Stephanie Craig, Interviewed by Jack White
Can you explain to me your job and position at the OAC?
Sure. So, I am the Communications Manager of the Ontario Agricultural College, but I work within the Dean's office with the administrative unit that manages all 6 units, and there's technically two campuses. So, I support communications across the college.
Great. Now take me through a day-to-day operation in your position.
There isn't a typical day to day, there's a lot of project management and a lot of critical thinking creativity to communicate internally to our stake holders. So, letting them know about important information, creating a sense of community with the team, making sure the team has the resources they need to communicate about our programs and our research. I do a lot of collaboration with people within the Dean's office but also with our academic units, our regional campus within the Ridgetown Campus. There's a little computer work, lots of meetings and teams calls and things like that, and we work on basically creating internal and external communication pieces.
Great. Yeah, so that’s pretty much how I would understand your job. It sounds pretty interesting, and I am very happy that I can interview someone that isn't completely boring and has nothing to offer!
Haha, well you never know let's see how it goes.
So that is pretty much how your day would work. Now talking about your day-today operations, how would they have been different during COVID?
So, a lot of the job functions haven't changed, it's just about where I am physically sitting.
No that’s good, yeah.
I've worked remotely since the start of the pandemic. Prior to that I would've come into the office every single day and worked in my office in Johnston Hall. Meetings would've been in person, whereas now they are always on teams calls and you know there would be a little more office chat versus chat on teams which was the main function, but the actual function of the day-to-day job from now to prior is very similar. There was a lot of pivoting initially in working on communications about covid and about keeping people safe and building a sense of community. Initially some of that has remained but for the most part we’re back to original operations.
That’s good to hear. What would you label as the biggest change between COVID and now. If you could name one big change that affected your job and your life what would that be?
It’s just being at home I think, and just working at home, making video calls, being comfortable with video calls, that’s probably the biggest shift. You know not seeing people in person but now it feels the exact same thing essentially. I am an introvert so to be honest this is like my ideal-
Yeah, half and half.
To see people but to not have the awkward office chat, yeah.
Yeah, well this interview is not going to be all about your occupation, its gonna be about you, right?
So, getting away from your job more or less, how did COVID affect your life? Your family, your friends, how did that affect your life?
I think that in the time since the pandemic to now, I was living with my boyfriend at the time, we got married, we’ve had a baby, that baby is now two. There has been a lot of fundamental life switches within the pandemic period.
Oh wow! That is a big change.
Yeah so I think that is a normal big change for anyone's life but with the covid with it all, perhaps makes all of that, it was all a little layer of challenging, right so you know like the wedding isn't like a big thing as it was my second wedding, like weddings are weddings, but the idea of figuring out a relationship where you see that person all the time-
-everyday, in and out and you don’t have normal you know, you haven't figured out your normal social interactions with friends so that person becomes your main conduit. So that's challenging just to work through, to navigate and grow in, and then being pregnant prior to vaccinations and when all the lockdowns were still happening, it was kind of scary you know you heard a lot of awful things were happening to a lot of pregnant people, and also navigating being a new parent when you don’t have your normal support system.
People can't just like come and help you with a baby, that’s been a challenge as well.
I had a follow-up question and I think you already answered that, with that really good answer. More or less did you an anchor during time, right?
Because when COVID originally hit, because it's my first year at Guelph, I was in grade 10 going into grade 11 during the lockdown so I was living with my mom and dad at the time, and I had a dog and her name's Carly. I would say that she was more or less my anchor, just walking her and having her in the household and having that sense of relief during that time, that was my anchor in my opinion. Did you have one for you? A pet or anyone like that?
Well, we have a dog, and obviously my husband would be my main anchor, but I also think that food was an anchor, there was normalcy in food planning, right? Or like planning meals and grocery shopping in big bulk, that gave a sense of normalcy to some degree or some sense of excitement right because you had nothing else to look for, and for the first essentially 6 months of my son's life we were essentially locked down because he was so vulnerable. So having something to look forward to as small as it might be, if like Tacos versus whatever, that was an anchor for normalcy or anchor for pleasure if that makes sense.
That’s a great answer. Your lavender garden!
