Gustavus 2020: Adversity, Community, Justice, and Hope

A reflection on COVID-19, racial justice, and how the Gustavus community took on 2020.
Posted on January 1st, 2021 by

When the editorial board of the Gustavus Quarterly met in fall 2019 to discuss the next issue of the magazine, our decision was an easy one. We were on the cusp of 2020. Gustavus was experiencing incredible—even historic—momentum with the expansion of the Nobel Hall of Science, the continued success of the Gustavus Acts Strategic Plan, and the launch of the Show the World comprehensive campaign.

So much good was all around us, and the promise of even brighter days were ahead. It made sense for the magazine, we all agreed, to look back. “Hindsight 20/20” would tell the stories of eight alumni, focusing on the trials and triumphs they experienced at and after Gustavus.

“The path behind us is always clearer than the path before us,” the story began. Little did we know how prescient those words would be.

The Quarterly hit mailboxes the first week of March, 2020.

Looking back at notes and calendar entries from the spring, I decided that the last “normal” day was Tuesday, March 10. President Rebecca M. Bergman was at the Minnesota State Capitol with a group of Gustavus students to meet with legislators about the Minnesota State Grant Program. The day before, she was asked to testify alongside University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel and Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra about how colleges and universities were preparing to deal with COVID-19. Joining President Bergman at the hearing was Heather Dale, the College’s Director of Health Service and chair of the Gustavus Infectious Disease Committee. Together, they talked about how the College had been monitoring the virus since January, the dynamics of making sure study away students could safely return to the United States, and the safety measures that were being put in place on campus.

The following days were a blur. On March 13, the Gustavus President’s Cabinet announced a pivot to online learning. At first, we hoped it would be for a few short weeks. By March 17, as cases continued to grow in Minnesota and surge elsewhere, President Bergman announced that online learning would continue for the rest of the spring semester. Logistical hurdles followed. How would 2,000+ students move out of residence halls while maintaining social distancing? What was the best way to provide support and build community for the students who remained on campus? What about those who were now spread across the country and around the world? How would Gustavus classes—known for being small, discussion-based, and face-to-face—be delivered virtually? Gustavus faculty and staff leaned in.

Class of 2020 seniors show off their virtual learning spaces last spring.

On April 9, I left my makeshift home office and went to campus for a socially distanced meeting. Walking up the sidewalk, I saw President Bergman heading towards the Edgar M. Carlson Administration Building. Then, in the midst of a pandemic, right before another meeting, with thousands of data points and hundreds of decisions to make no doubt running through her mind, the President paused. It was a windy morning, and some branches had blown down onto the sidewalk. She stopped to pick them up, tidying Eckman Mall along the way as she continued towards whatever came next.

On May 25—Memorial Day—George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Protesters filled the streets, crying out for justice and marching for change. As calls for racial equity and inclusion dominated world news, students, alumni, and employees turned to the College. How could Gustavus do better?

After the Cabinet announced a series of racial justice and inclusion steps that the College would take, President Bergman and Gustavus Adolphus College Board of Trustees Chair Scott Anderson ’89 tapped Chaplain Siri Erickson (also chair of the President’s Council for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and Trustee Ron White ’75 to lead the charge throughout the summer and fall.

When it became clear that Commencement for the Class of 2020 would have to be postponed, video reflections poured in from students, faculty, and staff. A commemoration on May 29, the class’s would-be commencement day, culminated with a message from beloved Minnesota storyteller and Gustavus alumnus Kevin Kling ’79.

In-person fall classes included social distancing and mask requirements.

Then, after final grades were submitted and everyone took a moment to catch their breath, planning started in earnest for the 2020 fall semester. President Bergman announced the formation of the Gustavus COVID-19 Response Leadership Team, a committee that oversaw 12 working groups that developed protocols for everything from classroom spaces to fine arts and athletics to dining service operations and campus visitors. Six professors were named to the Faculty Emergency Planning Committee to make recommendations to the President’s Cabinet and policy decisions related to the College’s academic program.

