as often as she’d like because of their safety precautions. Her children work in hospitals, and as such, they follow a strict routine of disinfecting their clothes and washing their hands when they get home. Thankfully, because of these precautions, her family has not been greatly affected by the pandemic.

Shelly hopes that Swarthmore will provide its staff with vaccines.

Dave Stoner
Patrick Li & Trinh Nguyen

Dave Stoner is a Sharples line cook. He takes great pride in the food he prepares, as well as in his work ethic. When asked about his favorite part of working at Swarthmore, he answered, “I love the people I work with. They help me out with everything.” Despite having worked at Swarthmore for only two years, he feels a strong camaraderie with his coworkers. 

After most students were sent home last March at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the campus has been quiet. For those on campus, new safety measures drastically altered everyday functioning, Sharples included. “It was a lot to take in,” said Dave. In addition to wearing masks, Dave says that he and his team are especially cognizant about keeping the meal prep process separated and orderly. Consequently, the speed of work slowed dramatically. However, with fewer students on campus, the transition in the workflow has been manageable.  

Fortunately, the pandemic has not substantially impacted Dave’s family. Dave has continued to work normal hours six days a week. The pandemic has not been stress-free. In the spring, Dave was unsure if he was going to have work during the summer. Moreover, there was always a concern of contracting COVID and uncertainty regarding how severe the illness might be. In spite of those concerns, Dave continues to work and support the Swarthmore community, stating that sometimes, “you just gotta do what you gotta do.”

When he is not bustling to prepare meals for students, Dave enjoys spending quality time with family and taking care of his new daughter. He is also an avid traveler but has turned to reading more due to travel restrictions. Dave particularly enjoys mystery and horror novels, having recently finished Ready Player One and is now halfway through its sequel, Ready Player Two. The dystopian series by Ernest Cline takes place in 2045 and envisions a world in which people are forced to live in virtual reality to escape from a planet on the brink of collapse.

When asked how Swarthmore helped its employees during the pandemic transition, Dave gave a glowing review, saying that he felt supported throughout the process. He is glad to have work when so many others are unemployed and appreciated the college providing staff with full advance pay for March until June, an unexpected but welcomed surprise. Swarthmore made no staff cuts. When asked again if the college could be doing anything better to support its workers, Dave joked about the seemingly endless construction. 

Michele Thornton
Luca Poxon, Pempho Moyo

Every time you enter Sharples for lunch or dinner, there are three things that will always be consistent: you will probably run into someone who has an egg on their sandwich, you will see a minimum of four people having a bowl of fries, and there will always be soup. While the egg on a sandwich has always been a meal choice that raises more questions than answers and people with bowls of fries have the right idea, the soup is the real star of the show because of the person who makes it: Michele Thornton. 

Though her routine has stayed largely the same, things feel different for Michele. Her cat notices it, too, as he heads out for the day and then back inside to cuddle later. If someone had told Michele about the pandemic eighteen years ago when she first began working at Swarthmore, she wouldn’t have believed them. 

Back then, Michele would ride the train past Swarthmore and look up at what is now the IC Dome, thinking to herself, “Man, I want to work there.” Swarthmore, a place of learning, fits well into Michele’s life. Years ago, she used to publish poetry through short-form publishing, writing what she calls “conscious poetry” on everything from politics to her own family to Hollywood to romance. These days, she doesn’t write as much because she simply doesn’t know where to start. Instead, her evenings and days off are filled with other pursuits that offer entertainment and some escape from reality. Sci-fi and drama on television are her favorites, and she reads widely from her library — biographies, histories of her own people, and also novels and metaphysical readings. 

With all of this fulfillment during time away from work, one might wonder if Michele prefers her time at home with her cat over her time at work. In fact, Michele is truly happy to come to work each day. She is ready and grateful to be there, beginning with a 5 a.m. bus ride during which Michele contents herself watching her fellow passengers and the world outside the window. Now that she works in the back of Sharples, she doesn’t have as much face-to-face interaction with students but greatly enjoys making soups. As she does so, Michele often thinks of her ancestors, who were also culinary artists: “What would they think of all of this? There’s so much going on. What can I do to make it better?” 

She’s concerned about what younger generations are missing on account of the pandemic. When asked what recommendations she has for how the college can support workers during the pandemic, Michele replied that she thinks the administration is already doing well. A commitment to having everyone keep their jobs protects what, to Michele, counts the most and makes her the most proud, showing up consistently for her colleagues and for the students who rely on her culinary skills. 

The remarkable thing about soup is that it never fails to bring a person some sense of comfort no matter how the day is going. It can somehow convey the message that“everything will be alright in the end.” Having a bowl of soup will not make the pandemic stop or solve any form of injustice, but it may remind you of Michele and people like Michele who continue to work throughout this pandemic, holding on to hope that someday soon things will get better. 

