Elizabeth Lowenger, Interviewed by Sara Danbrook
What was your job when the pandemic started and how long had you been in this position?
So, I’m the manager of student affairs at OVC. I started at the OVC in 2004 but I initially was the alumni manager and then I started this job. I think I have been in this exact position since 2008.
What are some of your responsibilities, what are some things you do day to day?
Wow! Day to day is always different, but I do quite a few things here. I’m the advisor for the Future Vets Club which is one of the biggest clubs on campus with about 400 members. I help them organize their events and attend their meetings. I run the recruitment for the vet school, international and domestic. I help people understand the admissions process, I’m ex-officio on the admissions committee, I help run the interview process for the virtual personal entries for the vet school. I recruit the assessors, I run Orientation for the incoming class in September. I help the students with big events, things like family and friends’ day, discover vet school, all those things I help run smoothly. I help run the peer helpers. I run some events like the professional welcome ceremony in September and the white coat ceremony in the winter semester in March/April.
Wow, you wear a lot of hats, clearly!
Ha! And I run the awards competitions too.
You’re busy, that’s fantastic! So how did the initial Covid-19 shutdown affect you?
We had to really scramble because I had a couple events planned and I was like okay I guess we can't do these events anymore. The white coat ceremony was normally around that time, and we had to really scramble and do a distribution of the white coats without the ceremony and we did a virtual ceremony using people's pictures. At that time, we were all kind of new to the technology and we had never run a big event online before, so we were like, “okay so what do we use? Zoom? Teams? I don't know. I've never done this before!” So, it was a real scramble but now we’re pros! That was the first big fork in the road, that we have to be all virtual. How do we do an event for 200/300 people? That was challenging.
How did your position change, was it just navigating those Zoom calls and Microsoft Teams and making all those adjustments to events?
I think that one of the things that changed a lot was my ability to reach out to the students. A lot of it was reaching out electronically or meeting with them virtually but you know, I walk around a little bit through the vet school and sometimes I'll see someone and chat with them. That really changes the experience they have of the vet school because it’s much more personal. It was much harder to try to get people involved. We wanted to have club events, but it had to be virtual so people kind of tuned out after a bit because people seemed to have enough of looking at their screens, they didn’t want to do that anymore.
Fair enough! So when people started returning to campus, how did that change your work again?
Well, that was exciting, right? Now it was about “do we really need to do things in person because it’s more accessible to do stuff virtually?” So, there’s that whole argument about accessibility and making people travel to go to somewhere for a meeting rather than just doing it virtually. We ended up changing a lot of things to hybrid which I think was fantastic. Personally, I have some mobility issues so for me it was a great leap forward which hopefully would’ve happened anyway, but it was an improvement in terms of accessibility. For me it was just that I had to be by my computer and I’m at the meeting! I can go to one meeting to another in a minute, I think it was coming anyway but it really forced us to do things much quicker. I love working remotely and I’m a bit of an introvert so it was nice to have the option of working in sweatpants (laugh). I really enjoyed it and I think some of the struggle too was technology so thankfully I had a pretty good laptop, but my microphone was crappy so one of my supervisors told me they’re ordering me a new microphone because it wasn’t working. That was great and they shipped it to my address and it worked, it was fantastic! Another great thing that happened was that not everybody hears as well as another person and with Teams especially, you can on your own request live captions and no one has to know that you need them, no request from the host is needed. I love it because I could make the volume really loud and do the captioning because even now some people still wear masks so if you read lips, it’s impossible! I love the live captions. I have to say, the live captions are not the best but you can make it out for the most part. There was a lot of frustration on the students’ part because a lot of our curriculum is working with animals, so a lot of the hands-on stuff wasn’t available to them. We still did it, but we had to do social distancing and masking and it was a whole thing. So now, people are excited and happy to be back. We still are doing stuff hybrid so if people want to be distanced, they can be. What I’ve noticed that is really fun is that before Covid, the Future Vets Club would plan social events and there would be like a handful of people and now there’s tons of people, almost too many people! Everyone wants to see each other now; everyone missed each other and missed the social interaction. It may eventually go back that way.
