Alumni Helping Communities Respond to COVID-19
John Chin ’83 P’15, ’18
Managing the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) during the COVID-19 pandemic forced John Chin ’83, PCDC executive director, to act promptly and rely on his team. For over 50 years, the non-profit organization has provided a voice on behalf of its community, and its leadership was more important during the pandemic than ever before. “Once nonessential businesses were mandated to shut down, I realized that our organization had to quickly pivot from a brick and mortar operation to a remote service agency,” said John, who is also a former chair of Friends Select’s board of trustees. “Understanding the scale and depth of the challenge of COVID-19, and the expectation that thousands of families in our community would need help, I relied on my colleagues to reorganize our operations structure to be most effective. It is in times of crisis that a leader of an organization needs to trust his staff to identify and implement solutions.”
The economic downturn has been devastating for Philadelphia’s Chinatown community. “An unknown fact is that most small businesses in Chinatown are family owned and operated and are the only source of income for the families,” John said. “Almost all 220 businesses in Chinatown closed, and most of the jobs were lost. A few larger businesses with cash reserves made a business decision to retain their employees on the payroll, although their revenue was near zero.” The PCDC created a bank of resources on their website to help community members. In addition to hosting daily webinars, the site provides information for renters, employees, small-business owners, and those in need of unemployment benefits.
In addition to coping with the economic effects of the pandemic, the Chinatown community has also experienced an increase in racist and xenophobic attacks. “In the weeks leading up to the shutdown, the PCDC was dealing with the local fallout from government leaders’ callous blaming COVID-19 on China and the Chinese,” John said. “We received numerous reports of harassment and some physical assaults against our community because people were blaming Asian Americans for the virus. Simply wearing a facemask brought on racist attacks.”
Despite the negative impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on their own livelihood, Chinatown business owners raised $13,000 over the course of one week to purchase 27,000 surgical masks that were donated to Pennsylvania Hospital, Jefferson Hospital, and Temple University Hospital. John experienced this generosity first-hand from his colleagues throughout the quarantine. “I am most proud of the team members, who sacrificed family time, evenings, and weekends to serve clients,” he said. “They felt they had a responsibility to help others in need through it all. While first responders helped keep people healthy, our team helped people find financial relief to buy food and pay rent.” Chinatown is celebrating 150 years and remains a gateway for new immigrants. The PCDC continues to advocate for Chinatown’s preservation and resources for its residents—especially those who are immigrants with low incomes. Although we do not know what is ahead and when things will get better, I do know that the world has survived other pandemics and, most importantly, if we work together as one community we will recover sooner.”
Mike Fitts ’71
Tulane University, New Orleans
President of Tulane University, Mike Fitts ’71, and his team deliberately transitioned academic programming to an online platform before COVID-19 impacted New Orleans, Louisiana. “We made the decision to close campus in March before New Orleans reported any COVID-19 cases, because of the possibility that waiting until after spring break would encourage the spread of the virus to families across the country,” Mike said. Owing to its experience with closing campus in the event of hurricanes, Tulane is equipped with the necessary resources to provide all courses online. “We have both a solid decision-making process and adaptability for going remote,” Mike said. “Our faculty and staff did a wonderful job moving almost every aspect of our program to the virtual world, including health services, mental health services, success coaching, and advising.”
Knowing the dire effects the COVID-19 pandemic poses to New Orleans’s economy, Tulane University is committed to helping the city and its residents as much as possible. “As the largest employer in New Orleans, Tulane University is dedicated to keeping all of our employees through the pandemic, and we’ve not laid anyone off,” Mike said. Additionally, Tulane’s school of social work and business school have provided support to the community and small businesses that were displaced by the pandemic. With its medical center and three hospitals, Tulane is deeply involved in the city’s medical response to the COVID-19 pandemic through research, innovation, and frontline health care. “One of Tulane’s great strengths is the field of infectious diseases. The university was started in the 1830s as a medical school in response to yellow fever and has a history of resilience, through hurricane Katrina and up to today,” Mike said. “We graduated our medical students early so they could work in the hospitals. Our researchers were at the forefront of developing COVID-19 rapid testing in addition to working on a vaccine for the virus, and as part of an international team of scientists, Tulane virologist Robert Garry, Ph.D., analyzed the virus and determined it evolved from nature, debunking the rumor it was created
in a lab.”