Steve Lockard
Sophia Lee & Faith Nation

We recently sat down for a Zoom interview with Steve Lockard, aka “DJ Clean,” in the early hours of the morning to talk about his work at the college, his love of koi fish, the Parrish 4th radio room, and the magic of the amphitheater. As the third shift Environmental Services supervisor, Steve starts his shift around 11 p.m. each evening, finishing up just as students are beginning to wake up and move about the campus at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. Previously employed at Crozer Health, Steve, who has been at Swarthmore for four years, describes his current position as his dream job. Although the night shift can be challenging to adapt to, Steve told us how much he enjoys watching the campus come to life in the morning when he gets off his shift — watching students begin to mill around as the sun rises over the picturesque campus. 

In his position, Steve supervises the overnight cleaning of academic buildings and libraries on the upper half of the campus alongside a staff of about 30 people. When we asked Steve what he was most proud of in his work, he described the hard work the EVS staff have put into keeping academic buildings clean for faculty, students, and staff during the pandemic. In recent months, their cleaning protocol has focused on disinfecting door handles and frequently touched services, which Steve described as a much more time-consuming process than the work they were doing prior to the pandemic. For example, Steve tells us that the first floor of Parrish alone has over 200 door handles to sanitize, but keeping these spaces and surfaces clean is a top priority. Having never worked third shift prior to coming to Swarthmore, Steve explains that adjusting to the hours can be difficult, but he is thankful that this shift provides less risk of exposure, as it’s very rare they see or interact with students during these hours. 

In describing the transition from pre-pandemic work at the College to in-person classes being canceled and students being sent home, Steve emphasized how different this past summer looked for EVS. Typically, when students leave campus for breaks, EVS takes this opportunity to deep clean and do larger-scale project work on dorms and buildings. This year, however, the priority became quickly flipping dorms by turning each room into a single and preparing them for students who would be returning in the fall, an especially difficult task given that many students had left their rooms intact when they departed in the Spring. Steve note[d] that EVS [faced] a similar job in preparing rooms for students returning for the Spring semester, and getting these dorms sanitized and ready for the new cohort of students [was] their main task between [J-term] and Feb. 7. 

In his free time, Steve enjoys camping and fishing with his family, and has recently spent a lot of time working with his sons on the zen garden and koi pond in their yard — something he is very proud of and hopes to continue expanding. In addition to his love of koi and being outdoors, Steve told us about his experiences with Swarthmore’s Learning for Life program, where he picked up the nickname “DJ Clean” in a radio show he started his first year. Even though the program is currently shut down due to the pandemic, Steve and many other community members are hoping it will resume at some point, and Steve tells us he will do whatever he can to bring the program back. We are also hoping that, sometime soon, we’ll be able to tune in and hear Steve’s take on the campus’ best places to eat, the best printer, or some of the “off the wall” music he enjoys playing. 

Our interview with Steve was both fulfilling and refreshing. Staff members like Steve have played a large role in keeping the numbers of coronavirus cases very low at Swarthmore, but we do not always have the opportunity to hear about their experiences directly, so we were very happy to be able to speak with him about it. It was also very relieving to hear about the college’s dedication to keeping campus safe for its students not only through administrative efforts but also through the direct efforts of the EVS staff, as we both plan on returning to campus in the spring. 

Thank you to Steve and the rest of the EVS staff at Swarthmore. Your hard work is noted and appreciated!

Tony Agostilleni Jr.
Richard Tian and Olivia Vazquez

Tony Agostilleni Jr., [who] works at Sharples in the dish room, has been at Swarthmore for 36 years. During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Spring 2020 semester, Tony sprayed down tables in the Sharples dining hall when students were done eating. He continued to work on campus in the summer, washing pots and pans and laying down tables in the snack bar for three to four days a week. Tony’s favorite part of working at the college is his friends, who he often hangs out with. One of his friends is Nate Roy. Nate and Tony have been friends and working together since 1981. 

Prior to the pandemic, he enjoyed seeing students on campus going about their daily lives, as well as the various activities going on. Once the pandemic started, Tony missed seeing the large number of students before the pandemic hit. He hopes the class of 2020 is eventually able to have an in-person graduation. 

 During non-pandemic times, Tony would often go to the Swarthmore Public Library to play chess with his friends after work, as well as to the libraries on Sunday to play board games. He also enjoyed going for walks and [visiting] the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his sister. Despite the COVID-19 crisis, Tony is glad to be working during the pandemic. He wants to “keep on working” because he enjoys the time he spends with his co-workers and making friends with students. His sister Kathleen also works at Swarthmore in Public Safety as a Patrol and Communications officer. She has been at the college since 1996. Tony’s father also used to work at the college until his retirement.

Outside of work, Tony enjoys taking walks, cooking, and watching various television series such as Friends. He also likes to write and keeps a journal where he writes about himself and his friends (using pseudonyms). Along with writing, Tony also reads history books as well as The Bible. 

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