By Claire M. Regan ’80
Wagner College has weathered a host of tragedies and challenges through its 138-year history. Two World Wars and Vietnam. Terrorist attacks across the harbor. Depressions and recessions. Hurricanes and blizzards.
But none has been anything quite like the coronavirus pandemic. A merciless killer, Covid-19 has been sneaking up and snuffing out lives — approaching 300,000 in the U.S. at this writing — since it first became part of our vernacular in February 2020.
As Wagner alumni, we cherish memories of four years on Grymes Hill filled with camaraderie, friendship and fun. The campus was our safe haven, a cocoon of sorts, where we could let our guard down as we learned and grew.
The coronavirus all but snuffed out that innocence at many colleges across the country where surges in the infection rate sickened students or forced them home.
But at Wagner, the story has played out differently.
Thanks to the steady leadership of President Joel W. Martin, his senior staff, and members of the Higher Education Health Analytics Team he assembled, the college offered in-person learning and maintained a remarkable level of normalcy — and safety — for the fall 2020 semester.
The Dance Project presented “A Celebration of Socially Distanced Dance” on the steps of Main Hall. Masked theater majors performed Shakespeare on an outdoor stage. Chef Michael served funnel cakes and churros in the Union Atrium as a Wagner Wednesday dessert treat.
Science, transparency, stringent protocols and rigorous testing made it all possible. Wagner students, faculty and staff made it happen.
“Wagner has always been a caring community,” President Martin wrote in an editorial published by the Staten Island Advance. “When the pandemic tested us, we came together and brought out the best in each other.”
The profiles in this section salute five Wagner alumni whose extraordinary efforts and expertise kept students safe and made memories possible.
The Scientific Method
There’s something about a scientist that brings peace to a pandemic.
Amid screaming headlines and dire declarations of “surges” and “spikes,” a scientist uses data to stay focused, informed and even optimistic.
Meet Christopher Corbo ’06 M’08, associate professor and chair of Wagner’s Biological Sciences Department — and, yes, a scientist, specializing in immunology, bacterial pathogenesis and electron microscopy.
Corbo, who earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and master’s degree in microbiology from Wagner, has been invaluable as an adviser to President Martin, especially during selection of the Broad Institute Covid-19 testing system.
“Testing is the factor that drives down the infection rate,” Corbo explains. Coupled with a social contract calling for respect and consideration for the health and safety of all community members, a virus can be held at bay.
“And that is inherently Wagner,” he says. “Everyone cares for everyone else here.”
“We have one of the most rigorous Covid testing programs of any university in the country,” adds Corbo, who co-chairs the Higher Education Health Analytics Team. “With the extraordinary cooperation of our students, faculty and staff, that testing program has helped us achieve a very, very low rate of infection.”
Corbo also worked closely with Provost Jeffrey Kraus and Associate Provost Nick Richardson to establish best practices for online instruction, and with Mark Harmon-Vaught, director of the president’s office, to set up the college’s Covid reporting dashboard.
Updated daily with information from the college’s testing regimen and about campus quarantine and isolation, the dashboard earned an A-double-plus rating for transparency and completeness.
Corbo used hypothetical data to chart how the virus could spread on campus. The information helped senior staff prepare for every possible scenario as part of a reopening plan.
Science has been Corbo’s passion for as long as he can remember. A lifelong Staten Islander, he worked as a zookeeper at the Staten Island Zoo and originally planned to pursue conservation science. But at Wagner, he switched to biology and worked at the Institute for Basic Research. His doctorate in molecular neuroscience is from the City University of New York.
As a scientist, he understands how information can alleviate fear, and he hopes to transition his Covid expertise into a special-topics course for the Biological Sciences Department.
In a pandemic, even scientists can be caught off-guard, Corbo confides.
“I remember initially not being really concerned about the coronavirus,” he says. “I remember receiving an email from [Provost] Jeffrey Kraus asking faculty: ‘If you had to go completely remote, how would you do it?’ I didn’t put a ton of thought into it because I never thought we’d be in that situation.”
As a scientist, he points to the past to explain the present with a tinge of optimism.
“This is not the first outbreak we’ve heard about. We’ve lived through SARS, we’ve lived through MERS. And so here’s the next iteration of that. It’s going to go the way it always goes, as some form of an outbreak that always gets contained.”
From On–Campus to Online
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the campus last March, the immediate concern of Frank Cafasso ’00 M’02 was for the faculty, who had to abruptly transition from teaching in person to teaching remotely.
“Our approach for spring was to do whatever we had to do to get classes running,” Wagner’s chief information officer explains. “We wanted to let faculty use whatever technology they were comfortable with.”
A good listener who understands that technology can be intimidating, Cafasso supported professors with ongoing training sessions focusing on Zoom video conferencing and Moodle, the course management system.
He praised Christina Dempsey, training coordinator on his 16-member I.T. team, for “raising the comfort level” among faculty during summer workshops.
