Rising to the Challenge: St. John’s Community Faithful to the Mission during Pandemic

Public Safety Officer Loads PPE boxes into van
September 21, 2020

It is often noted that humanity’s goodness is most evident during difficult times. When the global pandemic threw the world into turmoil in the spring, members of the St. John’s community rose to the challenge and answered the age-old Vincentian question, “What must be done?”

Whether working on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 (or supporting frontline workers); raising funds for those experiencing financial hardship; or simply lifting the spirits of others, Johnnies from the past and present proved to the world that even when we are apart, we are stronger together.

A Steadfast Focus on Students

The health and well-being of St. John’s students is paramount to the University. During the early days of the pandemic, the University worked quickly to bring students back from Global Studies sites abroad. St. John’s leaders made certain that vital student services were uninterrupted and assured students that St. John’s was open for business.

The Emergency Fund for St. John’s Students and the St. John’s Law Student Emergency Fund were established to help students as they navigated myriad financial issues stemming from sudden travel expenses, the need for Wi-Fi access, offsite storage for personal items, and other unforeseen circumstances. To date, the two funds have raised a combined $395,882.

Like many faculty at St. John’s, Nancy Silvestri ’07CPS, ’08G, Adjunct Instructor in St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, reimagined the structure of her class when the University transitioned to a remote model. “I tore up my syllabus and revamped the course curriculum,” she said, explaining how she overhauled her crisis management class to reflect the current state of the pandemic. 

While many traditional springtime events were canceled once the University transitioned to a fully remote format, Relay For Life was one of the first student events to move to a virtual space. Through the event, nearly $34,000 was raised for the American Cancer Society.

Students and Alumni Fighting on the Front Lines

At the height of the pandemic, St. John’s joined the fight against the virus and helped those in need.

William Hong is fitted for his PPE

William Hong, a student in the Doctor of Pharmacy program and soldier, received a call from Army National Guard leadership calling him into active duty. “I was studying for midterms when I was told that they needed more medics in the field.” Over the course of the next few weeks, William found himself working at COVID-19 testing sites around the region.

Similarly, students enrolled in the Red Storm Battalion of the US Army Cadet Command’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program also jumped into action.

Nicholas Baumann, a student in the Physician Assistant (PA) program, helped patients stricken with COVID-19 at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, NY, where he works part time as an Emergency Department Technician. Fellow PA student William Jutt also worked on the front lines as he returned to his volunteer position as an EMT.

Few people were as close to the front lines as alumnus Anthony Boutin, M.D. ’87C. As interim President/Chief Executive Officer and Chief Medical Officer for NuHealth, a “safety net” hospital, Dr. Boutin ensures that Nassau University Medical Center provides health care for all patients, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. 

For Faculty, Pandemic Battle Takes on Multiple Forms

While protective masks are now more readily available, this was not the case at the height of the pandemic.

3D Printer making PPE

Fortunately, St. John’s employees from multiple units joined together to collect and distribute critically needed personal protective equipment to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Queens. Max A. Hergenrother, Director of Technology Operations at The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, used 3D printers at his home to make clear plastic face shields and headbands.

“It makes me proud to see the unwavering support of our administration to carry out our Vincentian mission to aid those in need,” he said.

Similarly, Anna Elaine A. Licari-Lagrassa, D.P.S., Professor of Administration and Economics, assembled a volunteer force that created and distributed masks for health-care professionals who served on the front lines of the worldwide pandemic.

In early spring, Ryall Carroll, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Marketing in The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, answered the call to help both first responders and local businesses, by retooling an existing nonprofit to create meals4heroes.org, which kept healthcare workers well-fed while supporting local businesses.

Data has proven to be a critical tool in tracking the profound impact the virus is making on the community. Preety Gadhoke, Ph.D., M.P.H., St. John’s University Associate Professor of Public HealthCollege of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, spearheaded an effort to identify the stresses individuals experienced as a result of the outbreak through an online survey.

Alumni Lend a Hand 

The Black Alumni Association (BAA) raised funds for meals for students and first responders affected by the global pandemic by hosting its first-ever virtual Brunch for a Cause.

“By encouraging our BAA members to stay home and take part in a virtual fundraiser, it gave us an opportunity to pay it forward," said Melissa Akers-Atkins ’04Ed, ’06GEd.

Two female students on the telephone in a call center

The well-being of alumni themselves was the focus of a new initiative that was rooted in St. John’s Phonathon Call Center. During the early days of the pandemic, the decision was made to have students who were working remotely perform wellness checks on older alumni instead of making calls seeking scholarship support.

While front-line workers around the country were laboring tirelessly to protect and preserve the lives of patients, Diego Rodriguez ’88SVC, ’90GEd made certain that those front-line workers and patients remained safe at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where he is Vice President of Security.

A Welcome Respite from Trying Times

With the nation mired in uncertainty, members of the University community sought to lift spirits through song.

Normand Gouin, Campus Minister for Music and Faith Formation, crafted a project to keep students engaged while they transitioned to remote learning. Fourteen students sent him specific vocal or instrumental segments of “It Is Well with My Soul,” which were compiled and edited to produce one complete performance.

“I have always been so impressed by our choir, but this project was astonishing,” said Sarah Quispe, a Psychology major who participated in the virtual choir. “I was amazed by how great the final product turned out.”

Similarly, the St. John’s chapter of Alpha Psi Omega and the Chappell Players Theatre Group presented Songs for Hope, a YouTube concert that featured some of the University’s best voices. The concert raised funds for St. John’s Bread & Life soup kitchen, which serves a segment of the community especially impacted by COVID-19.

There is no telling what the future holds regarding the pandemic, or when the world will plateau at its “new normal.” However, St. John’s commitment to the Vincentian mission will certainly endure and inspire generations of future Johnnies.