Interview with Malissa Bonlender, 06/15/2022

UW Oshkosh Campus Stories
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´╗┐GL: This is Grace Lim interviewing Malissa Bonlender on Wednesday, June 15, 2022. For Campus COVID stories. Campus COVID stories is a collection of oral stories from students and staff at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh about their experiences in the time of COVID. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Before we get started, could you please state your name and spell it for us?

MB: Malissa Bonlender, M A L I S S A B O N L E N D E R.

GL: And now for the purposes of getting a good audio recording. Tell us again who you are and what your title is here at UW Oshkosh.

MB: Malissa Bonlender, and I'm the executive assistant in the Office of the Chancellor.

GL: And before we dive into your campus COVID story, we'd just like to get to know you a little bit better. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up.

MB: I was born in Jacksonville, Florida because my dad was in the Navy at the 00:01:00time, but I actually, both my parents are from Fond du Lac. So, I grew up in Fond du Lac and moved to North Fond du Lac when I was about 12. So, I went to that little bit smaller school district.

GL: And where did you earn your degree or degrees? And where?

MB: I actually didn't get a chance to finish a degree.

GL: Okay, and how did you come to work at UW Oshkosh?

MB: Directly out of high school, I started working for a large manufacturing company in Fond du Lac, called Giddings and Lewis. They are no longer around. I worked there for about nine years and their customer service department. They were taken over by a German company, which prompted me to try to find a state position. Because at the time, my husband was working for the state, he works for corrections. I ended up working at Taycheedah Correctional for about a year 00:02:00and a half. Before I found my position as Office Manager at Reeve Union here at UW Oshkosh. And I actually started on 9/10/2001. So, my second day on campus here was actually 9/11.

GL: Wow. And in your most current position, when did you start that?

MB: I started here in the Chancellor's office in January of 2018.

GL: Can you move your mic a little closer and then face up, a face straight like that? Awesome. Thank you. All right. So um, right before COVID started, tell me what your responsibilities, responsibilities had been.

MB: Before COVID, we had one other staff member here working in the office, Kate McQuillan was, at that time, the Chief of Staff here in the Chancellor's office, 00:03:00and I actually reported directly to her. So, my responsibilities here were mainly the Chancellor's calendar, I helped with budgeting and processing different human resource forms and things like that.

GL: And um prior to COVID, what would you say were your biggest challenges regarding your work?

MB: I came into this position with quite a bit of paper files that had been stored over the years. So, one of my big challenges was to convert those to some electronic version that we could keep and get them over to the archives.

GL: Okay, and then, moving to the early days of COVID. When was- Do you recall the first time you heard about this virus?

MB: Yeah, about three or four days before, I was actually on a cruise ship 00:04:00during the time that the big breakout happened, but we left on a cruise out of Florida on February 28th. And at that time, there was less than 10 people that had the virus, as I recall, in the news, and it was mostly in California, in other states, and at that time, we weren't too worried about it. We went on an eight-day cruise and that certainly changed by the time we got back. We got off the ship. We didn't hear anything about it while we were on the cruise, but we got off the ship and it was definitely different.

GL: And, you know, what were your, when got off the ship I mean what went through your head that time about this virus?

MB: My first thought was we need to get home um, because I'm an only child, and 00:05:00I have parents that I take care of and an aunt and uncle that have no children that I take care of. So, I was concerned more for them than I was for our welfare at the time. But the biggest concern was just getting home at that point.

GL: And at what point did you realize that this is something we have to think about? Or be worried about?

MB: Yeah, I think it kind of hit me right as we got off the ship, it was very apparent that people were, things were very different. You know, the whole masking thing, and just the airports and things, it was, it was different already.

GL: You actually saw people wearing masks on your way home?

MB: I did. Yes.

GL: Okay, so when you got back to work, well describe the atmosphere. When did 00:06:00you come back to work after your cruise.

MB: And actually, I did not come back to work after my cruise because I got home from my cruise. Let me look at my dates here, on the 8th of March. And in speaking with Kate McQuillan, they were already talking about how they were going to handle the office here. They may have some people come in some days, some people come in other days, I have diabetes. So, I was in one of those high-risk groups. So, she basically told me, why don't you work from home this week? And then we'll see how things go. And we'll work out a plan. But as it turned out, by the time the plan was worked out, everybody was working from home.

GL: And in the early days, I mean, what, you know, who, was Kate the person that you worked closely with in regards to the COVID Response?

MB: Yes.

GL: And then, so, so, you know, again, you know, so you started working from 00:07:00home, what was that like? And how were you able to handle that was an easy transition was it difficult?

MB: Luckily, I was able to work from home fairly easily. I do have a home computer that I use, and I had a printer and a scanner at home. So, I was able to jump right in and start working from home.

