On March 30, 2020, UTD resumed classes after an extended spring break – and everything about being a college student instantly changed. From attending class to engaging with faculty and friends or even taking exams, college life was suddenly unfamiliar for both students and faculty.
What students did not know, however, was that the University survived and thrived during the pandemic because of the sacrifices made by an endless number of hidden heroes who worked all hours of the day, night and weekend to make sure that students and faculty had what they needed.
Running a university is like managing the supply chain of a major corporation. When the pandemic hit, every aspect of our operations had to be reinvented and communicated to students, faculty, university leaders and even our community stakeholders.
UTD Registrar Jennifer McDowell and her team reconfigured everything from course modalities, class schedules and registration processes to class sizes and physical spaces. They also implemented the constantly changing academic policies around grading, enrollment and probation — just to name a few. The Office of Financial Aid dispersed huge amounts of federal COVID-19 aid to help students with bills, tuition and expected financial hardships. The Bursar Office worked with students to help manage tuition payments, loans and financial delays. The Comet Cupboard – led by staff in the Office of Undergraduate Education – worked throughout the pandemic to distribute donated food to thousands of students, while unheralded staff members volunteered their time to hand out food from a parking garage stall. The Office of Information Technology and eLearning teams pushed out new technology to help faculty deliver online courses, while technology groups inside each school came to the office every day to resolve even the most complicated issues for faculty.
Academic advisors were on the front line tending to students who were more comfortable with face-to-face service, while staff in the International Students and Scholars Office, led by Josephine Vitta, made sure that the pipeline of future international students received their I-20s and got their CPT and OPT paperwork approved. Enrollment management staff in central administration and colleagues inside each school made every effort to not let the pandemic derail the recruitment of new students for upcoming semesters. This took extraordinary effort without a single face-to-face event or in-person recruiting experience. Departmental staff were constantly crafting marketing messages and helping deliver endless webinars to prospective and current students. Others managed the daily needs of students in their designated degree programs. The Student Health Center and the OEMCP constantly monitored COVID testing, contact tracing and social distancing for every person on campus.
Critical staff came to the rescue of hundreds of students on campus who experienced the harshest winter storms in the history of North Texas during the pandemic. Our facilities and maintenance teams kept our buildings clean to ensure a safe learning environment. Even the University grounds maintenance crews were beautifying the campus with newly landscaped areas and entrance signage so we would have a lovely place to return to. And finally, we cannot forget our UTD Police force that worked 24/7 and was relentless in its effort to protect the campus community.
These are only some of the hidden heroes among us. There are dozens more whose sacrifices helped our university survive a pandemic and who continue to commit themselves every day to beating COVID-19. We are fortunate to have these heroes, and on behalf of a grateful university, I join with many others in thanking them for their service, commitment, kindness and resolve. Because of them, faculty could do their jobs, students could continue their education and the University could flourish. A few words of gratitude here can never do justice to the sacrifices that have been made on behalf of us all, but hopefully a moment of recognition will encourage students and faculty to acknowledge the contributions of our staff with a nod, a smile or a kind and generous thank you.