Westmont College Navigates COVID-19 with Lessons Learned from Natural Disasters

By Salesforce.org | March 31, 2020 | , | Communities, Education, Higher Education

Leading Through Change

By: Zak Landrum, Senior Director of Advancement Services at Westmont College

In 2017 and 2018, Westmont College experienced back-to-back natural disasters. The Thomas Fire, which started 40 miles from Westmont’s campus in Montecito, churned ahead of firefighters as it worked its way up the California coast, eventually becoming the largest in California history. The devastating fire caused weeks of voluntary, then mandatory, campus dislocation.

Two weeks after the fire, Montecito collapsed into mudslides just a quarter of a mile from campus. This event, combined with a heavy season of rain, led to several mandatory evacuations that semester.

Jump ahead a few years to 2020, and COVID-19 has not only disrupted Westmont, but the entire globe. We’re applying lessons learned in those 2017 and 2018 natural disasters that are helping us, and hopefully others, today.

Regular Communication Builds Trust

After the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslide evacuations, Westmont posted updates to the website every day at 9 a.m., 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 6 p.m. Gayle Beebe, Westmont’s president, held public conference calls at least once a week (and more often at the height of the crisis) to answer questions live. Support staff curated content for Dr. Beebe’s responses and he diligently answered questions for an hour, covering nearly all topics at hand. In a time of fragmentation, this helped to keep the Westmont family connected and updated.

Dr. Beebe addresses students and staff in the dining commons with the Thomas Fire approaching. He also led regular conference calls for the entire Westmont community.

Dr. Beebe addresses students and staff in the dining commons with the Thomas Fire approaching. He also led regular conference calls for the entire Westmont community.



With COVID-19, news outlets like the New York Times post daily updates, but institutions may not always understand how those updates apply to their own campus communities. Executives have the unique power to bring an institution’s “family” together during a crisis by speaking the truth — with compassion — in a predictable, accessible way.

When Executive Walls Come Down, Loyalty Rises

When the Thomas Fire drew near to campus, Westmont moved operations to Westmont Downtown, seven miles from the main campus and just out of the evacuation zone. Executives and support staff worked side-by-side in an open-office environment, similar to one you’d see at a tech startup. Laughter, casual greetings, communal prayer, and even the occasional song brought a sense of community during a tense time. The closeness and informality spoke to the message “We are Westmont” in a new way.

President Beebe communicates college action plans from the Westmont Downtown location after being evacuated from his own home during the Thomas Fire.

President Beebe communicates college action plans from the Westmont Downtown location after being evacuated from his own home during the Thomas Fire.



As we all struggle with the transition to our new self-isolation reality, utilize your university’s preferred virtual meeting platform (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.) to draw closer. The dog-in-the-frame, the kid dance disruption, the president-in-a-polo signals to everyone that we’re all in this together.

Develop Resilient Infrastructure and Teams

At the time of the Thomas Fire and mudslide, Westmont rallied, linked arms, and got creative. We leaned into systems that had been built over years. Some of those systems were cultural, such as Westmont’s camaraderie and sense of family, others were technological.

The Residence Life staff were awarded “Employees of the Year” for their work in evacuating students and minimizing the multiple disasters’ impact on campus life.

The Residence Life staff were awarded “Employees of the Year” for their work in evacuating students and minimizing the multiple disasters’ impact on campus life.

Salesforce, the platform in which we’ve been investing for more than a decade, allowed us the flexibility to move our entire staff operation off-campus. We were still able to process hundreds of applications during this critical season because we weren’t bound to paper files or local networks that kept losing power.

We’ve compiled a few tips to leverage as you adjust to your new norm:

Tips for Working Remotely

Virtual meetings. Use video as much as possible – it will make you feel more connected. Keep yourself on mute unless you’re talking. In larger meetings, leverage the chat function. Don’t skip the small talk.

Create virtual event experiences. During the fire, the admissions and marketing teams quickly created virtual “brand” experiences for all scheduled visitors when the campus was forced to close; we’ve done the same this time around after California’s mandate to “shelter in place” during COVID-19. Keep connected to your key audience groups by offering them an experience using video, live stream, virtual tours, phone calls, and so on. Get creative! This can be fun! Create online communities by selecting clusters of groups that have a shared interest or location – we’ve learned that students love to connect socially online!

Establish a consistent routine. To maintain structure in your day, simple things like taking a shower and getting dressed go a long way towards staying motivated. Open the curtains to get some natural light, go for a walk and get some fresh air, listen to music, and don’t forget to sneak in some virtual watercooler moments with your teammates.

Continue to use the collaborative Salesforce.org community. Here are some links we have found helpful, and we hope you do, too.

We don’t know how long the COVID-19 virus will uproot our workspaces and institutions or to what extent it will affect the incoming class of Fall 2020, but one thing’s certain: there will always be another crisis to which we can respond with collaboration, curiosity, and hope.

About the Author

Zak Landrum

Zak Landrum is a member of the Higher Education Advisory Council and directs the Center for Applied Technology at Westmont College. @zaklandrum