Following the March shutdown, SUNY Jefferson devised new strategies for offering holistic and transformative support to students.
By Amy Beth Wright
Our August 13 webinar convened administrators and educators from Jefferson Community College (SUNY Jefferson)—the composition of the panel was representative of the panel’s message: With focused and intentional collaboration between faculty and administration, the higher education campus can offer transformative support to students, in some instances, the type that makes the difference between a student staying in school or not.
Brandon Maxam, Chair of the School of Arts and Humanities at Jefferson, facilitated a discussion between Jerilyn Fairman, Associate Vice President for the Liberal Arts Division, Gabby Thompson, Director of Access and Opportunity programs, and Assistant Professor of English Christine Pristash. He began by posing a question:
“What is the role of an institution’s mission in fostering support services?”
Fairman emphasized that for student support services to be effective, they need to be connected to a school’s mission. Focus on support is implicit in the formative mission of community colleges, due to their openness to all potential enrollees. Many Jefferson students are first-generation college students, and within systems of marginalization in being not only first-generation but low income, or working with a disability, or part of a racial minority and impacted by systemic inequity.
Thompson described the immediate uncertainty that followed the abrupt closure of campus in March, and observed that, at such times, “Colleges and universities show who they are and what they can be for students.” The quality of the support student’s receive, she suggested, should match the investment students make when choosing a path of higher education. Pristash described how faculty and staff strategized over a course of emails and discussions focused on identifying urgent and critical needs (Starfish Connect2Success was also helpful, in terms of tracking community notes and creating flags).
Fairman surveyed full-time faculty for their preferences in terms of holding online or on-campus office hours, and students were surveyed as well, comprehensive communication with the Jefferson community the basis for determining next steps—particularly during an unanticipated, abruptly isolating, and confusing time, allocating the time to collect and review student and faculty responses to surveys before issuing directives proved a revolutionary and inclusive act. Student surveys revealed that for more than half the campus, attending live synchronous classes regularly would be impossible.
Thompson commented, “I got from the survey the importance of being as flexible as possible. Students are not just students, they are mothers, fathers, caretakers, and employees. Some student’s work hours increased during quarantine—there’s push and pull between real life and academic life.” She encouraged panel attendees to flip the experience to think about their lives and commitments outside of being a faculty member, and what has had to be “flexed” during this time.
Upon considering the survey results, every student enrolled was assigned to a staff member, including administration, who made weekly phone calls to five to ten students each—students were not asked about academics unless they brought them into the conversation. Instead, they were asked:
- How are you doing?
- Are you healthy?
- Are you safe?
- Are you warm enough?
- Do you have money?
- Do you have food?
The results of the phone calls were “eye-opening,” Thompson recalled, and led to immediate support in the form of laptops loaded with essential programs, and an expanded food pantry and larger distribution plan, in partnership with the Food Bank of Central New York; no questions were asked of any student or employee who wanted to be included in the distribution network.
“If they ask, they get it,” explained Thompson.
A training manual offered guidance for the well-care team making calls to students, some of whom, as commuters with dining plans, had lost their access to a consistent food source.
Thompson shared some ideas for professors who ask their students to complete a written (or online) questionnaire at the start of the term, suggesting questions to include that both respect student’s privacy while revealing a bit more information:
- What will keep you from being the best student ever?
- Do you have a specific place where you live that you can dedicate to school? (Thompson noted as an example that students may indicate they share the home with family members or with other college students in a full apartment, which imparts helpful information about their current situation.)
- Do you have someone in your household who is supportive of you going to school?
Thompson added that, for many, beginning college in a virtual way differs from what their mental picture of the first year of college has been for a long time—large lecture halls, a new social scene, campus life. Some may also be looking forward to more stability in terms of mental health, wellness, and food security. First year students in a non-COVID era experience campus at orientation in an embodied way, she noted, forming memories and experiences that connect them with the campus. Remote learning raises the question of how to otherwise create a sense of connection and belonging in the absence of a physical connection to campus and in a way in which, as Thompson phrased it, “Students know we care about their success.” Action, like making phone calls and distributing essentials, as well as a principle of flexibility, increases the chance for student to build a meaningful connection to their campus.
Maxam posed a second question, “How do we support students with diverse and dynamic needs in this new environment?”
Pristash immediately responded with two words that have been recurrent during this preparatory time within SUNY Council on Writing webinars and discussions: flexibility and patience.
Pristash offered several practical avenues to support those values. One immediate step is to make good use of Ally to ensure that absolutely all posted resources are accessible. Another is to weave a variety of modalities together when sharing materials, presenting subject matter in writing, video, visual, and audio forms to ensure that, by virtue of repetition and a plurality of methods, students have the maximum opportunity to access and engage course content. She observed that students also favor certain modes of learning based on accessibility. She also suggested that when sharing longer pieces of writing, breaking up text makes materials dynamic and more accessible.
Now, Jefferson is focused on a school supply drive and distribution, and continues to focus on pinpointing student’s immediate needs as the semester begins.
Suggestions from the Q and A
Thompson also suggested encouraging students to consider that clubs and activities are often still active, doing other things during this time, to fill the social gap in the college experience. Maxam described that now that there is more familiarity and routine with teaching online than there was in the spring, full-time faculty are working with adjuncts, who are part of campus town halls and care days, in supportive capacities, noting that, “It is easier for faculty to do their jobs when there is a sense of community in collectively all working together.”
Thompson remarked, “We feel great walking back onto campus, and we want students to feel that way as well.” For students facing mental health challenges, the school partners with other agencies as needed.
Attendee and SUNY Council on Writing board member Shyam Sharma observed that while the recent emphasis on humanity and compassion within higher education is practically reconstructing the classroom, this panel asks, powerfully, how we might reconstruct the university.
Thompson responded to Sharma’s observation by reiterating that by starting in the classroom, one person may keep a student from dropping out of school— Pristash added that this is even more likely in English and writing classes, which inherently create community. She suggested faculty share their personality with students, including memes, graphics, and smiley faces in communications, to be expressive and open, and to further find pathways to connect.
Sharma chimed in that with online or remote learning, assigning less work in favor of time and virtual space to meet, regardless of whether that happens during class time, is important. In discussion about grace periods or extensions, he shared that he includes, “If you need an extra day or two do not hesitate to let me know,” within his syllabi.
Maxam shared a model of meeting for part of the class time for a lesson and breaking from Zoom for students to work on a related assignment, and bringing students back online to ask questions after 45 minutes.
The discussion ended with a reminder of the importance of structure and consistency, while favoring interaction and humanity, even, as Pristash shared, sticking around at the end of the course, on Zoom, to chat. “Flexibility doesn’t have to mean haphazard or chaotic,” she observed.
It can be deliberate, woven into the fabric of not only the classroom, but the entire campus.
You can view the entire conversation on our new YouTube channel: