Pitt’s pandemic heroes: UPJ housing coordinator focused on students, safety

Karen Barrick, her husband and five grandchildren outside

Editor’s note: This new series shines a spotlight on Pitt staff who are going above and beyond during the University’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


When Pitt decided students shouldn’t stay on campus after spring break, Karen Barrick was on the frontlines as Pitt–Johnstown’s housing coordinator.

“It was quite an experience — one I really don’t want to repeat,” she says.

Quickly, she and her colleagues — her boss, Bob Knipple, executive director of housing and dining services; Judy McGuirk, meal plan coordinator; and Willie Myers of the ID center — created new express checkout procedures, with envelopes to put under everyone’s door to collect mail and room keys as the students packed up and left.

Barrick and her colleagues were “trying to do it in a way that was easy for them but not have a lot of contact” with each other or campus staff, she recalls.

Some students were never able to return after spring break; this fall they will find their belongings locked in their rooms. Those students who had to remain on campus were consolidated into two buildings.

“We wanted them kind of centralized, which was more for their protection,” Barrick says. Some resident assistants volunteered to stay as well, and would frequently text students to find out how they were doing.

After moving her office to her kitchen table, “I must have answered a hundred emails in a day,” she recalls. Parents were calling — many, many parents. “A lot of them were questioning, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” before there were official answers about the moving-out process and partial refunds.

“I can understand, as a parent you need answers. Even if we send emails to students, they tend not to tell their parents about them.” The team’s aim was to do “anything we could do to make them feel better about the whole process … which no one was feeling well about.”

“It was … interesting,” says the 15-year Pitt employee, “but we got through it.”

Suite-style traditional dorm rooms are only one rooming choice for Johnstown’s 1,600 resident students. They can choose from townhouses and apartments that hold four to five people; the campus’ living-learning center with double-occupancy rooms; lodges that hold eight to 16 for fraternities and sororities; two- and four-person apartments; and Willow Hall, which is popular with seniors, holding four to five per suite, but with individual bedrooms.

Move-out wasn’t simple. Nor was calculating the specific refund, which Barrick handled, or the even-more-variable meal-plan refund, which Knipple handled.

In March, Barrick was in the middle of re-contracting the 800 returning students for fall housing, which is usually done February through April. Using software called Mercury, built to handle college housing tasks, she normally creates templates for student housing applications and teaches resident assistants how to use Mercury for their own duties. She also helps to assign rooms and roommates.

“Our job is to make the students as comfortable and happy as we can because that’s their home for nine months,” Barrick says. “Sometimes you can’t please everybody, but I feel our job is to keep the students calm and happy so that they can study because if they’re having roommate conflicts, they won’t be able to study.”

Now, in May, new students are just putting in their housing applications for the fall, to be decided by July. Of course, she is still working at home, “with my two co-workers, a cat and a dog,” while her husband Fred, a lead assembler for Lockheed Martin, is still working outside the home.

She is looking forward most to returning to campus and “seeing everyone. Zoom meetings are nice, but there is something about personal camaraderie and talking to people in the same room. We’re a pretty close-knit department.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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