Columbia Contributes: The Faces of Moving Forward

Members of the Columbia community
In the face of COVID-19, the Columbia community has come together to keep our culture anchored and to keep us moving forward. This is our story.

The public health crisis caused by COVID-19 has changed a lot about how we interact with the world. Our day-to-day has changed so much, that sometimes it can be hard to remember that our identity has nothing to do with the buildings or businesses we frequent or the routines that provide us with a sense of comfort or stability. Our identity is separate from all of that. But still--this isn’t forever. We have moved forward and we will continue to move forward. Today, we highlight and honor a few of the many who are contributing to the practices of keeping on, anchoring our culture, and looking out for one-another. We are the faces of moving forward. We are Columbia.

Michael Dunham—Manager of Special Services, Facilities Operations-Facilities and Construction

Michael Dunham, Manager of Special Services with Facilities and Operations, being an essential worker means that he is at the forefront of keeping Columbia’s buildings clean and secure through this crisis. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic he and his team have been working long hours—sometimes eighteen hours a day—to ensure that visitors to buildings are not put at risk by touching elevator buttons, door handles, or ID touchpads.

After a call saying that a member of the Columbia community was in the same space as an individual impacted by COVID-19, Dunham and his team spring into action. They trace the places those individuals have been, and, armed with personal protective equipment, sanitize the area. Sometimes the calls have come in at 10pm. Sometimes later.

And yet this is only half of Dunham’s role. As he says, “My two main jobs in the COVID world are janitorial and mail services.” Dunham is committed to making sure that life, as much as possible, continues for faculty, staff, and students who rely on the mail for everything from letters from loved ones to life-saving prescriptions.

Dunham, and his co-worker Chief Engineer Tony Rickabaugh are also committed to protecting members of the community who can’t protect themselves. Sometimes that means going out of the way to meet the needs of vulnerable faculty and staff. Sometimes, it means stepping up to take care of those who are left behind. For example, Dunham and his team have stepped up to feed PAH, the ASL fish during the shutdown—a fish who has been a figurehead of the department since 2013.

In the end, Dunham notes that, like Pandora’s Box, one good thing has come out of the COVID-19 crisis. He says, “I’ve really been aware of gratitude lately. A friend of mine always says, ‘Enough is A Feast.’ I’ve been trying to live that…I have great co-workers and friends. Even going through this, I’m aware that I have it a lot better than a lot of people right now…I’m trying to make the people I work with aware that I’m thankful that they’re here, and that I’m working with them.”

Tony Rickabaugh—Chief Engineer, Facilities Operations-Facilities and Construction

Tony Rickabaugh, another essential at Columbia College Chicago, is also tasked with ensuring that Columbia facilities are safe, systems operational, and protected. As he says, “We go through the building with our Personal Protective Equipment on, walk through the buildings, and make sure everything is good…We’re trying to catch things before they become a big issue.”

Rickabuagh knows that times are fraught. He says, “The unknown is the biggest concern for everyone—you don’t know exactly how you can contract it, so you find yourself with a tube of Lysol wipes and before you touch anything you wipe it down…you hope that [COVID-19 is] never with us or anything like that, but you have to be prepared.”

Through it all, Rick remains committed to protecting Columbia’s assets and his fellow engineers at Columbia. He says, “Your crew is the most important thing…so we have to play it super safe.”

Charlie Balsar­—Student, CTVA

For CTVA student Charlie Balsar, moving forward amidst this crisis means continuing to operate within his identity as a filmmaker and continuing to make projects for others to enjoy. Being away from campus and even some of his equipment hasn’t stopped him. After all, it is art: films, books, television shows—that is getting many people stuck in self-isolation through stressful and anxious times. That holds true for Balsar. He says, “Our training has given us the flexibility to allow us to stay creative and maintain ongoing projects through this time of social distancing.” CTVA students, many of whom have taken classes in various modes of production, are using this time to continue to showcase stories and their experiences of the world.

Despite logistic challenges and creative hurdles, Balsar has seen his fellow students to continue to work and produce content over the last weeks. He notes, “I’ve now seen a lot more experimenting and testing. I’ve seen someone test out their camera on action figures and get beautiful end products. I’ve seen someone set up a camera and light themselves as if they were the actor and then capture themselves in photos. As difficult as it can be to continue practicing the art of film while staying six feet away from everyone, our community is certainly finding ways to adapt.”

Balsar believes in the work—and the importance of continuing to work through difficult times. He says, “It is incredibly difficult to keep oneself inspired during these times, but it is so pivotal, not only in our roles as an artist but as a society and culture, to keep creating. Life without art is meaningless… Find any sliver of hope that you can and run with it. Latch onto it and let it fuel your creations.”

Eric Gross—Alum, Senior Sound Designer for Disney’s “Sorcerer’s Arena”

Audio Arts and Acoustics alum Eric Gross, like Balsar, understands that keeping culture anchored during difficult times can be rooted in creative accomplishments. Of course, working on a major Disney project didn’t follow immediately after graduation. As he says, “I basically got the job because I had a childhood friend that was working for Glu and they were in need of a sound designer, and I had just conveniently graduated from Columbia in AA&A. I have worked on 100+ games since then. That being said, I can easily say that Disney Sorcerer's Arena is the largest game that I have ever worked on in terms of content and hours.”

While Gross has long been set up to work at home, he recognizes that others may not be in the same boat. To those makers and creators, he says: “Keep practicing. Now is the perfect time. Find ways to use the internet and technology to your advantage. These are skills that will still be beneficial even after the crisis has ended. Even if you don't have a paying gig right now, find time to sharpen your skills and improve. Don't be stagnant. Adapt.” For Gross, whose decade-long experience in the field has proved successful, the message is clear: adapt, and culture will follow.

Emily Cresswell—Alum, Early Childhood Educator

Emily Cresswell entered Columbia to study illustration. Quickly, she realized that she was not an illustrator at heart. It wasn’t an easy conclusion to reach. She remembers wondering, “How could I marry my artistic/creative self with my ‘work?’ I’d never considered teaching…and then, I found the Early Childhood Education program with Columbia College [Chicago] and the Erikson Institute.”

For Cresswell, the process of networking, diversifying, and continuing to work as an artist proved fruitful. Today she has been working as a teacher for over 20 years and also has experience working as an administrator and an artist. That isn’t to say that every road has been easy to walk—early childhood education has traditionally incorporated a hands-on model. Today, due to COVID-19 social distancing, things are a little different. She says, “I think the most significant provocation is in creating the (virtual) social/emotional connection.  Our work as early childhood teachers is so relationship-based that having reciprocity-virtually-is quite different.”

Despite these challenges, Cresswell has adapted. She has adapted virtual learning space into a flexible, immersive, sensory model. She shares real-time group chats with students, broadcasts videos, and offers support for students and their families.  She acknowledges that moving forward, some things will change. As she says, “The value of forming relationships will take the forefront in influencing education.”

She understands that these times require a unique way of being in the world for her students and her parents. She says, “What I want parents to hear most loud and clear is this:  Be kind to yourselves and allow for grace as you are taking on more than was ever intended… Trust your instincts as to what advice and strategies to implement in your lives during this time.  You know yourselves and your children best.  We hope this vote of confidence helps serve you well!”

Nicole Quattrocki—Alum, Founder of Fix Chicago

Nicole Quattrocki is proud of her personal evolution. As someone who trained in graphic design and began her career in the world of fashion, she is now the founder of Fix Chicago, a non-profit started “with the purpose of helping Chicago and the state of Illinois create and sustain a shelter system that saves the lives of ALL healthy and treatable shelter animals in our communities.” It’s a far cry from where she started, and the humor of the transition isn’t lost on Quattrocki. She says, “It’s funny to think I went from high-end fashion shows with the elite in L.A. to hanging out with shelter dogs covered in mud.” She credits her education at Columbia for providing her with the tools to succeed as a social entrepreneur and with teaching her how to use her creativity to solve problems.

As the COVID-19 crisis has escalated, there have been plenty of problems to solve in Quattrocki’s line of work. Quattrocki says, “Our focus pre-COVID was the development and launch of our Pup-ups in The Park program that helps shelters acquire new foster homes and helps shelter dogs get walks. When shelters were closed to the public, we knew that unless we were able to get animals out as quickly as possible, animals were going to be euthanized--not just in Chicago, but around the nation.”

Quattrocki’s team had to act fast. To support the rescue community, Fix Chicago shifted gears to create more foster homes for at-risk animals using social media as a jumping-off point. The challenge was two-fold: first, they needed to create accessible, easily-understandable information in a complicated, information-rich landscape notorious for being difficult to navigate. Second, they needed to facilitate people outside of the rescue community being able to understand the needs and priorities of at-risk animals and their carers. It hasn’t been easy, but as a result of these new efforts Quattrocki has seen the community coming together in new and exciting ways. It’s a silver lining. We shouldn’t be surprised. As Quattrocki says, “There is always a silver lining. It’s a matter of changing your perspective, and looking for it.”

