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Stories from the front lines: Normalizing the struggle and sharing ideas

“What will our school look like moving forward?”

“How do we make online more palatable for students who signed up for the full campus experience?”

“What are some best practices or creative solutions your school has had success with?”

Colleges and universities across the country were already dealing with a laundry list of challenges, old and new. Then came Coronavirus (COVID-19) and overnight, everything changed.

On May 8, administrators and staff from colleges and universities across the country came together for a “community chat,” hosted by InsideTrack. It was an opportunity to virtually meet with colleagues from different schools — swapping stories, sharing concerns and exchanging ideas to help one another maneuver through this trying time.

Unexpected student challenges

For every staff member at the chat, making sure their students are safe was their first concern. Participants spoke about the challenges of getting their students safely back home — or in some cases, keeping them safe on campus if they had no place to go.

Multiple staff members shared stories of students going home to locales with poor or nonexistent internet access. “We take wi-fi and internet for granted,” said an administrator from a college in a large urban center. “But we have students who live in remote areas where internet access is spotty. So along with laptops, we sent home wi-fi hotspots as a way for those students to keep up their studies online.”

Another staff member talked about the challenges for students who suddenly found themselves at home in a small apartment with their entire family. “Going from a dorm room to a cramped space with younger siblings and parents who may be working from home or newly unemployed, it’s tough to attend Zoom classes and do homework amid the chaos.”

Actionable Advice — With athletics, campus clubs and student housing curtailed by the coronavirus, some schools are using athletic and student support staff to help with recruitment and retention for the upcoming term.

Supporting the staff who supports the students

Now roughly two months into the “new norm” caused by coronavirus — and with graduation day either soon to come or already past — schools are looking to the future and what lies ahead. For many, that means transitioning from student support to staff and faculty support.

“I love interacting with students,” said one administrator from a small four-year private college, “so being isolated at home is hard.” She cited a definite need for staff and faculty to be able to tap into mental health resources. “Making sure we’re doing OK is paramount to helping students and the school move forward.”

Another participant talked about having a university president who is very transparent and makes sure everyone knows what’s going on. “Having someone like that who cares about you and gives you a call to check in is very powerful,” she says.

And while it seems like going online might cause less work for administrators and staff, the consensus is that just the opposite is true. “I can’t believe how busy we are,” says an administrator from a four-year university with both campus and online options. “We’re working six days a week, 10+ hours a day — it’s hard to keep up with all of it.” He, too, mentions the benefits of having a president who’s a good communicator, providing weekly video updates.

Actionable Advice — Looking for a way to give staff members some breathing room? Student leaders, honors students and student athletes make great peer-to-peer ambassadors, with a special ability to reach out and connect with incoming and existing students.

Making connections that count

Regardless of the type of institution, participants across the board talked about the need for — and challenges of — continuing to connect with students. A staff member at a community college discussed how their staff is reaching out to students who have never had one-on-one connections before. “We’re seeing more follow-up and engagement from students now than we did when we had offices open on campus,” she says.

Another administrator says that using multichannel communications is helping — especially text reminders. “The no show/cancellation rate for virtual meetings has been zero, compared to 10 to 15 percent when scheduled in person.”

An administrator at a large, regional community college notes that online tutoring has been a big help. “Students appreciate the efforts to reach out, and the use of support services has actually increased during this time of remote learning.”

Technology is also showing up in new and unusual ways. A private university administrator talked about using tech tools to help identify students in need. “We use Canvas as a tool to stay connected,” he says. “So if a student hasn’t logged in for a certain number of days, that gets noted and someone from the staff or faculty follows up and touches base with them.”

Actionable Advice — Having allies on the academic side gives you another way to connect with incoming and existing students. A personalized letter, email or phone call from a professor or department head can do wonders towards making a student feel welcomed and valued.

Looking forward into big unknowns

At the end of the day, one thing was clear: No one knows what lies ahead for the upcoming fall term — and beyond. For D3 schools relying heavily on student-athletes as a large percentage of the student body, how do you emphasize the “student” part of their journey to return to school if there are no athletics in the immediate future? If you’re a small private school where campus and location are key selling points, what happens when tours and family visits are off the table? What about international students? Working students who have been laid off? And students who aren’t comfortable returning when campuses do open up?

Then there’s the true elephant in the room: Will students (and their families) continue to enroll and pay for the “campus experience” if classes are online and there is no physical campus? Only time will tell. For staff and administrators on campuses big and colleges small, it’s all about shifting the mindset to the future. For those who shared stories and ideas at the community chat, just hearing from colleagues that others are in the same boat provides some sense of normalcy.

Actionable Advice — When talking with potential and existing students, be honest about the fall. It’s OK to let them know that things are uncertain and plans are in flux. Whenever possible, consider speaking to students directly (via any and all channels) rather than using surveys or questionnaires.

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