GL: And how-- So, describe what it was like after, after the students were sent home and most of the staff were sent home. I mean, what- what, how did your work change at that moment? At that time?

MB: Well, definitely handling the Chancellor's calendar, I could, I could see a change right away. Even, even, you know, all of the meetings went to virtual and his meetings with outside entities from, you know, people in the community pretty much just stopped because people really didn't, didn't know how to deal 00:08:00with it yet.

GL: So, you went home, I guess you stayed home. At what point did you start coming back to work in person?

MB: I didn't come back to campus until August of 2020. So, I worked at home that entire time. I ended up helping out with the COVID hotline that the university had going on. So, I ended up talking on the phone with people that were wanting information about how to get tested and especially where to get the vaccine

GL: Were you among those- I mean, I know that university had to put in place some furloughed, the furloughs, were you among the employees who were furlough, furloughed for a little that summer?

MB: No, I was lucky enough that I was not just simply because of the fact that I was still dealing with the Chancellor's calendar. I was helping out some other 00:09:00executive assistants, also here on campus that weren't quite set up to work from home. So, I was helping them out. And then I was doing quite a bit with the COVID hotline.

GL: And when did that, when did you start doing the hotline?

MB: Um, I don't know the date for sure. But right from the inception of it.

GL: Do we have that hotline? You know, before the students came back, I mean, when the students came back in fall 2020?

MB: This was spring of 2020. The hotline was created before the vaccines came out, because originally it was a hotline about where you could go to get tested and explaining to them you know, you go on the website to sign up to get tested. And then once the vaccine came out, it was all about you know, where to go to get the vaccine and that type of thing.

GL: So, is this the hotline for students or staff let me know, who was it for ?

00:10:00

MB: It was open to everyone.

GL: When you say everyone, I mean, talking about the, I mean-

MB: The community, students, staff, the community, we got far more community calls than we did from students or staff.

GL: Okay. And what were- what was that? Like? I mean, talking to these people, I mean, you know, walk us through some of that.

MB: It was heart wrenching to talk to some of these people, I got to know, some elderly people that would call me every day and say, is the vaccine ready? At where can I go? Where can I go to get this? You know, and we had been told, you know, um, the, the website that we had open a lot of times, that, you know, the spots to get the vaccine would fill up very quickly. So, we had, you know, please check with your local Walgreens, please check with, you know, we had different options to give them but a lot of them were very scared and very frustrated.

00:11:00

GL: This is a hotline that was developed um, by the University for the community.

MB: Correct.

GL: I just wanna make that-- Okay. All right. Okay, so, tell us, tell us what you I mean, at this time, you're working from home? I mean, how are you feeling at that time, what's going on? At home?

MB: Right. Well, like I said, my husband works for corrections. So he was actually going into work every day, there wasn't a day that he did not go into work. So not knowing at the beginning of the virus, not knowing how it was passed along, I think that was the scariest part. He would leave for work in the morning and come home, and he would get undressed in the garage and come in and get in the shower. And I was doing the grocery shopping for not only our family, 00:12:00but also my parents and my aunt and uncle. So, I was having to, as we all remember the toilet paper shortage. My aunt and uncle ran out. So, I remember sitting in the parking lot of Target waiting for them to open so I could be one of the first people in to get some toilet paper for them. It was just surreal. And my son attend attended another UW System school. And he was in his junior year that year. And even though he lived across the street from campus in a house, he ended up coming home. Because everything was online anyway. So, you had me working in our rec room in one corner, on the hotline and all of that and doing my normal job. And him working on the other corner of our rec room on his own computer doing his schoolwork. So, it was it was kind of surreal.

00:13:00

GL: Are- how do you think your job has changed? You know, because of the pandemic? I mean, has it changed at all?

MB: I think the biggest change would be we have far more virtual meetings now than what we did. I think there's a lot more people that are comfortable with them. And in my opinion, they've been working very well. I think that's probably the largest change. I was very proud of the emergency response team we had here on campus and the way that they pulled together. And just knowing that that's available, is, is some peace of mind.

GL: You know, before I forget, how long did you do the hotline?

MB: I did it right up until I think it was mid-May, somewhere around there. I 00:14:00started taking an online class at Fox Valley Technical College on for a lean certificate. So that was taking up a good portion of my time also. So, I stopped helping with the hotline at that time.

GL: The hotline and when you were doing a hotline how long you know, a couple hours or how did that work?

MB: There was a schedule, and you could sign up for as many or as few hours as you wanted. I typically was working two to three hours a day on it.

GL: Okay, and when the vaccines were finally available, I mean, you know, and, and you know, the administration you know, advocated the support the follow the 00:15:00CDC guidelines, what were your initial reaction to the vaccines?

