The pandemic isn’t over, but Eastern is celebrating its return to ‘near normal.’
By Melodie Little
Back in March 2020, just a week after the EWU men’s basketball team learned its appearance in the NCAA Tournament had been canceled, the university announced there would be a one-week extension of Eastern’s typical week-long spring break.
The pause in students’ return wasn’t about providing extra time for cavorting in Cabo. Eastern’s leadership was instead trying to “flatten the transmission curve” of the novel coronavirus — a scary new contagion spreading rapidly across the globe.
It was a sensible step to keep students safe, just an extra week to ensure safety measures were in place. At the time, few would have predicted that the temporary closure would extend to an 18-month pivot to remote-only learning; a pivot that emptied dormitories, shuttered laboratories and classrooms, and created an eerie emptiness in Eastern’s once bustling common spaces.
Though countless students, faculty and staff rose to meet the challenge of pandemic-related closures and disruptions (see, for example, the exemplary achievements chronicled in #Eagle Strong stories from recent issues of this magazine), the slow-motion evacuation of the Cheney and Spokane campuses was a dispiriting development for the Eastern community.
All that changed this fall, as Eastern welcomed students back to in-person learning and campus activities.
Nothing symbolized this return to “near normal” more than Eastern’s annual move-in event, a two-day celebration of residence-hall habitation that saw close to 1,000 students hauling packed-to-the-brim storage containers and trendy dorm furnishings to their new homes-away-from-home.
Among them was Rhon Miller, an 18-year-old from Aberdeen, Washington, who plans to study business. Fortuitously, Miller’s move into Pearce Hall was assisted by move-in volunteer Christian Proctor, a 20-year-old junior majoring in business management and marketing. The jump-start in making campus connections wasn’t lost on Miller, but he admitted he was mainly just psyched to be finally joining the ranks of live-in collegians: “I wasn’t sure this moment was going to happen,” he says. “I’m just happy to be here.”
To ensure a safe environment for new residents like Miller and the rest of Eastern’s newly arrived campus dwellers, Housing and Residential Life staff worked tirelessly to bring EWU’s five dorms and two apartment complexes into compliance with EWU’s Covid-19 safety protocols. Acquainting students with Eastern’s requirements for vaccines, antigen testing and social distancing was chief among the safety efforts.
EWU’s Move-In Days, coming as they did a couple of weeks before the campus vaccination deadline, was particularly challenging. To prevent overcrowding in outdoor walkways, indoor hallways and elevators, for example, incoming freshmen were asked to sign up for 30-minute time slots before moving into their assigned rooms.
Still, none of these pandemic-related necessities dampened the mood. Incoming Eagles, accompanied by proud parents, grandparents, siblings and other family members, were greeted with Swoop sightings, fresh-baked cookies and lot of smiles.
In all, 25 staff and 70 student volunteers worked multiple shifts to ensure that everyone was properly situated. This volunteer team, dubbed the Movers and Shakers, helped unload vehicles and packed a mountain of possessions — including mini-refrigerators and big-screen TVs — onto hand-trucks and carts before escorting students onto elevators and up to their assigned rooms.
Emily Thomas, an 18-year-old freshman from Colville, Washington, says coordinating furnishings and sleeping arrangements for the shared room in snyamncut took weeks of back-and-forth text messaging.
It was helpful that her new roommate, Thressa Coffey, also 18, is also her best friend. Coffey, who plans to pursue a career in forensic science, says she spent her senior year of high school in virtual classrooms while living at home in Spokane. Not so great, she says. Attending in-person classes and doing laboratory work in the new, state-of-the-art Interdisciplinary Science Center will be a welcome change.
“It feels good because I don’t learn as well online,” she said. “I’m excited to be here.”
A few days later, from a podium in Showalter Auditorium, David May, Eastern’s interim president — the campus leader who guided the university through the dark days of closures — echoed Coffey’s sentiments during his annual “State of the University” speech.
“I don’t know about you but I’m really excited to be here today, and to see what we’ve all been working toward for so long actually happen,” May said. “It’s arrived. We’re back on campus in Cheney, Washington. We’re back in classrooms. We’re back in labs. We’re back in studios, fields, courts — all of the places where learning and living take place.”
Without a doubt, “being back” was the informal theme at Eastern’s academic year kick-off event, the annual Pass Through the Pillars. The event, attended by many of the same freshman who had moved into Eastern’s dormitories days earlier, involves newly arriving Eastern students — accompanied by the EWU marching band — congregating together on College Avenue before passing through the iconic Herculean Pillars of Eastern’s formal entryway.
EWU’s Director of Alumni Relations, Kelsey Hatch-Brecek ’21, spoke at the event, telling today’s new students that, odd as it might sound, soon they’d be the ones creating lifelong memories and lasting traditions at Eastern. She says she couldn’t help but be inspired by the moment.
“There was a ton of energy,” Hatch-Brecek says. “When there’s a lot of energy around me, I just get super ramped up. I think the students were just genuinely excited to be back in person. And even though we’re still living with some of the pandemic protocols, it still felt so good for all of us to be together…just for us to be around people again.”
Hatch-Brecek also played a key role in another cherished tradition that had been put on hold: Eastern’s annual Homecoming events. Despite persistently cool, rainy weather, the 2021 Eagle Family Homecoming brought alumni, staff, faculty and, of course, students together for several days of unfiltered fun.
While traditional events surrounding the Oct. 22 football game provided the core of activities, newer happenings gave participants a peek at what a fully post-pandemic EWU might look like. The 2nd Annual Red Turf Royalty gathering, for instance, featured a full line-up of “insider” activities, including a tour of the new Interdisciplinary Science Center and a catered dinner. Guest speakers included interim President May, Eagles Head Football Coach Aaron Best and Director of Athletics Lynn Hickey, who all shared their unique perspectives.
Still, things were decidedly old-school when student-driven events stole the show. “Special shout-out to our students,” Hatch-Brecek says. “They turned out in force for the bed races and bonfire. They truly showed what it means to be an Eagle.”
And, especially in that moment, what it means to be an Eagle on campus. As May emphasized in his speech, Eastern will never — and could never — be an “online-only institution.” Its purpose, he said, is too tightly bound to its place.
Monroe, Senior, Patterson, Hargreaves, Showalter — these and the other hallowed halls of Eastern’s historic campus are more than just monuments in brick and mortar. They’re repositories of memories, spaces resonant with emotional and intellectual connections stretching across generations. For all of its timely uses, Zoom is no substitute for being on campus, for engaging with mentors and peers, and creating one’s own Eastern moment in time.
“I believe, I know, that those of you who will have your first day of classes here at Eastern Washington University, will one day be able to sit down in the mall, maybe on a beautiful fall morning, and think about your long career here,” said May in his September speech. “We’ll get back to academic plans, we’ll get back to budgets and legislative agendas; we’ll circle back to strategic plans and fundraising.
“But right now I think it’s okay — actually I think it’s necessary — to really enjoy this moment of return. To think about all of the positive things around us. We are together again, and the students are back.”
— Charles E. Reineke contributed to this story.