It's Lavender, right? Just wanted to make sure. Were you gardening your lavender back then or is it more of a new hobby?
It was a plot the year prior. So, we had done a test plot and some proven concepts with products leading up to the fall or the fall prior to the pandemic and then I had ordered a whole bunch of plants, like 2000 plants to be planted in the spring of 2020.
So, we had all of these planting party plans, we had all of this, we weren't going to do it all ourselves. All of our friends were going to come and help. We ended up doing a lot of it with my family because my family farms as well and doing it all at a distance.
Which now looking back is kind of crazy, because the risk was so low back then but that’s fine. We went from a test plot to a real lavender farm in that time.
My dad gardens back home and we have a lot of Lavendar in our backyard, and I wanted to touch on that because I remember seeing that email.
Where is home for you?
I am from Mississauga, Ontario.
Nice. Very Good.
It's not farmland but we have a little backyard, and he likes planting and stuff. Your background was so fitting to my next question, right?
Okay, Haha yup.
So you were in person, then lockdown hit, then you were virtual?
Did you return back to an in-person environment-
Not really no.
-or has it always been virtual? Oh okay.
Because what happened is during the time of transition back to the office was that I was on maternity leave. So, I was on parental leave, and I wasn’t there so there was a little span of 6 months where people would return back to the office. Then Johnston Hall was under significant renovations for the last year. There wasn’t a place for me to go. There is a place where I would go once a week sort of thing, like my office, but there was a major construction project that basically stopped that as well. My return to normalcy was delayed because of all these other little factors.
Yeah, there's a large part of change when it comes to how COVID-19 and the lockdown affected you and that’s really amazing and really interesting yeah. For me when it comes to COVID-19 lockdown. I was a pretty introverted high school student. I knew a lot of kids like me weirdly enjoyed aspects of COVID-19-
You can just be inside and be to yourself and go to school and blah blah blah.
In a way for people like me there were positives but there were also negatives, because I wanted to go out and see people. Were there more positives than negatives for you with covid?
I think that I have an extreme amount of privilege in covid. I had an employer that was understanding. I have the financial means, or a secure job and I have financial means where I wasn’t pressured to be doing anything unsafe. I have family who are close by although I could not physically touch, I could see them and be supported. I am in a healthy supportive relationship so I think that I didn’t experience the same amount of hardships that a lot of folks did, so I think I should acknowledge how much privilege I had in the context of the pandemic. I think that as an introvert it affected me less for sure. It still affects relationships because I'm sure you have some extroverted friends, right? Those people struggled and as an introvert I don’t know if I was as empathetic to seeing some of the friendship deteriorate or seeing that person struggle. There are relationship challenges that have come with covid.
I think just in general there were people that were struggling so that makes it harder, but I would say that I was affected perhaps a lot less than others.
Yeah, I was just about to touch on that person fact. Before covid you had all these relationships with people that you could see all the time, but when covid hit, you were so introverted in your little box, and the true relationships you had were with the people around you. You said that you had your husband or boyfriend at the time-
Were you just with him? Or were there other people?
No, it was just him, but I live in this weird surreal life where my brother and his wife are our neighbors and our parents-
-are like four minutes away. So, we had this little bubble essentially.
A bubble, yeah.
They would've been in my official bubble yeah.
How did those relationships change? Because I know for me when it came to my mom and with my dad, I had an okay relationship with them although near the end I felt like it was getting too much.
That kind of pushed me to go on more bike rides and get out more. How did your relationship change with your family and friends in your bubble you just mentioned?
We had that immediate kind of nuclear family. I think that because my brother also had a baby right at the same time-
-and his wife did, so we had this I'll be honest weird, skewered version of reality right, because we went through all of these transitions. I think with my family we became a lot closer. I think that perhaps you see everyone under such extreme pressure, and everyone operates under extreme pressure and so there's obviously ebbs and flows of frustration with any relationship.
I think that for me during the pandemic my brother and sister-in-law were such a key fundamental outlet, social outlet.
I went to school in Toronto and so a lot of my friends I could typically text as my main avenue of friendship, so that didn’t shift too much, and my very best friend even though she's local in town, texting was how we operated.