MB: I was ecstatic that they were finally ready. I was so happy that I was finally able to tell the people that we're calling on the COVID hotline that yes, we have them available. And this is how you can sign up for an appointment. I was struggling trying to get my own family appointments. And I was able to get my mother and father appointments up here at UW Oshkosh, and my aunt and uncle got appointments at their doctor's office but having to take care of trying to find places for everybody to get the vaccination.

GL: And how much you feel like, you know, we're getting it back to normal, whatever that normal is?

MB: Right. You, you know, I feel like me personally, I'm at about 80%. You know, 00:16:00I don't think about it much. I've been vaccinated, I've had two boosters. So, I feel fairly confident that if I do get the vaccine or COVID, again, because I did have it once already, that it's going to be very mild, like it was the first time. I, I think a little bit if I'm going to be at an event or something where there's a large crowd of people, kind of gives me a little bit of pause, and I might wear a mask. But other than that, I'm, I would say I'm at about 80% back to normal.

GL: Knowing what you know, now, I mean that we were like two and half years, almost past the time that we were actually sent home. Was there something that you would have done differently in regards to what you do here at the university?

MB: I think that spring, when all of us were forced to work from home, I think I 00:17:00would have reached out to the other assistants on campus, the other executive assistants, and tried to form a group to try to help each other out. That's one of the things I would have done differently.

GL: When you say which spring are we talking about here?

MB: Spring of 2020.

GL: Okay, oh, yeah, yeah. When we at the very beginning?

MB: Yes.

GL: I mean, what was happening? I mean, when you were, you know, like, how do you think that would have helped?

MB: I think it would have helped both workload wise, because I know that, or I believe, that I had some programs on my computer that other others didn't have at home that maybe I could have helped with things. And also, the social aspect of it. You know, we did get together a couple of times, but we should have done like a weekly meeting, just a checkup How you doing? How's it going type thing.

00:18:00

GL: And, um, why we learned about your self-living in this global pandemic, I mean, living and working. And we're still in it, but what has this taught you about yourself?

MB: It's taught me that I can pivot, I can adapt. I'm resilient. And I'm and I'm able to take a look at the big picture and figure out what needs to be done and get it done. So, I'm, you know, I'm proud of the way that UW Oshkosh handled themselves in this pandemic. I think we did an excellent job. All of the faculty and staff of, you know, changing the way that we do things, that's not always easy, but we accomplished that.

GL: So, you have a unusual view about how the university works being in the Chancellor's office. I mean, what, what, what did you see? I mean, give us an 00:19:00idea of what was happening here.

MB: Well, unfortunately, because I didn't really come back to the office. I did speak to the Chancellor and Kate and Alex Hummel, virtually during that time, but I wasn't fully engulfed in it, you know, there were communication problems, because I knew that they were busy handling, you know, the big issues on campus. And I trusted them to do that. But I wasn't as emerged in it as I would have been had we all been in the same room dealing with the same thing.

GL: Uh, I just want to double check that you came back to work in person in August of 2020. What was that- I mean, we haven't had vaccines yet. So, at that point, I mean, were are you- I mean, how did you feel about that?

MB: I thought we had gotten vaccines by that point.

GL: Let me think about this one. I'm getting a little confused here.

MB: That's okay.

GL: We were sent, no; we were sent home spring of 2020. So, you took, and we did not get the vaccine until spring of 2021.

MB: Okay.

GL: So, are you talking August of 2021? That you came back in person?

MB: Nope. That was back August 2020.

GL: So, we haven't had the vaccines yet.

MB: Okay.

GL: So how was that? I mean, coming back because you're immunocompromised. You 00:20:00have your elderly parents and your aunt, I believe? What was..?

MB: I-- I'm pretty sure we had the vaccines by that time, because when I was still home working on the COVID hotline, we were dealing with signing people up for the vaccines. I could be totally wrong. But anyway.

00:21:00

GL: Okay.

MB: When I came--

GL: Yeah, no, I just want I'm pretty sure that no, I mean, we had to go through a whole semester of teaching without the vaccine.

MB: Okay.

GL: We did and then Chancellor's taught in the chemistry department, without the vaccine.

MB: I could be totally wrong.

GL: Yeah,

MB: Yeah. So, when I came back to campus, I wore my mask the entire time. As did anybody that was in their own offices here, they took their mask off once they were in their office with their door closed. But with my desk being on the open, I wore my mask all the time, I was able to get some plexiglass barriers, that kind of, I was able to set up to, around my desk, so that I was able to take my 00:22:00mask off when I was sitting at my desk, but I actually made some holders that went around my neck for my mask so that I always had it with me, I could put it on and take it off quite easily. And that helped tremendously. Because you know, if I get up to use the restroom, or if I get up to use the copier or anything, I had to put the mask on as we all did so.