For Cafasso, preparation began even before the pandemic became a global crisis. In January 2020, he joined other Wagner administrators on an emergency response team.
“We knew there was a possibility of it [Covid-19] affecting us and we knew we needed to start making preparations,” he recalls. “You can’t over prepare. You come up with a plan and hope you’ll never have to use it.”
One of Cafasso’s biggest challenges was equipping classrooms for a fall semester of hybrid learning, which blends in-person teaching with video instruction for students who are remote. Cameras were installed in every classroom and the wireless network was upgraded, bringing the college’s investment in campus-wide enhancements into the six-figure range.
“Technology is expensive to deploy and maintain,” he points out.
And with schools across the country upgrading in the same way at the same time, supplies were in demand and didn’t arrive on campus until four days before the start of the fall semester.
“It was non-stop intensity from March to mid-September,” Cafasso says. “We did a lot of heavy lifting, a lot of work on the infrastructure, to get it going.”
As a member of the Higher Education Health Analytics Team, he kept informed about pandemic initiatives in the government and healthcare sectors, and learned how Staten Island’s two other colleges were handling the crisis.
Cafasso, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Wagner in computer science and a master’s in business administration two years later, says his longtime familiarity with the campus helped him get the job done faster. So did a close relationship with faculty and staff that only an alumnus can appreciate.
The C.I.O. is hoping fall semester successes bode well for the spring.
“Overall, I’m very pleased how everything turned out for fall,” he summarizes. “There were very few issues.”
The Path to Health and Wellness
For seasoned nurse Kathleen Oberfeldt M’98 D’17, it wasn’t the spread of a deadly virus that first caught her attention. It was the global response to it.
After all, with more than 36 years in the field, she has handled life-threatening healthcare crises wrought by Ebola, H1N1 and SARS.
“I personally couldn’t figure out why it was so bad,” she says, recalling the first confusing weeks of the pandemic when Covid-19 was turning the world upside down while medical experts struggled to understand its origin, transmission and morbidity.
As dean of the Center for Health and Wellness, Oberfeldt’s first concern was for Wagner students and their safety. She worried especially about residential students, and went to work with the Office of Residential Education to establish a plan for their safe return home as the campus shut down in mid-March.
“I couldn’t imagine dorms filled with ill students,” she recalls with alarm.
That was just the beginning for Oberfeldt, who in her combined role as first responder, front-line worker and campus caregiver helped shepherd the college through the toughest months of the pandemic.
As a key adviser to President Martin, she worked tirelessly through spring and summer on the college’s plan to safely bring students, faculty and staff back to campus for the fall semester.
“As soon as we started closing everything down, we started making plans to reopen,” she says.
When it became clear that testing was the key to a viable reopening, Oberfeldt assisted President Martin as he researched options.
“It was down to the wire when we learned about the Broad (pronounced “Brode”) Institute,” she recalls. “We jumped on that bandwagon. I was very happy Wagner invested in good testing; it gave us a solid plan to reopen.”
Located in Cambridge, Mass., the Broad Institute is a biomedical research center operated by M.I.T. and Harvard University. Its novel automation system for Covid-19 testing has been adopted by Wagner and more than 100 other colleges and universities in the northeast.
During the summer, Oberfeldt’s role broadened even further when she was appointed by President Martin to co-chair of the Higher Education Health Advisory Team. She appreciated collaborating with Staten Island health and government officials as well as administrators from the College of Staten Island and the Grymes Hill campus of St. John’s University.
“It was a coordinated effort to gather and disseminate information,” she explains.
For the safe return of students, faculty and staff in the fall, Oberfeldt joined the campus-wide effort in making sure all components of Wagner’s reopening plan were in place.
RN Nursing Solutions was hired to assist Health and Wellness staff at the Covid-19 testing site set up outside Spiro Sports Center. Through the fall semester, more than 2,300 tests would be administered at the site each week.
Oberfeldt also made sure nursing care was available on campus 24/7 to address the needs of students quarantined in Guild Hall and provide psychological and medical support for the whole student body.
A native Staten Islander now living in Keyport, N.J., Oberfeldt holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in nursing from Wagner. Andrew, her high school sweetheart and husband of 38 years, also holds a master’s degree from Wagner, and two of their three children are Wagner alumni.
She is pleased that hard work and planning through the pandemic has paid off.
“We didn’t see the numbers [of infections] we thought we’d see,” she reports. “Students were grateful and felt safe. We wanted them to know they weren’t alone through all of this.”
Even with a vaccine on the horizon and campus protocols in place, Oberfeldt knows there’s no time to let her guard down with another semester just around the corner.
“Thank God everybody has done well,” she says. “We’re blessed to have come through this as well as we did.”
Our Friend In Borough Hall
After working in New York City government for more than three decades, Ed Burke ’80 has a lot of connections. He can slice through the bureaucracy of any city agency with a simple phone call; this deputy borough president for Staten Island always prefers talking to emailing.