So, I think that I have built a lot of relationships around being an introvert so they didn’t require as much in person time, but I did have one friend that we would weekly have dinner with her and her family.
Every week no matter what was being served, you didn’t clean your house, there were these rules that we had, that we would just show up and so that I think was very lonely initially, because I was so used to this normal person who was a part of my every week.
These four people, and I lost that, so that was a little bit challenging. With my immediate bubble, perhaps those relationships are deepened in a unique way because you're going through, well essentially, it’s not trauma but it’s a shared experience.
It’s a change Its definitely a change.
My next question was going to be about your most challenging aspect of the pandemic, but you just talked on that right? How it was such a change with reality, and you had your little bubble going. You mention the term privilege, a lot of people couldn’t go see their parents or anyone related to them because they had to be-
-yeah, distanced, but that’s good to hear. What were your initial thoughts when covid became a truly talked about topic? Did you foresee that affecting your job the more it got talked about? Was there one moment when you really thought and said to yourself “this might change my life and actually amount to be something?” Because that happened to me, what about you?
At the University we were perhaps talking about it from a more technical perspective prior to other people or industries.
Because we were like “If this happens, we have to think about how we were going to pivot education and how we would handle this beast of an organization”, it's not a small shop that you can flip. We had been talking about it a little more seriously, I feel like a lot of Canadians were like “oh my god Italy, get it together”. We were very judgmental of other countries or “like that’s a problem in China” because there's so many people. We had terrible exceptionalism to it, but I can distantly remember, I think it was the Friday before classes were cancelled or whatever, I called my husband, and I was like “I think we should get groceries; I think we should go get some toilet paper we should go get the basics”.
Prior to people doing all of this crazy hoarding, we had a line into public health, and public health was like coaching us and we knew from a public health perspective how serious they were anticipating it, so we just knew, but I remember calling my husband and being like “I think this might be like a thing, it's coming and we have to be careful”.
Yeah totally. That was such a weird time in 2020 when people were going to grocery stores and taking all this toilet paper. I don’t want to go back. For me, my school was canceled, and we got three weeks off.
Oh, wow you got three weeks, because that was right around exams, right?
This was when I was in grade 10, second semester had started and we were a month into the second semester, and I remember seeing a email about how we were supposed to keep staying at home, and they would tell us when to come back. A lot of people saw that as being fine, but I thought about it in a technical sense like you said, I wasn’t in the position where I had to think critically on the topic because I was still a high school student.
The idea was still there. You mentioned that you were on maternity leave, and you stayed home for a long time, but you did physically return to work? Am I right in saying that or were you virtual this whole time?
I was in MAT leave in March, so leave was in March. I had come in once a week just to come into the office.
How was your return to the office? Was it weird to see this lifestyle that you have been living through virtually, in person again for the last 2 years? How was it for you?
I don’t know. What happened was because of all this construction I was also in a different office, and I was cut off from everyone else, so it was a weird transition in that way, because it wasn’t back to what it was previously. For a lot of people, they went back, and they were in cubicles again and everyone was together so that didn’t really happen.
I would say that in general it feels more lonely to be in the office because there is this memory of what was. The reality is different now. I still wear a mask all the time and I want to close my door because I don’t want to wear a mask all the time. So, there's some of those normal social mechanics that are not existing, so it feels a little bit more lonely because you remember what was, whereas you created an established relationship with normalcy in the virtual environment, so there's not that precedent if that makes sense.
Yeah, my other question touched on the measures your workplace would take against covid, apart from going virtual and talking on the phone more, the inperson changes because you were on MAT leave, did you come across any of the main changes they made?
So, there were the physical aspects, signs up in bathrooms or those sorts of things but for us the main response was more about, and maybe we’ll get into this, but about how we communicate during a time of such turmoil? How do you work with and talk with a group of individuals of 2500 undergraduate students, 700 graduate students, 600 staff and I think 140 faculty? How do you engage all of those people and function in a way of normalcy? The physical element was less vital or fundamental as the approaches we had to take in that year.
Yeah, that’s a good answer. If you could change one aspect about how COVID changed and affected your life as you’ve laid out in this interview what would you change? If you could go back in time and change one thing about how you reacted to covid what would that be?
