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CAUS Responds to COVID-19

A New Normal for Students, Faculty, and Alumni

As the COVID-19 pandemic made its way into communities near and far and ushered the world into a ‘new normal,’ the college has adjusted accordingly. Life may look different these days, but one thing hasn’t changed: the incredible creativity, ingenuity, and dedication of our CAUS family.

Students Settle In

All Virginia Tech students transitioned to online instruction beginning on March 23. How did students adjust to the shift, especially those in programs that rely on a rich studio culture? Although remote classes and limited campus access certainly came with challenges, CAUS students persevered through the difficulties and tried to establish new rhythms that balanced their academic progress alongside mental and physical wellbeing.

Architecture students Gates Breeden, Connor Brown, and Nicole Gallini created a video (above) to demonstrate their typical “day-in-the-life” routine under social distancing guidelines. The three roommates, isolating in their Blacksburg apartment, attended virtual work critiques, converted their dining room table into a shared studio desk, and tuned in to remote faculty lectures from their living room sofa. They also took mid-day yoga breaks and decided to tackle nightly communal meals as a design challenge, creating new dishes and trying recipes together. The group established a sanctuary for recharging on their apartment balcony and ended their nights with competitive games of Settlers of Catan.

While some students finished out the semester from apartments in Blacksburg, many returned to their family homes in other Virginia cities, states, or countries. In their new work (or learn) from home culture, students created functional and design-savvy workstations in whatever spaces – and with whatever materials – they could find.

Fifth-year architecture student Sydney Garwood completed the semester and her time as a Virginia Tech student from a desk in her Blacksburg studio apartment (above, upper left). She missed her studio in Burchard Hall, but she also learned to appreciate the comforts of working from home. “I’ve been having Zoom meetings and virtual pinups with my thesis advisor, and although it has been an adjustment, I think we’ve adapted well,” she said. “It’s not the ending to the semester I had expected, but I’m just trying to make the most of it.”

Students managed to make do. Second-year architecture student Lelan Yung kept a record player and guitar close to his studio desk (above, upper right) at home in Cary, North Carolina, for music-filled breaks. Industrial design student Oriana Nordt found a calming corner with ample views of the greenery outside (above, lower right), while building construction student Sarah Stubeck created a desk from makeshift materials at her family’s home in New Jersey (above, lower left).

“I never had a desk in high school because I’d always do my homework at my dining room table,” said Stubeck. “But now my dad has taken over that space as his home office, so I had to improvise.”

A virtual end to the semester meant students, especially graduating Hokies, found creative ways to study, celebrate, and participate in CAUS rites of passage.

SPIA students, missing the camaraderie of campus and classes, organized an impressive lineup of SPIA student socials over Zoom. These virtual get-togethers included poetry readings, happy hour hangouts, and finals study sessions. Fifth-year architecture thesis students saw the finalist presentations for the school’s prestigious Pella Prize for design excellence migrate online, while SOVA seniors celebrated their senior show, typically held in the Sherwood Payne Quillen ’71 Reception Gallery at the Moss Arts Center, through a carefully crafted virtual exhibit. And you can bet MLSoC seniors wouldn’t miss their hardhatting ceremony, regardless of format. The May 14 online celebration included messages of encouragement from faculty and welcomed over 200 virtual attendees.

Senior photos, of course, were still a must for many, as demonstrated by architecture student Megan Kelly (above left) and construction engineering and management student Daniel Whitley (above right). Though students weren’t able to attend a typical ceremony in Lane Stadium, Virginia Tech’s virtual commencement ceremony on May 15 included messages from Miss America 2020 and Class of 2018 alumna Camille Schrier, former defensive coordinator Bud Foster, and university distinguished professor Nikki Giovanni.

Faculty Shift Their Focus

In the weeks following spring break, CAUS faculty quickly shifted their focus to moving classes online – which is no small task, even in the best of circumstances. In the early days of the transition, faculty and staff across the four schools met virtually to discuss their needs, setbacks, and the path forward before students “returned” to classes (as seen in the Zoom screenshot above from one such MLSoC meeting).

Despite the challenges of remote learning, especially for courses that typically involve site visits, desk critiques, and capstone presentations, faculty and students rose to the occasion. Initial anecdotal reports indicate that faculty saw an all-time high in student attendance for this spring’s virtual classes.

With the world searching for reliable information on how to adjust to the effects of the pandemic, CAUS faculty also stepped up to serve as experts on specific topics and issues related to COVID-19.

