A Q&A with the leader helping the college get through the pandemic
Vice President for Advancement Enoch Blazis leads the coordination of St. Olaf College’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing on his experience as a former military officer. He shares how support from the St. Olaf community helped during this challenging time.
How has the college responded to COVID-19?
Very well. We worked quickly to establish testing and quarantine protocols, budgeted conservatively early, and consulted epidemiologists and other experts to inform our plans. Oles’ quick adherence to a set of community standards enabled us to start the fall 2020 semester early, avert the 2020-21 winter case spike, and avoid costs created by any delay in responding to the pandemic. This paid off as the COVID-19 variants began appearing early last spring. We have continued the work this year of responding to new variants and surges with mitigation measures based on the data we’re seeing in our community. The emergence of the omicron variant late in November was especially challenging. We had to quickly come up with a new plan for Interim and adjust key parts of response procedures, including contact tracing and how we cared for the predicted dramatic increase in cases. Although it was disappointing not to bring all students back to campus for Interim, doing so allowed us to better deal with the significant increase in cases and has positioned us well to be fully in-person for spring semester.
What learnings arose from this work?
Students strongly value learning together, yet individually their experiences have varied greatly during the pandemic. Many Oles had family members who were furloughed or lost jobs, while other families fared better. Travel restrictions kept international students from returning home or coming back to campus. Social isolation and illness, and the loss of family and friends, added to this stress. COVID has impacted communities of color especially hard, shining more light on disparities created by systemic racism. All reinforced the need to look out and care for each other.
What impact did giving to the college have this past year?
One could imagine that in a pandemic and a year after our successful For the Hill and Beyond campaign, our philanthropic support would have dropped off. We saw the opposite — donors gave generously. Their gifts are helping us persevere and advance our long-term goals.
How does the future look?
We’ve changed as a community — we have seen we can step up, think creatively, and move forward. We were able to adapt quickly because of the critical support we had. We also learned more about the work we need to do. There are changes coming to higher education — in under five years the number of college prospects nationally will decrease. Schools committed to the student experience — from financial aid and residence life to retention and support services —will fare better. Investments made in these areas are a great start. We are grateful for the trust, care, and generous support of our Ole community.