I feel like especially those people who started in Covid, like my first couple years were distance education and now I want to meet the people I’m always on Zoom calls with and that I’m always emailing with. I think it’s really good that we all are getting back out there. We’re eager to meet our peers and faculty. You touched on it briefly about the masks and social distancing, but what was the process in making these safety decisions since you guys are so hands-on at the OVC?
I don’t make the decisions; I hear about what the decisions are. One thing that was interesting is when the people are first in the class, when they accept their offers, we have all the first year incoming students to the vet program, we give them an entrance survey with all kinds of questions like their background in terms of what animals they are used to working with, what have they taken that would help them in the vet program, all of those things. We like to do what we call practice groups of ten people where there’s at least one person in each group who’s a cow person, a horse person, someone who knows a lot of anatomy, a lot of physio, or a lot of biochem so there’s at least one person who can support the others in first year with all the stuff they have to do. During Covid we still had to make groups, but we had to base it first on bubbles, bubbles of interaction. People who were living together or interacting together had to be in a group together which meant that we couldn’t do the same thing we used to do where it was balanced around expertise, it was more proximity and interaction. It was honestly not great for the class I don’t think because I want them to reach out and meet more people and meet more of their colleagues. Before, we used to purposefully not put people together that were already friends, so they were forced to work with people that were new and different which offered interesting perspectives. Another thing was that they did have to be here, and we had international students coming in from China who couldn’t even get here for first year, so we had to pivot and get them to take the theory-based course material first and tell them they needed to try to make it here by the end of the term to get all the lab portions done. For the people that were local we did the labs, but we used to do 30 people at a time in the labs and then it had to be less. We had to do the labs more often so people could be socially distanced.
So, the labs would obviously take the same amount of time, but if you need to have triple the amount of sessions, how does the staffing work? They’d be in the lab all day long!
Yes, it meant a lot more work for the people who were running it.
How did you personally feel about going back to work?
Mixed! I’m actually still hybrid, I’m here for three and home for two days. I think there’s plusses and minuses. My personal comfort level coming back was a bit resistant. What I really realized was that I missed those hallway conversations and just being able to chat with somebody about something and get an answer right away rather than emailing and waiting or trying to schedule a meeting. It’s amazing what you can get in a hallway conversation, some insight you never would’ve gotten. It’s a real plus to be able to be around the students because I can help them when they need it and they can find me easily. I find that the part of my job that I really enjoy is that interaction, screening the students and interacting with them. The faculty too, they’re pretty amazing. Because I do recruitment, I’ve always travelled a bit. Before Covid I was actually pioneering virtual conferences. I would always say that it’s more environmentally conscious to do a virtual conference as I don’t need to travel, I can give the same information! I would rather not have to travel two hours to Mississauga or wherever and do a presentation than just hop on the computer and give a talk and answer questions. Then it can be recorded for those who couldn’t make it. I was trying to do that already. Most of the market for international students for us is in the US, so this meant I didn’t have to travel around the US. It wasn’t as interactive for sure, and it was better for my body to not have to travel too much but it is also fun to travel. Now, I’m travelling to Kentucky at the end of March, and I’ve taken care of the hotels and flights and I’m stressed because I don’t know if I’ll be stuck in an airport somewhere, so virtual was great because I didn’t have to worry about that. I only had to worry about my laptop working properly. I’ve had pretty good Wi-Fi, so it’s been okay.
What was the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for you?
I think the biggest challenge was balancing productivity with feeling very isolated. I don’t think my productivity went down, if anything it went up because I wasn’t interrupted by people coming to my door so that was good, but I missed that interaction. Even as an introvert, once and awhile it’s good to have people around to chat with and to bounce ideas off of. That spontaneous interaction wasn’t possible. I guess that would’ve been the biggest challenge. I do have to say that there were people on my team that were extroverts, and you could tell who they were because they would cry at meetings, they were so lonely and I could not really relate to that because I was enjoying the comfort of my home. My quality of life was good, I probably got less exercise and the amount of money I saved by not driving and not parking was fantastic!
