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Nichols College

Learn. Lead. Succeed

Bison on the Front Lines of COVID-19

By Prof. Jean Beaupre, EdD

Here’s an understatement: 2020 has been an interesting year so far. In addition to the many behavioral and societal changes we’ve experienced, this year has seen new vocabulary sneak into our everyday conversations: social distancing, COVID-19, quarantining, PPE, and -- essential workers.

You’ve likely seen these essential workers stocking shelves at your local grocery store, preparing your restaurant takeout meals, or cashing you out at the drugstore. According to the Economic Policy Institute, an estimated 55 million Americans are serving in these vital roles across the country. Among them? Many of our very own Nichols students.

We wanted to capture their stories during what will surely go down as one of the most consequential years of the century. I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one (distanced, naturally) with several of these hard-working students. While many of us have the luxury of having groceries delivered or just popping in and out of stores, they are there, day in and day out. We were curious about their perspectives on the pandemic, what they have noticed about human nature, and what connections they are making to their education and career.

Service and safety

Human resources student Tyler LeBlanc ‘21 has been working at a large grocery store for five years. He has always felt that what the store provides is important because “people need food,” but now observes, “people feel like they need us more than ever.” Of course, working in a public-facing role these days means a heightened focus on cleanliness and health. LeBlanc realizes that he and his co-workers are somewhat putting themselves at risk, and says he is “cleaning all the time.” He is well known at his workplace for always having a reliable stash of hand sanitizer. 

Marketing major Mitchell Robinette ‘22 also mentioned the significant safety measures put into place at the big-box store where he works, such as wearing masks, lucite panels in front of cashiers, disinfecting every cart, and temperature checks. Every day can be exhausting, and he muses that he “almost feels like a doctor” when he gets home. Carly Wilson ‘20 says when she gets home from her retail job, she “smells like Clorox because we are wiping down the counters and carts all the time.” Her studies at Nichols were focused on general business and entrepreneurship. After graduating in May, Wilson had solid full-time job prospects in her field put on hold due to the pandemic, so she is continuing her retail jobs in the meanwhile.  

The highs and lows of an unpredictable time

All of the students remarked that it’s been interesting to witness human nature during such an unusual time, and that although many customers are appreciative, others can be impatient. As international business major Bridget Canavan ‘21 puts it, “We seem to be seeing the best and worst of people” at the local department and hardware store where she has worked for almost five years. LeBlanc agrees, observing that, “Some customers are supportive of us, saying ‘thank you’ and letting us know they’re happy we’re still open. But, some are impatient and stressed.” Tyler told a story of customers being so excited to see toilet paper for sale, that they grabbed the package right out of his hands as he was trying to shelve it. 

Robinette says that while he has seen customers get angry about new policies, others have called him and his fellow employees heroes. While he appreciates the support, he says, “I’m just trying to do my part.” He stated that when he decided to apply for the job, it almost felt like there was a “wartime effort” going on. Since he was able to work, he felt, “Well, I’ll go do something. It’s not a role that can’t be there. It’s an essential service.” LeBlanc concurs about the importance of their role. In his view, he and his co-workers are almost like caretakers during this pandemic. 

The Nichols Way

As these students are essentially living through history, they see many correlations to their coursework at Nichols. As Canavan sees it, “The biggest connections I can make would be the focus on teamwork. There has to be communication across all employees working, as well as the customers that are relying on us.” She has been pleased to see how her store managers have worked to create a positive environment. In fact, she says, “I'm enjoying work almost more than I ever have because managers are caring about how we are feeling. This is something that leaders should always be doing.” She is grateful for the experience, saying, “It's things like this that have made me realize how wonderful the store I work for is, having such a community mindset.” 

Wilson, Robinette, and LeBlanc had similar observations about connections to their education. Wilson mentioned the amount of group work she completed at Nichols, and how it helped her learn to work with others collaboratively, so important right now.  Robinette connects to the leadership emphasis at Nichols, and says in times like these, you have to be able to work with and learn from others. He is working with a diverse group of people, making it an interesting experience and an opportunity for learning. As a human resources major, LeBlanc has been keenly observing how leaders are handling the unusual circumstances, particularly when it comes to managing and motivating staff. He feels even stronger about his choice to focus his studies on human resources, noting how vital these professionals are right now because they are overseeing and protecting employees. He has also noticed the importance of camaraderie in the workplace, something he is missing right now due to social distancing. “It feels weird when you can’t talk to your coworkers and they’re just in the next aisle.”

As we have come to expect from Bison, these students are hard-working, good-natured, and resilient. While serving in these roles, they have found bigger lessons. Canavan asserts that, ”I've learned to be more adaptable in situations; this entire situation is a day by day process and we never know what is going to happen. [It] has been a learning curve, I've learned new things about a job I've had for almost 5 years which has been so fascinating.” And, she knows she has developed “skills that will be transferable to future career and job opportunities.” Outside of work, LeBlanc is learning to take advantage of these unusual circumstances to take up new hobbies like hiking. He’s encouraging others to recognize that there are still “a lot of things you can do” and it’s “the best time to explore other activities.”

Finally, all of the students expressed how working in essential roles is teaching them patience. As Wilson says, “No one knows what others have going on in their lives. We all have to respect that and take time with each other.”

Thank you to each of the students for sharing their stories. Have your own story to share? Please contact Lizzie Fontaine in the Marketing and Communications Department.