If you are interested in learning more about Quattrocki’s work you can join Fix Chicago’s Facebook group: and/or visit for more information.


Nina Campbell, the Academic Scheduling coordinator, has started every day in the office since 2013 by feeding PAH, the fish who lives in a tank on her desk. PAH, who’s name means “Finally!”  or “Success at Last!” has been a staple in the department for students, faculty and staff.

When social distancing measures went into effect, PAH’s friends were determined to make sure that he wasn’t left behind. As Chair Peter Cook says, “After we started to work remotely, it was Candace Hart-Hathaway, our staff interpreter who brought it up, ‘What about PAH?’” Her call to action resulted in a series of requests going to the Deans’ office as well as to the Associate Vice President of Facilities and Construction, Ann Kalayil.

As a result of these requests both Tony Rickabaugh and Michael Dunham from Facilities & Operations have taken turns feeding PAH. And today, as Cook proudly notes, “there is a specific reminder through the 360-request system for feeding PAH during isolation.”

PAH is the ASL fish. But he represents so much more—the Columbia community, the little joys that we will not sacrifice amidst uncertainty and contingency, and the possibility for daily life to continue—albeit a little differently—throughout COVID-19.

Bill Coon—Alum, Founder of the Keep Swimming Foundation

PAH isn’t the only one who has just kept swimming through it all. Alumnus Bill Coon, founder of the non-profit Keep Swimming Foundation, which was started in 2017, is determined to help others through times of crisis. As he says, the foundation was “inspired by my 70-day wait in the Intensive Care Unit of a Chicago hospital (while I was a student at Columbia) for a second heart transplant and my first kidney transplant.” The Keep Swimming Foundation provides the families of critically ill patients with financial relief during extended inpatient hospital stays.

Coon knows from firsthand experience that while insurance helps, it doesn’t cover many expenses that also attend medical disasters: bedside meals, lodging for family, public transit, and gas. While Coon’s personal experiences have paved the way for his success, so too has his training at Columbia. He credits Columbia with teaching him the critical role that networking has in being successful in business. He says, “Networking is, has, and will play a crucial role in my ability to grow various projects and revenue streams during and post-pandemic.”

Things have changed somewhat due to COVID-19, but Coon is ready for it. He says of his foundation, “We are going to continue to help families in need. We understand that with the economic downturn donations may decrease. However, we are positioned well to continue to fulfill our mission and deliver on our promise to our many incredible donors.”

Kenneth Cook—Alum, Real Estate

Kenneth Cook, who now works in real estate, was well-prepared for his position—and these trying times—by his experiences at Columbia. He says, “My experience at Columbia has proved to be directly applicable to my day to day experience in the workforce, time [and] time again. One of many examples of a course that I took at Columbia that have been able to refer back to during the COVID-19 crisis is Crisis PR. Thorough communication is key.”

Cook has dealt with his share of crisis in the current real estate landscape, though, especially in recent weeks. He says, “Although there is certainly a still demand, with the uncertainty of the economy and during a time when people are being told to "Stay Home" relocating is simply not a priority for many. During the first few weeks of what is typically the busiest time of year in real estate we have been forced to significantly adjust our marketing strategy to align with the current climate.” It hasn’t been easy—especially given that there is no hard end date to the measures currently being taken to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Still, Cook has adapted—he and other members of his industry have taken this opportunity to help their clients make significant decisions regarding their homes through elevating virtual platforms to support user-friendly video-tours, high-definition photography, and user-friendly interfaces. These strategies have allowed Cook to continue working despite the current climate, to continue providing people with much-needed homes.

Cook has some words for others experiencing challenges these days. He says, “Take this time as a challenge to ‘create change.’ As many industries rush to find solutions to stay afloat and adapt, creatives in return have been provided with a larger platform to voice our ideas and opinions. This will soon be a moment in history.” 

You—Wherever you are, whatever you are doing

You too are part of this process of moving forward. Whether it is through your art, your work, your activism, or your being, you are enough. As PAH would tell you—just keep swimming. This isn’t forever. We will be together again. We are Columbia.


Rhiannon Koehler
Communications Manager