I was going to ask what aspects of pandemic life were good for you, but it seems like we just covered that, so how did Covid-19 impact your friends and family?
First of all, if you’re going to talk to anyone in the vet school, you should also be asking about their animals. My animals got so used to me being there every day that they got very clingy. I have an elderly cat, a young cat and a dog and the elderly cat cries now when I stay home to work because she’s like “where were you the other day!?” It’s hard because I’ll be in a meeting and she’ll be meowing at me. I’ve been in meetings where people’s cats just jump on the table and come onto the camera and it is quite funny. The other piece was that my son was finishing his bachelors’ degree when Covid hit so it was a whole thing for us having two people using the technology at the same time in the same house, but I think that he too didn’t mind staying home. The technology piece was a challenge for both of us, but we got through it, and I don’t think it was too bad, but I think that you miss networking opportunities sometimes when you’re virtual and it is not the same in the virtual space. I think that is an important part that we missed, not a lot of opportunities to network, it’s important for what I do, and my son didn’t have much opportunity to network with potential employers before he graduated. I became a bit of a hermit to be honest, I only went out when I had to, to get groceries and stuff like that. Yeah, I think that I developed a better appreciation for nature because hiking and walking we didn’t have to worry about distancing unless you were with other people. It was a nice break from isolation to go out and just do some hiking or sit in the garden and appreciate all the lovely plants, so that was nice.
As you said, your son was at home during the pandemic finishing up his bachelor’s degree, I’m sure it was great to spend extra time with him.
Yes, but unfortunately he missed out on experiential learning. Like in the vet school, all students need to complete veterinary volunteering or working with a vet and I would get e-mails every day asking what to do because vets weren’t accepting volunteers. The whole veterinary profession took a huge hit during Covid because it was so hard, you couldn’t go into the vet with your animal. Someone picked them up at the door and if your pet was anxious which a lot of them are, it was tough for the owner and the pet. Anyways, a lot of people who were hoping to apply to the program were having issues getting hours. My son had set up in his last semester, he was hoping to be working with someone in their lab and that totally fell through so what was he going to do? He wasn’t able to get that experience. He graduated without it and then trying to get that experience a year later once Covid settled a bit, you’re competing against current students. It was really tough.
Absolutely. So, it’s a continuing conversation, but how did the pandemic change your life if you look back to where you were three years ago?
It changed my personal life in a big way. I am a widow, my husband passed in 2017 so I had started to see someone who worked in the service industry, and it was about a year into the relationship that Covid happened and he lost his job. Like so many other people, he didn’t know how he was going to be able to pay his rent, feed his dog. I fell in love with that dog too (laugh)! He didn’t think he was going to be able to afford the dog anymore and he would have to get rid of him and I said that he’s not doing that. I told him he is moving into my house. Luckily, I have an apartment in my basement, so I told him to bring his stuff and the dog and move in and try to find a local job to do during Covid. So, he did! That really changed my life, I hadn’t anticipated him moving into the house, but it turned out well. He’s quite the handy guy so he fixes everything and he’s a great cook, so he cooks a lot of meals. He lives downstairs and I live upstairs so it all worked out okay! I got to enjoy his dog for a couple years so that was really lovely, she was incredible, I miss her so much. I also became handier with using virtual technology like for meetings and I think I also realized how much I missed some of my family and friends because I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t go home to Montreal; I didn’t go home for over two years, and I grew up there so all my long-term friends were there. When I finally went back for the first-time last summer, I just couldn’t believe how much I missed people. I mean I did do a lot of the virtual chats and Facebook and that kind of stuff, but it doesn’t replace a hug. So, fortunately covid changed my son’s life because I ended up expressing my need for hugs, so he needed to hug me at least twice a day, every day which he would complain about! He was my victim unfortunately. I’m trying to think if there was anything else major, I didn’t go out as much as I said and as a scientist, I found a lot of the anti-vax stuff drove me absolutely crazy, it made me so angry. I never directly went online and fought back but a couple of people I was friends on Facebook with started with stuff and I said sorry I can’t, how are you helping anybody? That happened, and I realized I guess I have a certain intolerance for people who don’t accept science.
