On March 12, Whitman College President Kathy Murray announced that Whitman would be moving to online learning after spring break in response to COVID-19. That afternoon, the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) held two emergency meetings to brainstorm and discuss solutions for the problems that students might face as Whitman makes the transition to an online class structure. They created a comprehensive list of support projects to assist the student body in this time of crisis.
ASWC President Isaiah Banta gave The Wire an overview of the many projects they have been working on.
“We discussed the many needs that students might have in response to moving to online classes and the disruptions in student lives,” Banta said. “We came up with a huge list of projects. These are all the things that we have done and will continue to do.”
The largest of these projects is the ASWC Emergency Fund. It is designed to assist and support students who require financial assistance during and after the transition to online learning. The Fund is managed by Easton Powell ’20.
In an email released on March 12, ASWC stated that, “[The fund] will be geared towards students needing financial support for access to food, supplies and travel.”
Banta reiterated this, while also expounding certain aspects of the fund, including rent for students living off-campus.
“These funds would be allocated to helping students pay for plane tickets to get back home, boxes of essentials that need to be shipped back home or additional luggage costs,” Banta said. “We’ve also used it to pay for essential hygiene items, food and partial payments for rent for students who are housing insecure or who have lost their jobs in response to all this and have a high level of financial need.”
The other ASWC projects include, but are not limited to: travel support, including a ride share program that connects students to others who can bring them to the airport; creating a volunteer network; assisting with packing, storing and moving supplies; building an online support network and bolstering community; providing access to food and other essential resources; and improving and promoting mental health and wellness.
Banta told The Wire that Whitman’s Chief Financial Officer Peter Harvey and the Physical Plant allowed ASWC to use the suburbans and turtle-tops to transport at least 40 students to both the Walla Walla and Tri-Cities airports for free.
ASWC also formed a volunteer list, now consisting of more than 50 people, to assist with various tasks. The list is now managed by Cameron Connor ’20.
“We’ve called on those volunteers to do a number of tasks including sharing the resources that we have, such as the ride share and Emergency Fund, encourage social distancing and we even helped the Providence Hospital to clear out some rooms for additional beds. They also assisted with donation boxes at various locations on campus,” Banta said.
With these volunteers, ASWC initiated a food drive and set up donation spots in the Glover Aston Center (GAC) and outside of Reid. As students headed home, they were asked to donate any nonperishable food items to replenish the GAC food pantry.
ASWC’s volunteers also helped move off-campus students to other locations and replenish supplies in the residence halls.
“We provided the vehicle assistance for moving large boxes. We provided the boxes and packing tape if they need that since a lot of the stock in Walla Walla had gone away,” Banta said. “We had someone drive to Pasco to buy all of those. We delivered some essential hygiene items such as toilet paper and soap to both off-campus students and professors who didn’t have any because the store stocks were out.”
Whitman Events Board (WEB) Chair and senior Blake Killingsworth and senior Andy Burnstein collaborated on community building during this period of social distancing. In an email to The Wire, they discussed the partnership between ASWC and WEB to create online events for Whitman students under the initiative “Whitman Virtual Campus,” an online platform on which students can share videos and creations, as well as watch virtual performances.
“We had a couple initial meetings to envision how we want to maintain the close knit community that is so essential to the Whitman experience while much of the student body is away from campus,” Killingsworth said. “Inspired by the creative energy and ideas of Whitman students that was already taking shape on Facebook and other social media platforms, we decided to launch a talent share platform where students can submit videos that are instructional and/or feature a talent.”
Killingsworth discussed the importance of community building during the implementation of social distancing.
“I couldn’t accept that just because classes went online we couldn’t continue to have community-building initiatives … I hope that students are inclined to participate in the Talent Share and Whitman Virtual Campus more generally and recognize its importance,” Killingsworth said. “Now more than ever it’s important to harness Whitman students’ creative energy and provide sources of entertainment and comfort.”
Burnstein also offered his opinion.
“I can only speak for myself, but I am heavily feeling the loss of the rest of this semester, and I can’t imagine I’m alone … it is incredibly hard. It’s almost like going through a breakup,” Burnstein said. “So, I was particularly passionate about this project, because — if you follow this relationship metaphor — it’s sort of a way for us to do long-distance. For the next couple months, we’re all kind of in one massive long-distance relationship with each other, and when that’s the case, you want to do as many projects and have as many shared experiences together as possible.”
Burnstein and Killingsworth hope that students will take time to submit a video for the Talent Share and participate in the Whitman Virtual Campus for the remainder of the semester.
“Whitman students are so creative, talented and compassionate, so we hope there is a lot of buy-in and growth of this project,” Killingsworth said. “While it’s just several students who are launching this project, its success and use is by and for the entire student body and it is our collective energy that we hope to harness.”
Senior Nikki Delgado took on the challenge of promoting and supporting mental health and wellness as part of the ASWC initiative.
“I believe taking care of our mental health should be an integral part of our lives, especially since our mental health largely influences how we feel, think and behave, which is why I wanted to get involved with the ASWC Mental Health and Wellness project,” Delgado said.
While it is always important to focus on mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a situation in which maintaining mental health is paramount.
“Feeling anxiety, stress and grief about the COVID-19 situation is natural,” Delgado said. “It is okay to feel scared or confused with everything going on, especially since our lives have been altered in a multitude of ways. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, but it is ultimately important to take care of ourselves and those around us to make our community stronger.”
ASWC, in cooperation with WEB and other student resources at Whitman, ultimately hopes to support the student community as it engages in social distancing and online learning.
“As things get hard, we can all be there for each other by being a community and taking care of the collective,” Burnstein said. “That community and care-taking can look like a lot of different things; it can be TikToks to lift our spirits, it can be poetry that moves us or it can be reaching out to a community member who you know is going through a hard time and just being there for them and sitting with their pain.”
“All I know is that without community, individuals will have to bear their struggle alone, and that is a cruel injustice,” he added. “If Whitman can come together even while we are apart, we can lift each other up with love, empathy, joy and solidarity.”