Oral Historian Documents Campus Life During COVID-19

Oral Historian Andre Taylor accepted his position at William & Mary Libraries during unprecedented circumstances.

He was one of the library staff hired at the height of the pandemic and did not experience the conventional transition into the W&M community. However, Taylor used it as an opportunity to connect with students facing similar challenges. 

Taylor decided to document the oral history of students from the Class of 2024 and the circumstances they are facing due to COVID-19.

“Project 2024 focuses on the lives of students who started at W&M during the pandemic and looks how they adapted to college life and integrated into the community,” Taylor said.

Initially, five students volunteered to take part in Project 2024, but as word of mouth spread, the group grew to 14 students. 

Taylor is interviewing each student once a semester to discuss updates on the trajectory of their overall growth. With two batches of interviews recorded, Taylor has already seen a drastic change in the students.

“In the first interview, everybody was just a shell,” Taylor said. “Then in their second semester, everyone started to come alive. I know one young lady started a rock band on campus and two will even be working in special collections.”

Cecilia Weaver is one of the new student assistants at Special Collections, working under Taylor. Before meeting Taylor and recording her first oral history interview, she was only on campus for less than a month. But she learned of Project 2024 via the Libraries’ Instagram account and decided to be a part of helping secure an accurate record of this time in history.

“I was definitely timid,” Weaver said about her first interview. “It was my first semester on campus and I did the interview in the first month. I didn’t know what to expect, but Andre was easy to talk to and it made the process much easier.”

Weaver was surprised that talking with Andre felt more like a conversation than an interview. She shared about her personal life, background, and expectations for her freshman year.

Now, Weaver is much more confident and comfortable being an independent college student.

“By my second semester, I wasn’t so afraid to be here at W&M and be part of Project 2024,” Weaver said. “I think getting involved in student organizations played a significant part in my personal growth. I became a social chair of the pep band and serve on its executive board, which has allowed me to interact with members of the pep band across different classes.”

History major Annabelle Midden, who also began working in special collections this fall, was instantly enthusiastic about being in front of the camera and sharing with future researchers. Midden embraced the opportunity to not only talk about living in a pandemic but also discuss her viewpoints on social issues.

Midden grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, and witnessed a significant resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

I started as someone being interviewed just as a person living through COVID on campus. But my conversations with Andre (Taylor) evolved into also sharing my perspective on current events because a lot of social issues were happening all at one time,” she said. “I wanted to discuss things I’d like to hear if I was going through archives and found an oral history logging what was happening in the world.”

By being part of this historical research, Weaver, Midden and the other participants will leave a rare imprint on W&M. After 10-plus years have passed, Taylor said this group of students will be able to show their families who they were as college students. And importantly, give researchers a glimpse into what it was like to navigate campus life during the pandemic. 

“Going to college and playing football, I wanted to leave a mark,” Taylor said. “I believe you should always make a place better than it was before you got there. These students have the privilege to leave that personal mark. Not every student from William & Mary is going to be part of Project 2024. These students will have a digital footprint that says ‘here is who I was when I first got to college and this is how I grew’.”