Do you feel like you gained more of an appreciation for your job and working with animals and students face to face? Did your perspective on your career change at all?
Some of our students, not all of them, became very frustrated with their schooling in general which wasn’t anything we could help. But it was frustrating because they felt like they weren’t getting the quality of education that they’d like and there’s nothing we could really do to make it more interactive because we weren’t allowed to interact! Some of the students chose to be quite verbal about their discontent and we had a few town-halls with them where they were allowed to bring up their issues and we could talk about them and see what we can do but we ended up having some complainers and it was a little disheartening because we were trying our best and it was a “we and them” rather than “we and us” and I’m not a “we and them” kind of person. The administration are people too, we are trying our best to make this as good of an experience as we can and they’re not understanding and appreciating what we are trying to do. They were still angry and venting and just not being very nice to us, so I think that that was all a bit disheartening. It wasn’t everybody and I do really appreciate all the positive interactions I have with students and faculty and staff, I remember when we were back in the winter semester there were still some restrictions about numbers and such - it was Valentine’s Day and I thought I would do something fun so I filled a basket of individually wrapped chocolate hearts and I wheeled it around and gave out Valentine’s Day candy to lighten the mood. At one point I was outside of a classroom and the class had ended and a whole bunch of students swarmed me for the chocolate which was fine, but they were supposed to be social distancing. I said to them please remember to social distance, everyone will get their turn but people were excited. Someone complained. However, they didn’t complain to me, they complained to my boss. My boss understood I had good intentions and didn’t want to crush my spirits, but I learned that I won’t be doing that again anytime soon.
It's crazy to think that only a couple years ago, no one would bat an eye about that.
Exactly, it was a bit of a learning curve there. I just wished that the person would’ve felt like they could’ve come to me about it rather than going directly to my supervisor. Everyone is struggling, everyone is frustrated and how that expresses in behaviour comes out in different ways. It’s not just the students, it’s also the faculty and staff. Not everyone handles change as well, so we have to keep that in mind. If you’ve been doing the same job for a decade and you’re used to doing it a certain way and someone says sorry that’s not going to work anymore, you have to be able to roll with it.
I think for anyone, it takes an adjustment period. My final question is that you work a lot with students, what have you observed to be the biggest impact on them and their educational experience?
Well, like I said, we do not always appreciate how important the social piece and the hands-on piece is to students. We know that in the vet program, hands-on is really important but the social piece too, people were really struggling and feeling alone and isolated so I think that we have to remember that we’re all social creatures and even a little interaction you have with someone during the day that is positive can make a big difference.
Do you have anything else to add about your Covid experience?
I’m really happy we had the on-site vaccination clinics. It made my life a lot easier. I think that it was great, and I do think that they did a good job telling us what the rules were and how far we could push getting people together, but I think that it could’ve been clearer when we first started coming back what was allowed and what wasn’t. People were confused about the numbers, there was a number where if there was that many people in a class it had to be virtual, I want to say around 25 or something which I found a bit confusing. I think there could’ve been more support from the university on how to run a large event virtually because we were just left to figure it out on our own. I had a lot of events to run, and I didn’t know what I was doing! I think Claire Alexander did a good job especially around convocation and trying to make that work. Now there’s a Teams group for all of the event organizers on campus because of what happened so I think we have to understand that this is going to impact our ability to interact with the public and our donors, not just student and staff. There’s a whole community we service too.