‘Far From Normal’
Employees who joined NC State during the COVID-19 pandemic reflect on their unique experiences and share what they most look forward to when the university resumes normal operations.
More than 2,500 permanent employees have started working at NC State since Jan. 1, 2020. Many of them gave interviews over Zoom, took virtual tours of their new workspaces and got to know their colleagues (as well as pets and families) through a computer screen.
It was an unusual time to start a new job, to say the least.
Here, six staffers share their personal stories of joining the Wolfpack community during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the NC State experiences they can’t wait to have in person.
A Bittersweet Homecoming
As an NC State alumna, Bailee Arnold was thrilled to return to her alma mater. But the circumstances when she joined the univeristy in October — and her transition to a new position — were tough.
“I lost my job because of COVID,” she says. “The company I was working for did not survive the pandemic economy, so I was basically rushed into a new world of office work overnight.”
As a swine extension program associate in the Department of Animal Science, Arnold brings a wealth of hands-on experience to her new position. She is accustomed to working outside around people and animals, and the initial shock of adjusting to office culture was made even more difficult by COVID-19 restrictions.
“It almost felt like I was a freshman again,” Arnold says. “I felt a little lost and unsure of myself. I came from an ‘essential’ position that didn’t slow down at all due to the pandemic. I was used to being surrounded by my employees every day. I went from that to being alone and only able to connect virtually.
“But I was unbelievably happy to be working at NC State,” she says. “I loved it from day one.”
Arnold says she especially appreciates the diversity of her new work environment.
“Though I did not get to meet co-workers in real life for quite some time, it is very nice to be working with a diverse community,” she says. “Connecting with people from various walks of life and cultures is really fun for me. I like learning new things, and there’s always something to learn from others.”
Above all, Arnold is excited for university operations to return to normal.
“Being at NC State feels like being home,” she says. “It’s comfortable and full of good memories.”
Redefining ‘Work From Home’
The first day of a new job can be awkward, maybe a little nerve-wracking. Imagine doing it from your childhood home.
Vanessa Bak, who lived this experience, describes it as “different, to say the least.”
She finished graduate school in May 2020, moved from Ohio to New York, then started work in September at NC State — from her parents’ home on Long Island.
“Luckily I was not the only person on my team to start that day, and it was nice to have someone else to learn the ropes with,” says Bak, a senior academic advisor in the Department of Biological Sciences. “On my first day, my team had a meeting in the morning and I was able to see everyone again for the first time since my interview. After that meeting, though, the only other people I saw that day were my parents, which is definitely a unique way to start a job.”
One of the biggest challenges of starting work during the pandemic, she says, has been relying solely on virtual communication. Google Chat has helped a lot, Bak says, in terms of learning the job and also getting to know her co-workers. But it can’t beat a quick walk down the hall to ask a question in person.
While she misses interacting with her colleagues and students in person, Bak points out one unexpected benefit of virtual meetings: meeting all of her co-workers’ pets via Zoom.
When normal campus operations resume, Bak says she most looks forward to experiencing NC State’s traditions.
“When I started my role I asked every student I met with to tell me about an NC State tradition I needed to know about, or where their favorite place to get food was,” she says. “I am excited to experience those traditions and learn more about the campus, and cross off all these great eateries on my ever-growing list.”
An Unusual First Year in Raleigh
Jessica Fundaro, who started her job as a clinical coordinator with the NC State Counseling Center in July 2020, describes her first day as “super weird.” She dressed up for the occasion — despite working from home — and got to know her supervisor and new co-workers through virtual meet-and-greets.
“I really appreciate the staff’s efforts to welcome and include me, while also having to balance their own challenges with transitioning their roles to the virtual space,” she says.
Fundaro’s co-workers also got to know her cat Lily, who became a bit of a Zoom celebrity with frequent appearances during their staff meetings.
Adapting her learning style for virtual work — especially “learning about technology over technology” — presented challenges for Fundaro, but she says the overall experience has been positive.
Having relocated from New York City to Raleigh just before starting work at NC State, Fundaro says she’s most looking forward to exploring her surroundings when she starts work on campus.