GL: So, I'm gonna get, if you don't mind, we're going to talk a little bit about your, when we were all sent home. And, you know, you said that you were the, you know, official family and extended family, grocery shop. Grocery shopper. How were you doing? I mean, here you are taking care of your parents and your, your aunt's family? How are you doing?

MB: Looking back on it not well, I was missing having contact with people, 00:23:00because even my parents and my aunt and uncle, I used to go grocery shopping, bring it home, put it in my garage, wipe it all down, and then put it back in some bags and go deliver it to them. And I would literally put it on their porch and ring their doorbell type of thing. Because, you know, I was out and about, they were not and I didn't want to, you know, spread it to them. So just not having the social contact with people really wore on me and I think looking back, I was probably a little depressed at the time. My husband, given the situation, was working some overtime. I was thankful to have my son home at that time. Had I been home by myself, it would have been much worse, I'm sure.

GL: And or, were you, I know your husband's a essential worker. He had to I 00:24:00mean, he's essential. Well, was the rest of the family, practicing the, you know, the CDC guidelines at that time? I mean, including your college aged, son.

MB: Yeah, for the most part, we were not going out unless we were going out to get groceries. And my son was pretty okay with that. Most of his friends were at college and they all kind of went home. So he really had nobody to get together with they did a lot of communicating online as that age group will, so.

GL: You mentioned that you had gotten COVID you know, when was that and what were your symptoms like?

MB: I had COVID in September I want to say 2021. I'm not totally sure. And it 00:25:00was, I had stomach issues, and a headache. And I actually drove to work. And I sat in my car. And I made an online appointment to get tested at Albee Hall. And I sat my car and waited for my appointment, I went in and got tested, I went back and sat in my car, because I wanted to make sure I didn't come into the office if there was an issue. And it came back positive. I called the office, and I asked Alex to run the stuff from my desk down to my car. So I opened up the back of my car, and he threw it in the back of my car. So I went home to work from home, at that point, it was 10 days. And it, I was very lucky, it was very mild. By day three, I felt perfectly fine. But that was a bit trying for my 00:26:00family also, because my husband was still working a lot of overtime, and I wasn't able to go out and you know, get the groceries and things like that. So yeah, luckily, I had we had moved in August of 2021. And our house is kind of set up so that I had a bedroom and a bathroom that I could use myself, so I kind of just moved into there.

GL: Did anyone else in your family and your close family members get COVID?

MB: No, I was lucky they did not.

GL: Okay. Alright. So, I gotta say this, the Chancellor has had mentioned you has been, you know, one of the people who did a lot of work during the time of COVID. And, I mean, we'd like you to not be so humble. I mean, can you just tell 00:27:00me a little bit about, you know, how you were, you know, you know, the kind of work you were doing. And during this time,

MB: He's probably mostly talking about the COVID hotline that I helped out with. And I did help out quite a bit with that. I know that there was a lot of our athletic staff that was also helping out on that. And things would come up last minute that they were not able to man the hotline, that I think the hotline was actually open until seven or eight o'clock at night, and then opened up, I want to say like eight o'clock in the morning. And there were days that you know, the other people that were supposed to be doing it were not able to. So that's what I did all day long. But I knew it needed to be done. It was important that somebody be there to answer the questions that people had. So I was, I was happy 00:28:00to do it.

GL: You said most of your calls came, I mean, a lot of the people that you talk to her elderly, did you get any calls from students?

MB: Yeah, yeah, we would get calls from students asking, you know, you know, at that time, what the guidelines were, you know, how often they needed to be tested, things like that. And they actually had people in the background of the COVID hotline that were dealing specifically with the student issues. A lot of calls from students saying, you know, I tested positive, what do I do now? And I would hand those students off to the coordinators they had in the background that would physically call the students and follow up with them.

GL: Okay, we touched on a lot of things. I mean, is there anything else you'd like to add?

MB: Other than the fact that I'm, I've said it before, but I'm just proud of UW Oshkosh in the way that we handled this pandemic. Like I said, my, my son 00:29:00attended a different UW. And I'm not saying that they did a poor job of it. But in retrospect, I believe that our university handled it much better than his; he would call me and say, I can't even, I can't even get in here to get tested. I don't, they're not telling us anything. So that you know, I would tell him come home, you know, you can go to UW Oshkosh and get tested. So I, I'm just very proud of the way the university handled the epidemic.

GL: Thank you for sharing your stories with us. We appreciate your contribution to the campus COVID stories at UW Oshkosh.