Tulane started the fall semester with in-person classes, but not without proper precautions. “Our priority is to protect the health and safety of our community and minimize the risk of exposure,” Mike said, in an interview conducted before the semester began. Before returning to campus, all faculty, staff, and students were tested for COVID-19 and provided a room to be isolated as they awaited results. In addition to continuing COVID-19 testing throughout the semester and requiring masks, Tulane constructed 13 new classrooms and modified its dining facilities to accommodate social distancing measures.
Mike also responded to the continued racial inequality and police brutality in the United States with a promise to provide an inclusive environment and promote social justice through learning, teaching, research, and public service. “Diversity and respect for others are core values I picked up as a Friends Select student,” Mike said. “Improving the diversity and inclusiveness at Tulane has been a high priority since the day I arrived. In the first year of my presidency, I created the President’s Commission on Race and Tulane Values to focus on how to change that.” Mike has created several initiatives to support Black people and people of color within the Tulane and New Orleans community and foster an antiracist environment, including action to hire and retain Black faculty and people of color, increase the number of Black students and people of color, increase funding for departments and programs that serve marginalized groups, and require a Race and Inclusion course for first-year undergraduate students.
As a Quaker, Mike is guided by diversity and inclusion in his decision-making process, including how Tulane continues to approach educating its students during the pandemic. “There are so many perspectives to consider for the university: public health, financial, student affairs, and administrative. Although, as the head of an organization, I have to make a final call, I have an interesting philosophy in reaching a resolution as compared to my peers,” he said. “I always bring in a group of people with diverse backgrounds and different perspectives to talk it through. Thanks to my Quaker background, I know there is immense value in discussion and collaboration.”
Wendell Pritchett ’84
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania Provost Wendell Pritchett ’84 is accustomed to making important decisions in the best interest of the school and its students; however, he never expected the closure of the school to be one of them. “My decisions were informed by discussion with a team of administrators, including President Amy Gutmann, and ranged from how and when we closed, how we could support students—especially those from other counties—get home, and how could we provide dorms and feed students who needed to stay,” he said. With information on COVID-19 changing daily, making decisions about the health and safety of the Penn community was paramount. “In general, we followed the recommendations of public health authorities in the state and city, with consultation from the many experts we’re lucky enough to have at Penn.”
Penn had a two-week window of time to transition its curriculum to remote learning, and Wendell was inspired by his community’s willingness to make it work. “Penn faculty and staff are very resourceful and handled this change very well. I truly don’t know how they did it—it was extraordinary,” he said. Many Penn educators had prior and learning, which served as an advantage during the transition. “I actually taught my own law school class remotely after spring break. Technology never lets anything be perfect, but it went very well overall,” Wendell added. “The complex challenge is for those fields and disciplines that require hands-on learning, particularly the clinical fields. All universities and colleges are trying to figure this out.”
Looking back, Wendell reflects on what made the smooth transition to online learning possible. “I could not be more proud of all members of our community: students, faculty, and staff. If you had asked me in February, I would have said it was impossible. It was really incredible to see,” he said. “We had staff members and faculty working on the front lines of this pandemic, literally risking their lives every day in the hospital system. We had staff taking care of students who remained on campus, making sure they were healthy and safe. And we had thousands of people who had never worked or taught or studied remotely, who made this transition very close to seamless.”
Wendell cites lessons he learned as a Friends Select student in guiding him through the intensity of being a university leader during a pandemic: “Mutual respect within one’s community, listening more and talking less, and the ability to accept that we cannot plan for everything so we need to be both flexible and agile.” In making preparations for the 2020-21 academic year, Wendell quoted the late writer William Goldman (who, coincidentally, is the grandparent of Grant Pavol ’18, a junior at Penn). “‘Nobody knows anything,’” Wendell said, adding, “But, we have many plans and contingencies and, above all, a need to expect the unexpected. We plan for the worst and hope for the best.”