Documenting Student Life during Covid-19

It started, as these things do, with a conversation. Jill Kelly, history professor, had an idea that she shared with Cindy Boeke, digital collections librarian, and me, the SMU university archivist. Jill said, “What do you think about having a history intern use Zoom to interview students about their experiences during this time of Covid-19?”

That was all it took. I instantly loved this. If I had something like this from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, I would be beyond happy.

RAs discussing interview
SMU undergraduate Research Assistants discussing Anga Sanders’ interview. From left to right Sryia Reddy, Nia Kamau, Carson Dudick, and India Simmons.

Some background: I work with the Voices of SMU Oral History project. Undergraduate Research Assistants, funded by the Undergraduate Research Program of the Office of Engaged Learning, interview Southern Methodist University alumni of color about their experiences as students to diversity the university archive. We’ve been working on this for almost three years—the students have completed over 130 interviews to date. Its success has been made possible by fabulous graduate student project managers and support from the Friends of the Libraries, the Provost’s Office of Student Academic Engagement and Success, the William P. Clements Department of History, and many others. Our students are wonderful (you know who you are). The folks from the amazing nCDS provide the necessary (and seamless) infrastructure and technical support. Jill Kelly is our fearless leader.

In all of my reading during this past month (has it only been a month?), I keep reading about how other archives are documenting Covid. Yes, I had started documenting what SMU did before we left the campus. I had printed out all the early emails. I have a email file with all the recent emails about how the hilltop is coping with Covid. The Daily Campus has started a “Class of Covid” special project.

I thought about asking people to journal knowing that it would be good for them (and good for the archives). In fact, I had spoken to history graduate student T. Ashton Reynolds about journaling. I knew my archivist friend Amy Schindler at University of Nebraska at Omaha had asked for journals. But, try as I could, I can’t even journal as much as I wanted to.

Journal with no words
Journal with no words

I just can’t gather my thoughts together in a coherent way.  How could I ask SMU students to do something that I could not?

Jill has a history student with a terrific resume (great interpersonal and organizational skills) who wants to do an internship during this summer.  As we know, this will be a distance internship. We brainstormed how we could help a student intern build archival skills as they would in person from afar, and one that would keep someone engaged remotely. nCDS experimented with Zoom, the distance meeting program that has taken over all of our lives this last month, for some Voices interviews last year. Then, the idea.

We plan for our student intern to interview graduating students (and maybe some staff and faculty) to talk about how the coronavirus impacted their lives. Our student will learn about the basics of oral history, from ethics, to asking open-ended questions and the nitty-gritty detail of recording and preservation. We will work together to come up with some good basic questions for the interviews. And we will talk about whether or not these interviews should be “quarantined” for a number of years. We want our interviewees to speak freely.

During and after the internship, the SMU archives will have to do the fundraising to get transcripts done. I don’t want the archivist after me to have these materials just in the cloud, but not accessible.  It all started with a conversation. And it will end with many conversations about how we survived and sometimes even thrived during these very trying times.


Written by Joan Gosnell, SMU University Archivist