Shape Shifting During the Pandemic
In March 2020, with news of an imminent lockdown in France, we quickly made plans to halt our operations and secure Reid Hall for an undetermined period of time. Students rushed back home, professors and fellows did the same. Staff members worked remotely. All study abroad programs were cancelled and Reid Hall stood in silent splendor. When we finally could return on-site, we found ourselves in a beautiful yet eerily empty site.
Just as 4 rue de Chevreuse had adapted its activities in times past, we too were required to ask ourselves how we might continue the mission of the Center during an uncertain time.
Even with a 250-year history, Reid Hall has never been as empty as it has been during this global pandemic. Throughout each of the two World Wars, soldiers, caretakers, and students filled the gardens and halls. In World War I, property owner Elisabeth Mills Reid transformed what had previously been a club for artists into a military hospital, first for the French Red Cross, then for the American Expeditionary Forces and the American Red Cross. Officers were sent to Reid Hall to be operated on or healed from their wounds. During World War II, the École normale supérieure des jeunes filles de Sèvres moved from their location, which had been requisitioned by German troops, to 4 rue de Chevreuse. Students resided at Reid Hall and pursued their studies in a green haven protected from the atrocities of war.
Just as 4 rue de Chevreuse had adapted its activities in times past, we too were required to ask ourselves how we might continue the mission of the Center during an uncertain time. Adjusting to the pandemic was no easy matter, but we quickly transformed our activities and our work habits. Staff members at the Paris Center and Reid Hall must all be commended for stepping up to the plate and doing everything within their powers not only to create a safe working environment, but also to imagine and develop innovative solutions to what we now referred to as “our new normal.” Despite all the restrictions, we were quite a dynamic group, using this time to work on the facilities, migrate to online programming, update our website, and support the few students and fellows who ventured within our walls. One of the most formative lessons that we have taken away from this entire experience is that adaptability and the capacity to "shape-shift" cannot be underestimated.
Although we remained distanced physically from one another, we found ways to connect, to see and be seen by our peers and co-workers. All of our activities were transferred online, with Zoom and other digital interfaces serving as our umbilical cords to the rest of the globe. In point of fact, the world was at our doorstep with merely the flick of a switch on our computers or televisions. Virtual meetings became our only meetings, and webinars replaced on-site interviews and conferences. And while we could not welcome our traditional French public, our online programming, webinars, videos, and interviews all posted on our YouTube channel, greatly diversified our audience, making us truly global in our reach. To date, we have drawn more than 6000 viewers from 54 different countries. Finally, we curated and created a brand style for our social media feeds, thereby increasing our followers from 1000 to 15000.
Additionally, we developed strategies to improve our online presence, like updating our website, transforming ad-hoc collaborations into real partnerships at Reid Hall, and by joining forces with 4 Columbia campus partners – Maison Francaise, the Alliance Program, The European Institute, and Columbia University Libraries. These collaborations meant that Columbia was front and center in all our events, with 33 faculty members as panelists, and numerous Columbia student participants. We also worked within the Global Centers network, organizing and communicating about specific events with our partner Centers the world over.
In addition to working online, we also had to adapt the Reid Hall property to French governmental and Columbia University COVID protocols. We thus modified the upkeep of the buildings, re-arranged the furniture in classrooms, conference rooms, offices, and the gardens, and regulated all in-person interactions. Signage was hung throughout the Center to highlight these new measures.
At the same time, we were also able to use this lull in student and staff traffic to complete much-needed upgrades. To ensure security, we installed a digital entry card access system on both of our doors. We also augmented our electrical capacity and transitioned to fiber optic cabling, thereby enhancing our access to the Internet. Our old, fuel-based heating system was completely dismantled, and electric radiators were installed. In collaboration with UGE | Paris, we refurbished their student lounge, changing out flooring and furnishings, and adding digital signage. Bookcases were commissioned and built in two of our classrooms. Our library also benefited from the installation of new glass panes on each of its enclosed bookshelves, thanks to our newest member, the American Graduate School (AGS). The most exciting of our projects is still underway – that of an on-site café adjoining the Reid Hall student salon. We hope this new addition will become a congenial hub for students, faculty, and visitors alike. It had been a thought for quite some time, and thanks to generous donations from Eraj and Celeste Shirvani, and Trustee Ann Kaplan, it can now be fully realized. We expect the space to be functional right around the time students are able to return to the Center.
Last and certainly not least, we joined the Columbia Presidential Initiative, spearheaded by Safwan M. Masri and the Global Centers, by welcoming international students who could not be on Columbia’s campus. Because of local lockdown restrictions, we had to limit the number of students who could come on-site, however, graduate students from anthropology, economics, SIPA, the French department, the dual degree programs between Sciences Po and Columbia made use of individual offices and classrooms where they could pursue their work and online teaching. Though many undergraduate students were unable to physically visit the Center, Séverine Martin, Director of UGE | Paris, went above and beyond in engaging all students in various activities.
Aside from the initial two-month confinement in the Spring of 2020, the Paris Center has, thus far, persevered, remaining a haven for those who sought quiet and calm during a time that was anything but. Historically, Reid Hall has always provided this type of solace.