“The students I work with are always referencing different places and I really want to see what they’re all about to get a better picture of their on-campus life, activities and routines,” she says. “I’m also looking forward to starting and ending my day in different locations, which makes it easier to ‘leave work at work’ and transition out of work mode.”
Eager for the ‘Hustle and Bustle’
Ellen Hammond, an administrative support specialist in the College of Design, wasn’t surprised by the eerie quiet of her first day on the job in February. Having been a temporary worker in a different part of the college, she was well-acquainted with COVID-19 restrictions and the feeling of working in a nearly empty building.
While she says it can get lonely at times, she counts her blessings.
“I felt so fortunate and grateful to find an amazing job during the pandemic,” she says.
Hammond meets with her co-workers on Zoom, and has regular in-person interactions with her supervisor, who also reports to the office several days a week. She and her colleagues celebrate major life events over email, and she says she enjoys the glimpses of home life that virtual meetings can afford.
“The upside of meeting on Zoom is that I get to see and/or hear my colleagues’ children and pets, and that makes the meetings feel more homey,” Hammond says. “Another upside of all of this is that the pandemic is a collective, shared experience our university, state, country and world are facing together, and I’ve felt this spirit of ‘we’re in this together’ at NC State that I really appreciate.”
She says she looks forward to a new version of daily life at NC State.
“I’ve never experienced working at the College of Design with everyone fully on campus,” she says. “I haven’t experienced the hustle and bustle of full hallways or the students rotating through Student Services where I work. I look forward to seeing the students, faculty and staff that I serve, as well as my direct colleagues, face-to-face.”
The (Intended) NC State Experience
Marketing writer and social media manager Patrick Smith can officially add “rolls with the punches” to his professional skill set. Starting work in the Division of Academic and Student Affairs just a month before NC State shifted to remote operations required not only a change in physical location, but also a fresh mindset.
“As a marketer in higher ed, learning about your institution, its people and its traditions is such an important part of the job,” he says. “It’s hard to promote places and things you haven’t gotten to experience in person.”
Not being able to walk the campus and meet with students and colleagues in person slowed his transition into the new role, he says, but Zoom meetings and virtual check-ins helped him get to know the university.
His co-workers also managed to surprise him on his birthday with custom Zoom backgrounds during their morning check-in.
“I logged in and saw myself looking back on each of their screens, surrounded by confetti and bright colors,” Smith says. “It was really funny, surprising and thoughtful.”
As he prepares to return to campus this summer, Smith says he is really looking forward to experiencing NC State as he’d originally intended when he started work at the university.
“I can’t wait to go to football and basketball games, concerts and other events on campus, and to be able to safely socialize with my co-workers for team bonding experiences and happy hours,” he says. “I also really look forward to Port City Java reopening below my office in Park Shops. The constant smell of freshly brewed coffee and the sounds of student life in the building are two things I greatly miss from my first month here before COVID-19.”
‘Looking Forward to Normalcy’
Just one week after the fall 2020 semester kicked off, Briana Wilson joined NC State as an undergraduate program coordinator in the Department of English. She remembers how unusual it felt to walk through Tompkins Hall for the first time.
“I was very happy to be starting a new job — especially in the middle of the pandemic — but that day was far from normal,” she says. “The building was empty, cubicles looked like a ghost town, and workspaces still had March 2020 calendars up.”
But, she says, her supervisor gave her the full first-day experience.
“We took a tour, chatted about the job, and got to know each other a little better,” she says. “I remember how welcoming she was and how she made sure that I was comfortable in my new position.”
A transplant from Greensboro, North Carolina, Wilson says building community has been one of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic. When she started work at NC State, she reported to the office three days a week and enjoyed some overlap with her colleagues. But, she says, she can’t wait for the buildings to be full again.
“I’m mostly looking forward to normalcy,” she says. “Seeing people in the hallways, having daily conversations in-person, seeing classes happening in person … all of the things that we once took for granted are what I am mostly looking forward to being a part of.”
This post was originally published in NC State News.