Special connections boosted spirits during the past year

The sun shines over the Coral Gables Campus. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone and Barbara Gutierrez

The sun shines over the Coral Gables Campus. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

Special connections boosted spirits during the past year

By Michael R. Malone and Barbara Gutierrez
Some members of the University of Miami community share how they were able to weather the ups and downs of 2020.

These past months have been extraordinarily challenging for all and for many nearly unbearable. 

So, what is it that people leaned on, what was the “one thing” that helped them get through the day, a week, a month? Maybe it was learning a new skill; creating a new ritual; or engaging in a special connection with a friend to share experiences that helped fuel inspiration, lift hope, and bolster spirits. 

The following is what a few members of the University of Miami community shared. 

Charlotte von Moos, assistant professor, School of Architecture 

What helped me cope was the (almost) daily swim in a neighbor's pool. I am so thankful she let my family use it; don't know how I would have made it without these little refreshing escapes.

Donald Spivey, distinguished professor of history, College of Arts and Sciences, and special advisor to the president on racial justice 

In early July, I was discussing my pending retirement with my dean’s office when I learned that President Frenk had issued a 15-point plan to support racial equality, inclusion, and justice across the institution and in the greater South Florida community. The next day, I was notified that I’d been tapped as a special advisor to the president to help guide the strategy. 

The work to make this plan a reality—for our U to become a truly racially positive institution and education experience—was really the moment that fueled me with hope and inspiration during this period—and we will succeed. 

Victoria Orrego Dunleavy, associate professor, School of Communication  

Aside from my daily walks or bike ride, what has kept me going and reduced some stress is my mini farm. We own three dogs, a cat, four hens, six rabbits, and a miniature horse. Nature and animals bring me a sense of calm and purpose. Connecting with my animals is comforting and lifts my mood daily. This bolsters my reserve to keep working hard and cope with the challenges of this pandemic. 

Frank Ragsdale, associate professor and chair, Department of Vocal Performance, Frost School of Music

The nature of my discipline means that I need to meet with students one-on-one in applied lessons and because this involves teaching singing, masks can't be worn. For safety, these applied lessons were taught remotely, which created both tremendous obstacles and opportunities. 

My students were my “many one things.” Seeing them each day in these lessons and witnessing their resilience was exhilarating. We might not have been able to meet face-to-face, but the dedication and tenacity with which they embraced each lesson resulted in one of the most successful and significant semesters for each of them—and for me. 

Miriam Lipsky, director of student affairs assessment and projects and consultant to the Office of Institutional Culture 

In terms of resiliency, I have done more cooking at home and learned to make some dishes that we used to enjoy while eating out. I am a “glass half full” kind of person and so have taken this opportunity to enjoy what I can do, such as spending more time with my husband—a lot more—and being grateful that we’re able to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together during breaks from Zoom meetings. 

I have also loved spending more time with my dog and cat and have found them to be a very calming influence during this pandemic. My cat has been such a frequent part of my Zoom meetings and classes that some people now ask about him if he doesn’t show up on camera. 

Winston Warrior, executive director of strategic communications and marketing, School of Education and Human Development  

In addition to my faith, the one thing that’s grounded me and kept me sane during both the COVID-19 and racial pandemics, has been my 11-year-old miniature Schnauzer—my little girl, Reagan Warrior. 

Talk about man’s best friend! There is something about having a constant companion there with you during the statewide/nationwide lockdown—and we got along brilliantly. She loved the tunes I played and sang along to without complaining about my singing. She watched the movies and content series, resting her head in my lap while I streamed them during the hours of isolation. She even helped my home workouts, nudging my head—“come on, you can do it”—to do another push-up or sit-up. 

Reagan Warrior has been with me since she was six weeks old. Maybe, just maybe, she came into my life 11 years ago to help me through this—I’m so grateful for her. 

Isabella Vaccaro, senior, School of Communication 

In June, I started writing a book that I thought would explore the college hookup culture. However, as I did more research and the coronavirus pandemic became more serious, I realized there was a more prevalent topic to be explored: online dating. 

Dating apps always seemed daunting and scary to me. But as I was beginning to find out, they are one of the main ways people are meeting today. 

Writing this book really gave me a sense of purpose during a time when I couldn’t see my friends or really do anything but sit cooped up in my house. Binging television quickly got old, and I craved being immersed in something creative again. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t embarked on this crazy journey.

Cristina Favretto, head of special collections, UM Libraries 

When I read about the Japanese concept of “tsundoku”—the practice of letting books pile up in one’s library, unread—I was at first relieved that I was part of a longstanding, worldwide practice. Then I thought: hmmm. What if I embarked on a project to actually read all those books—or at least start them and decide whether or not they were worth my time? 

Instead of reading these in shelf order (I’m not embarrassed to say my books are in Library of Congress order—I’m a librarian after all) I decided to immerse myself in geographical locations. So, if I had to cancel my trip to Paris, I’d go there in my mind, right? 

After starting out with some books about literary Paris between the wars, my journey took a turn Proust-ward, and I found myself enmeshed, enraptured, and entangled in Marcel Proust's “In Search of Lost Time.” I read in the evenings after my daily walk and on weekends. Far from indulging in esoteric wanderings, Proust is teaching me to really look and think about people and events—not just for the two minutes it takes us to read the headlines, but for the absurdities, dramas, joy, and complexities behind the stories. 

Bryan Mann, assistant clinical professor, School of Education and Human Development 

This has definitely been a difficult situation for all of us—faculty, staff, and students alike. One thing that I have taken inspiration from is from Albert Einstein: “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” 

Out of clutter, find simplicity—I knew that I needed to streamline my classes, making things easier for the students as well as myself. I spent a lot of time organizing my Blackboard sites and determining the most effective ways to do assignments and exams. The simplicity portion of it comes as I now have some materials that I have explained a concept in two or more different ways and can simply post that in the future to give students alternative means to aid them in their understanding. 

From discord, find harmony. I found more effective ways to meet with fellow faculty members and using technology like Zoom to get together to collaborate on projects. I am a creature of habit and this discord forced me to find new means of solutions to problems. 

The finding opportunity has been the most difficult. I had been racking my brain and thinking, “What is the opportunity here?” For a long time it seemed that my opportunity was just seeing how much stress I could deal with. However, now I realize that the opportunity has been twofold. First, it allowed me to improve my ability in online teaching as this seems to be the way to reach students and professionals in a manner conducive to societal demands. Second, the relationship with my kids has drastically improved. I have always done a great deal of travel—speaking at various conferences and clinics in my field around the world. Not doing the traveling and speaking left out travel time and preparation time for the clinics that was then spent with my family.