From campus closures to virtual learning, to the emotional toll of these uncertain times, it would be difficult to overstate the impact of COVID-19 on our college students. There was certainly no playbook for those supporting students through these unprecedented circumstances, but we’ve been inspired to see so many organizations rise to the challenge to keep their students on track.
One of those organizations is Uplift Education, a network of public charter schools in Dallas-Fort Worth. We recently spoke with Britni Searle, director of alumni success, about their approach to supporting students through this turbulent time. She shares five tips to consider for your COVID-19 action plan.
Tip #1: Do a pulse check to find out what students need.
We have been working to connect with every one of our students, starting with those attending college out of state. We knew they were likely facing significant challenges to pack up their things and relocate off campus. For every student, we went through a list of questions focused on basic needs.
- Were you able to get home okay?
- Do you have transportation?
- Do you have a Wi-Fi connection?
- Do you have access to a laptop to continue your studies?
- Do you have enough food at home?
- Are you in a safe environment?
- What other responsibilities are you taking on now that you are home (such as taking on work hours or caring for a sibling)?
With this information, we were able to assess and triage students to see how we can support them, whether offering financial assistance or helping them figure out how to get plugged into the resources available.
We’ve had the greatest response rate we’ve ever seen from our students. Even those who don’t always need our help were answering the phone to say, “Hey, I really appreciate this call.”
Tip #2: Ask students how they want to hear from you.
We always ask our students how they prefer to hear from us, but we decided to ask again – in the context of COVID-19, how would you like to receive information?
Normally, our students like texting and individual calls. But we actually saw a huge response around GroupMe, which has been a shift. It allows for social interaction with their peers and for us to group them together, whether that’s based on their school or their geographic area. With online classes, it may be that students are using technology more, using GroupMe for classes and getting more comfortable with it.
Our students love TikTok, too – TikTok challenges are very popular! We’re really looking to meet our students where they are on social media. They are much more active on Instagram than Facebook, so we have launched there and seen more alumni being able to connect.
Tip #3: Communicate with parents and family members.
We work closely with our high school students on college preparedness, and part of that process involves building relationships with their parents and family members. As we saw the impact of COVID-19 at campuses across the country, we began our outreach to every individual student – and reaching out to a parent if we hadn’t heard back. Our parents sometimes give us even more information than the students do, so we are better able to support them.
Engaging the family has also been top of mind for our high school seniors. The big question in our minds is how this will affect matriculation next year; with school closures, some students are taking on additional responsibilities, working to help out at home, contributing more to the family income. How can they still keep motivated to go to college?
Every year, our college counselors meet with each graduating senior and their parents to review college plans and financial aid packages. Even as we shift to virtual meetings or phone, these conversations will be so important to help motivate families that students should stick to their college plans. To help parents understand the college process, we’re also launching a new podcast which will be offered in English and Spanish. Facebook Live events have also been successful for us – parents are highly engaged with Facebook.
Tip #4: Support students’ wellbeing – and have a little fun!
This month, we’re hosting a 30-day wellness challenge, encouraging students to stay healthy and take care of themselves. Each day of the week has a different theme:
- Monday is for fitness, like cardio or strength training.
- Tuesday is for home responsibilities, like doing yardwork, helping siblings, or cooking.
- Wednesday is a mental relaxation day: listening to music, podcasts, journaling, or meditation.
- Thursday is an emotional support day, encouraging students to call a family member, FaceTime a friend, or reach out to an alumni counselor.
- Fridays are for hobbies and getting social: DIY crafts, blogging, TikTok, or virtual hangouts with friends.
We launched the challenge on Instagram, and every time a student posts on the daily challenge, their name is entered into a drawing for a weekly prize. Our first prize is noise-canceling wireless headphones, knowing that students have a lot of distractions around them now. We’re seeing some great engagement!
Under normal circumstances, we love to host social events on campus, so we’ve been looking for ways to translate that to the current situation. We recently hosted a couple of parties on Zoom, playing fun games like “Guess the Celebrity,” or Zoom bingo with students contributing words like “college” or “alumni success counselor,” or, of course, “toilet paper.” We’ll be hosting several Zoom get-togethers throughout the month to help students stay connected and have some fun.
Tip #5: Set an example by taking care of yourself and your staff.
I’ve been very mindful of myself and my staff that we need to take care of our personal wellness, and also each other. Every single call starts with checking in on people personally. The longer this goes on, the more mental and emotional strain each of us will be facing. My hope is that it brings a level of comfort for people to recognize their own mental and emotional state and to talk about it more openly. This will help people to get the help that they need. What’s more, the more we practice that as advisors, the better we can model it for our alumni.
Britni Searle is the Director of Alumni Success at Uplift Education, where she supports students to complete their higher education and reach their full potential. She previously served as Director of Human Resources at Marshall Independent School District, where she later directed the district’s GO Center to support students’ lifelong goals of higher education.