Informed by regular conversations with the Minnesota Department of Health, a close partnership with Nicollet County Public Health, and feedback from the faculty, the College made the decision to stagger students’ return to campus for the fall semester. First-years and select returning students moved to campus at the end of August. Classes, delivered virtually with the exception of First-Term Seminars, began on Tuesday, September 1. The College announced a tuition-free ninth semester for students whose academic progress was impacted by the pandemic. The rest of students, with few exceptions, moved back to campus in late September, where they were greeted by the newly-completed Nobel Hall of Science expansion and renovation. Classes were offered in a mix of virtual, hybrid, and in-person formats throughout the fall. All students were given face coverings donated by Gustavus alumni, parents, and friends.

The Lund Center forum was transformed for a COVID-19 mass testing event on November 13.

Even amidst all these changes, progress continued. Homecoming moved online. The Nobel Conference, “Cancer in the Age of Biotechnology,” was offered in a 100-percent virtual format. The Board of Trustees passed a historic resolution on Racial Justice and Inclusion; a month later, President Bergman announced the expansion and relocation of the Center for Inclusive Excellence (formerly the Diversity Center).

Behind the scenes, a team of staff were trained in as COVID-19 case managers. When members of the Gustavus community reported symptoms or were part of a contact trace, the case managers guided them through the isolation/quarantine process, managed food delivery on campus, and answered questions related to COVID-19. Case numbers remained low throughout September and October, but spiked briefly in early November as the state of Minnesota saw a corresponding rise in COVID-19 rates. The College announced a two-week “lay low” period in response to the surge, and Gusties responded. By the time Gustavus partnered with Nicollet County Public Health and the Minnesota Department of Health to offer a mass testing event on November 13, the positivity rate of the 1,365 tests conducted was only 1.5 percent.

And yet, despite the relatively stable COVID-19 situation on campus, the virus felt much closer to all of us by late November, much more real. Now, in addition to students and staff who, for the most part, faced minor symptoms throughout the fall, each us knew family members or friends who were not so lucky. Students balanced coursework with the heavy decision of whether to return home or stay on campus when the College transitioned to online course delivery the week of Thanksgiving. Faculty and staff juggled classes and meetings with distance learning for their own children, or in some cases, long-distance care for loved ones who were facing the virus. Joy, sadness, uncertainty, and hope mingled with fatigue and resolve as the semester came to a close.

On December 19, students, alumni, family, and friends tuned in for the first-ever all-virtual Christmas in Christ Chapel worship service, “Healer of the Nations, Come.” And at the end of the service, like so many years before, the Herald trumpets rang out the opening notes of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The symphony played and the choirs sang. And in that last verse, when the congregation traditionally rises to its feet and lends voice to the chorus, the current Gusties were joined by alumni from across the generations, filling up the screen to offer the musical benediction that celebrates the holiday season and closes the year at Gustavus Adolphus College.

“The path behind us is always clearer than the path before us,” the story began.

The year 2020 was one of winding turns, tough decisions, and tremendous resilience and innovation. Students, faculty, and staff weathered it with the support of Gustavus alumni, parents, and friends. As we flip the calendar to 2021 and look ahead to the promise of brighter days, all of us at Gustavus will continue to show the world the power of our community—and how we can work together to address the great challenges of our time.

Normally, the College provides a year-end recap of notable Gustavus stories over the past 12 months. Like so many things in 2020, circumstances called us to take a different approach this year.

JJ Akin is a 2011 Gustavus graduate who serves as the Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication in the College’s Office of Marketing and Communication.


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin



  1. Rev. Arlyn Tolzmann says:

    Thank you for the year overview. Excellently done.

  2. Gloria Floreen Vicari says:

    I appreciated learning in what ways and how well all was handled at Gustavus during this past year, through this interesting, well written and concise synopsis.

    Bravo to the students, faculty and administration!

    Gloria FLOREEN (’68) VICARI