So when Wagner President Joel W. Martin assembled the Higher Education Health Analytics Team in the spring, Burke became a valuable resource in accessing information from the city.
He helped Wagner, St. John’s University and the College of Staten Island collect data from the city Department of Health as they charted plans for testing, tracing and reopening.
“My job was to make sure the colleges had access to city agencies,” summarizes Burke, who appreciated the “vivid camaraderie” displayed during biweekly HEHAT meetings through the summer and fall.
“The colleges immediately saw the benefit of sharing information,” he says. “There was a coalescing of ideas. In times of crisis, you realize you have to work together.”
He was proud to see Wagner keep the virus at bay through the fall semester.
“As an alum, I understood why so many students wanted to be on campus” in spite of the pandemic, Burke says. “It’s a family atmosphere, and therefore worthy of that extra effort. The students followed guidelines and proved Wagner’s approach was effective.”
At Wagner, Burke majored in English and served as editor of the Wagnerian student newspaper. The journalism experience proved handy when he started his career in public relations and communication at the former St. Vincent’s Medical Center and with former Congressman Guy V. Molinari.
Burke, who also holds a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College, has served as Staten Island’s deputy borough president since 2006 when he was appointed by then-Borough President James P. Molinaro.
Current Borough President James Oddo took notice of HEHAT’s good work and shared praise on Twitter. “We’re watching what’s happening at colleges across the country and it makes me that much more appreciative of our collaboration with our three fine S.I. institutions @WagnerCollege @csinews @stjohnssi, and the work of the Health Analytics Team to keep our students as safe as possible.”
The borough president added in another Tweet: “This is a proactive, data-driven approach for dealing with a pandemic for which there is no playbook.”
Burke is grateful his boss hosted a Webex conversation with the three colleges early on. “It got the ball rolling on this collaboration,” he says.
For Burke, serving as a member of HEHAT has been one more way to stay close to his alma mater and help it through a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.
“I applaud Joel [Martin] for having the vision, for seeing the need to call together this task force,” Burke says. “He saw its importance from the start and kept up the momentum. Forty years after graduating, to be working with the president, faculty and staff on such a crucial issue has given me a sense of pride and purpose as an alum.”
It’s been 36 years since he graduated, but Dr. Brian Mignola ’84 remembers his time at Wagner like it was yesterday.
Just mention his alma mater and he’s ready to recite the names of favorite science professors: Kanzler, Priddy, Yarns, Schulz — and, at the top of the list, Otto Raths, professor of physics.
“He was one of the best teachers at any level — grade school to medical school,” Mignola beams. “He made a very difficult subject very understandable.”
And so it’s no surprise Mignola was ready to step up for Wagner as the coronavirus pandemic surged in the spring, accepting an invitation from President Martin to join the Higher Education Health Analytics Team.
Mignola continues to serve as prescribing physician for all tests administered on campus. And as the college physician for all of Wagner’s sports teams, he shepherded the Athletics Department through some difficult days.
A Brooklyn native now living on Staten Island’s South Shore, Mignola is also an adjunct faculty member in the physician assistant program and consultative physician for the college’s Center for Health and Wellness.
Off campus, he serves as the physician for 1,500 officers in the NYPD and as director of a family medicine practice in the Dongan Hills section of Staten Island — “just five minutes down the hill from Wagner,” the proud alumnus quickly points out — where he supervises clinical rounds for students in the college’s physician assistant and nurse practitioner programs.
Even after 14-hour work days, Mignola makes family time a priority. He met his wife, the former Lora Giacomoni ’85 M’91, at a health fair on campus and remembers their first Wagner-style date down the hill at the Roadhouse restaurant.
He Zooms regularly with his former Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity brothers, and looks back at his college years with appreciation.
“Wagner was a very unique experience,” he shares. “The camaraderie on campus was great. It was a family; we all knew each other.”
He is proud to note that his daughter, Daria, is a Wagner senior majoring in environmental sciences. The Mignolas also have two sons: Jonathan, an administrative director in the anesthesiology department at Staten Island University Hospital, and Andrew, a mechanical engineer who — more than coincidentally — designs operating rooms.
Mignola has first-hand knowledge about the severity of Covid-19. He contracted the disease in late March, suffering stomach problems, a cough and extreme fatigue that kept him sleeping 23 hours a day. Fortunately, he had a relatively quick recovery in 10 days.
His experience as a physician during New York City’s darkest days 19 years ago puts the pandemic
“I was around for 9/11,” he shares. “I thought that was bad, but it was contained. This [pandemic] has been 9/11 on steroids.”
Still, he is optimistic about what lies ahead.
“The virus is attenuating,” Mignola says. “I think the vaccine will be very effective. I’m optimistic that over time, as herd immunity increases, the virus will burn itself out and become comparable to the flu.”
“Hopefully, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”