Lisa Tucker, professor and chair of the interior design program, teamed up with Akshay Sharma, associate professor and chair of the industrial design program, to offer design tips on how to construct an at-home workstation that could optimize productivity, health, and wellbeing. Sharma provided tips on how to make the most of videoconferencing platforms, while Tucker emphasized posture and encouraged workers to stay as active as possible during extended periods of sitting. “If you can, stand during long hours of virtual meetings for a variation in posture,” she recommended. “And position your workstation to look out a window to limit screen time – a view of nature is restorative, if you can have one.” Tucker’s expertise was featured on WFXR Roanoke (above left) and several other local outlets.

SPIA associate professor Stephanie Smith, whose research focuses on agenda setting in the global health arena, cautioned that preparing for another pandemic shouldn’t be the only order of business in the aftermath of COVID-19. Instead, she argued that nations should seek to address long-standing chronic conditions like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and asthma that have made COVID-19 so deadly for high-risk populations – which are disproportionately minority and low-income. “We shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture here,” Smith told KOMO News Seattle (upper right). “In a typical year, 85 percent of global mortality is caused by non-communicable diseases.”

Hear more from Smith during the college’s upcoming webinar, “Getting our health priorities straight: COVID-19 and beyond,” scheduled for June 9. You can register here.

Other CAUS faculty and staff turned to assisting with local campus and community efforts. The Center for Design Research chipped in to a broader Virginia Tech initiative to produce in-house personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. In work led by A+D staff members Mark Leach and Jonathan Rugh and thanks in part to donations from the Home Depot, the CDR has made and distributed approximately 100 face shields and is currently in the process of scaling up to produce more units for first responders and hospital personnel. Recipients of the equipment include the Montgomery County Department of Social Services as well as the Blacksburg and Christiansburg Rescue Squads.

In the photo above (left), A+D students Cole Powell and Gabriella Perry discuss design optimization of COVID-19 face shields with professor Alexander Leonessa and student Liam Chapin of the Terrestrial Robotics Engineering and Controls Lab.

Faculty also found creative ways to share words of encouragement and congratulations with the Class of 2020. On behalf of the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA) Design Educators Community, Meaghan Dee, assistant professor and chair of graphic design, encouraged graduating seniors to take time to be sad, proud, and joyful of their final months and overall accomplishments (above right). Ralph Hall, associate professor and director of undergraduate programs for SPIA, filmed and posted a celebratory video for SPIA graduating seniors as an accompaniment to the university’s virtual commencement ceremony.

Alumni Share Their Creative Expertise

Forced into social distancing, alumna Carrie Frye (’94), an interior designer in Charlotte, North Carolina, and alumnus Aric Gitomer (’84), an architect in Morris Plains, New Jersey, were like millions of other people. They were self-isolated, working from home with their families, searching for a space where they could be productive, and seeking inspiration to help them get through an unprecedented time.

Through the fatigue of social isolation and mounting questions over what the summer and fall will look like, CAUS alumni are turning to their creative expertise to help others.

Millions of people have converted dining rooms, bedrooms, basements, and any quiet corner of their homes into office space. Carrie Frye, owner of Carrie Frye Interior Design, naturally relied on her design understanding of how to create spaces and places as a way to solve the home office problem (above left). Frye turned to her company blog and social media to share her expertise through four tips for the unplanned home office in an effort to help others find ways to be productive while working from home.

Aware of an amplified need for respite and creative encouragement, Aric Gitomer, owner of Aric Gitomer Architect LLC, was inspired by some of the top Instagram influencers around the world in the fields of design and architecture (above right). He reached out to those influencers and posed the question: What is it that surprises you most about architecture? His question resulted in “15 Ways to Escape Virtually into Architecture,” published in Architect Magazine.

“I hope the design community can gain newfound inspiration and insight into our profession during this extraordinary time – and remember how our work can matter to those around us,” Gitomer said.

Like Frye and Gitomer, many CAUS alumni, students, and faculty are putting their creativity to work to help or making art to get through this difficult time. We’re collecting creativity from our college community on our website as a space to connect with each other. If you would be interested in having your creativity shared and promoted, please send an email to causalumni@vt.edu.

Carrie Frye (above left) Aric Gitomer (above right, after completing a Tuscany bike trip this past year) are two CAUS alums lending their creative voices and expertise to the COVID-19 conversation.