How I reacted?
Would you have gone and gotten more toilet paper?
Haha, just kidding.
I think that perhaps... I don’t know if I would change anything. I don’t know I feel like we’re such a summary of our own experiences, and life is what it is, and I learn from small mistakes, but I don’t think I would necessarily change anything. I did want to talk about some of the things we did at work to respond to COVID. Do you have time for me to talk about those things that are-
Yeah, for sure!
-important. At work there were a bunch of things we did that were different, because we felt responsible to frankly just checking in on people and making sure that they were okay and so there were various things that we did in support of that, that I think were different from what other colleges or universities were doing. When we started, we had a weekly college email, so like a “How's the status? What the f*ck in going on? So, we really pushed leadership to send out legitimate like “this is the situation, this is the problem, this is what we know, this is what we don’t know”. We also did a survey of all of our people. So, we sent out a mass survey that asked “What's happening? What do you need help on? What are some concerns? What are our blind spots?” and from that came a lot of concern from graduate students around funding, around paying for rent or about finishing their graduate studies so we were able to set up scholarships to be able to respond-
-to specific people and things. There was a sense of loneliness for a lot of people, so we worked on trying to do little alumni profiles that were just like “How are you handling things?”. Those profiles were really raw like “My kid got stressed by online learning, so we just aren't doing it”. Other alumni came in and he was from the financial background, and he was like “Here is how to handle your investments, don’t panic don’t pull everything out”. Then we shared that through our various channels, so it was an attempt to create community and support of people when they were in very uncertain times. Another example of something that we did was when first years came in the next year, and didn’t meet anyone and were locked down in their residence rooms and it as tough, and those normal social engagements didn’t exist so we just sent a card to all of them with a Tim Hortons gift card in it, like have a coffee, this semester has been rough but it will get better. So, there were those types of things that we tried to do to build a sense of community, and a sense of belonging during a time where I think a lot of people were struggling to know how they fit.
Everything else was so weird around them. So, I just wanted to talk to a couple of those things that I think we attempted to do, to create a sense of community when there was a really big void.
Yeah totally. I've met people that are 3rd year or 4th year that went through that, and I think that I take that university aspect of life for granted, because I can go out and see people and there's no covid restrictions-
-at Guelph that I come across that impede on my day to day. Back to your maternity leave... How long were you actually out of work for? How long were you on maternity leave?
So, it was a year. It was a year of mat leave so March 2021 to March 2022.
And that whole time, were you thinking about ways that you could come back and impact your job?
All of that stuff that happened, had happened pre-maternity leave, so I was doing it prematernity, and then there was this return to normalcy, just as I was leaving it was like
“Okay, we’re gonna be back in classes, we’re not doing the virtual hybrid crap , we’re gonna try to create a sense of normalcy”, so during MAT leave I didn’t think about work that much I knew they were progressing and there had been that return to function so there was resignation of society like this is our new reality right, it's not as new and different so people are struggling through that change they are just continuing to adapt so I didn’t have to worry about that portion of it while I was away.
Yeah, I was about to ask if you tried to tip in on things and tell people how you would want to get certain things done, but you weren't actually working.
Yeah, no the person who ended up taking over my job was the person who reports to me, so the coordinator became the manager and I have full faith in him and his abilities and one day when you're working, you're not going to want other people tell you how to do your job right? It would be like any job you would have now if someone came in and tells you what to do, you’re like “f you I know what I’m doing”, so I never tried to tamper with it.
Did you feel like you brought the aspects of being a communications manager to that bubble you just mentioned and to your household?
Probably, yeah. There's a different sort of skill set right or different sort of ways that you view things? So, in my family I'm definitely the over communicator or planer of the person-
-who tries to over co-ordinate for sure.
Well, my mom is a project manager for TD, and she brought that aspect back home right.
Because she works on projects and then she sees me being a lazy teenager through covid, and there were no days off for me.
Oh god, yeah.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk on?
No, I think that is everything, I just wanted to mention some of those professional aspects. Thats good!
No that’s great that we got that yeah. And especially that scholarship part, that was really great to talk on. But yeah.