Archival Project Tells GW’s COVID Story

American Studies’ Melani McAlister and a team of students are collecting interviews with the GW community to create a historical archive of pandemic experiences.

Melani McAlister
Professor of American Studies and International Affairs Melani McAlister is the director of the COVID archives project.
April 14, 2021

From remote teaching and quarantine restrictions to stockpiling toilet paper and Netflix binging, the COVID-19 pandemic inspired troves of stories throughout the GW community.

Now, an archival project led by Professor of American Studies and International Affairs Melani McAlister is capturing intimate snapshots of GW life during COVID. McAlister and her student research assistants are preserving personal accounts of how faculty, students, alumni and staff experienced the public health crisis, collecting stories of fears and frustrations as well as moments of resilience and even joy.

Working with GW Libraries and university archivists, McAlister’s team is constructing a video archive of oral histories as a historical document of the pandemic. In addition to recording remote interviews, they are gathering donated items like Instagram posts, photographs and faculty and student research projects related to COVID. All of the materials from the ongoing project will appear in the university archive and will be showcased on a new website at the end of the semester.

“We are trying to create a large and integrated archive that frames a picture of the GW family’s experience with COVID and continues a conversation about how we live our lives,” McAlister said. “It’s a narrative of this time and place in history.”

Since May, McAlister’s students have conducted 50 interviews with a cross section of the GW community, charting their COVID journey from the early days of quarantine through the tumultuous summer of protests and political turmoil to the cautious optimism of the vaccine rollout. “The interviews took a very holistic approach—not just about medical health, but about everyday life,” said Professor of English Gayle Wald, who sat for a 45-minute remote interview. “It was nice to be given a platform to reflect on my experience at that point in the pandemic.”

McAlister first envisioned the archive last spring when COVID disrupted her research methodology class. Forced into remote learning, she asked her students to record their quarantine life through podcasts, web pages and oral histories. Over the summer, she expanded the project to include faculty, staff and alumni, and worked with university archivists to create a template of questions and release forms. The project received funding from the American Studies Department’s Kasch Fund and the CCAS Humanities Center.

Along with her research assistants, students in McAlister’s COVID and Culture class—a Dean’s Seminar for CCAS first-year students—are contributing to the archive. “The best part of this project has been seeing the ownership our students have taken,” she said. “They are picking it up and running with it.”

McAlister also recruited other classes, including students in Professional Lecturer Kimberly Probolus’ Public History in Washington, D.C., course. “I saw this as a meaningful learning opportunity for my students,” Probolus said. “It is a way for them to contribute to the history of their institution, the history of the pandemic and to learn a skill that could translate to their work outside the classroom.”

Reflections on a Pandemic

Initially, the student interviewers approached friends and classmates. Senior American studies major Sneeha Bose, for example, spoke to friends in the Theater Program about moving their performances online, while senior political communication major Lexi Ross interviewed her cross-country teammates. Ross said most of the people she’s interviewed were relieved to share their struggles. “A lot of them were happy for the chance to talk about their experiences and reflect about what we all went through,” she said.

Senior Lexi Ross and junior Shealyn Fraser

Senior Lexi Ross (right) interviewed American Studies junior Shealyn Fraser for the archive project.

The initial interviews often revolved around the confusion and anxiety of the early days of the epidemic, from worrying about grandparents in nursing homes to scouring empty grocery store shelves. Professor of English Robert McRuer relayed his experience visiting his partner in Colombia when the epidemic hit. “The borders were locked down not long after my arrival in Bogotá and when the State Department issued its ‘come home now or be prepared to shelter in place’ directive, I decided to stay,” he said. “I left…for the 10 days of spring break and came back six months later.”

As the year wore on, the interviewers encountered more outrage over issues like the Trump administration’s handling of the virus and the social justice concerns that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests. Throughout the summer, Bose noted, student conversations turned to anger over Instagram posts of classmates flaunting mask regulations and anxiety from upperclassmen facing depressed job markets.

Still, the interviewers were struck by a general sense of optimism from the GW community. Most were anxious to talk about how they managed stress and adopted a string of new hobbies. “Crocheting was very big,” Ross laughed. “And baking. Everybody seemed to go through a banana bread period.” Many talked about being grateful for the health and wellbeing of their loved ones. “I was expecting a lot of doom-and-gloom but there were more people who were just thankful for what they had,” Ross said.

To the student interviewers, the archives project offered an opportunity to play an active role in documenting a life-changing event. “I didn’t want to be passive in this moment,” Bose said. “I wanted to help write the historical narrative.”

GW faculty, students, staff and alumni who are interested in contributing to the ongoing archive can contact McAlister at [email protected].