Centering Students' Needs

COVID-19 is certainly not the only thing we in higher education should prepare for regarding this coming year, writes Maximillian Matthews.

July 14, 2020
 
 
istock.com/Maria voronovich

The ones that get away haunt me. Derek, a first-year student at the community college where I used to work, stands out. Sitting at a cubicle with his school supplies spread out and his head in his hands, he was in the library when I last saw him years ago.

I approached him and asked how he was doing. He said he was fine, but I didn’t believe him.

“Are you sure?” I responded, maintaining eye contact.

“Yeah, I’m good.” He smirked.

“OK, you know where to find me.”

Derek knew where to find me because I was his adviser. I sensed he would need additional help when I first met him. He was a Black, low-income student with low high school grades. I kept my eye on him and ensured that he knew I was a resource, but my concerns remained. Sure enough, I stopped seeing him around campus and later confirmed he was no longer enrolled.

Colleges and universities are preparing for how COVID-19 will impact their 2020-21 enrollment. From bracing for the worst to practicing cautious optimism, decisions concerning the upcoming academic year have been varied. The subjects of enrollment management, online learning, faculty needs, leadership, budgets, litigation and student health have dominated the discourse happening in our field.

In this discourse, we should also be addressing the devastation that our most marginalized students are vulnerable to or experiencing due to the pandemic. By acknowledging the bleak realities in America, we will have a greater understanding of how to serve students who face these facts every day:

  • COVID-19 is killing African Americans at a rate three times higher than white people.
  • Majority-Black counties account for more than half of all COVID-19 cases.
  • Of households making less than $40,000 a year, nearly 40 percent of those employed in February lost their jobs in March or at the beginning of April. Nearly half of Black households make less than $40,000 a year.
  • Disproportionate numbers of Latinx Americans are dying from COVID-19.
  • Many Latinx workers are considered essential, placing them at higher risk for contracting COVID-19.
  • In one out of five Latinx households, at least one of its members has lost their job in the last two months.
  • Government rescue efforts aren’t reaching minority-owned businesses.

Such truths are certain to infiltrate into higher education, especially for those of us whose work is focused on Black and Latinx students. How are we centering these students in our responses to COVID-19?

Black and Latinx students have been responding to the disparities and injustices, exacerbated by COVID-19, in their communities. What they have witnessed and endured these past few months has been deeply traumatic.

As if the aforementioned racial inequalities were not enough, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells and Riah Milton have sparked grief and outrage everywhere. Tensions will very likely linger into August and the fall.

Many of us will have returning students who have been organizing and protesting in various ways. We not only have to be prepared for possible COVID-19 outbreaks on our campuses but also for the trauma that our students will be bringing with them. Ensuring campus environments do not further trigger students should be included in our 2020-21 preparation. Students will be evaluating if and how their institutions address the social injustices happening across the country.

How student-centered are the decisions that are our institutions making? Are they planning services, activities and investments with the specific needs of Black and Latinx students in mind? What about the students with disabilities, multiple identity intersections, mental health needs and special health conditions, and/or those dealing with academic hardships?

The needs of marginalized students will be vast. The institutions that are intentional about meeting those needs will be successful.

Of course, the presented challenges are overwhelming, but they’re also opportunities. COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of preparation and what happens when there is none. For preparation to be effective, it needs to be specific. A student is more likely to return if they know their institution will meet their particular needs. Gathering and incorporating much more student feedback into our preparations for the fall will help students feel more connected.

If you’re concerned about student retention, the last thing you want is for a student to feel disconnected. Which students are most likely to feel disconnected right now? Why would they feel disconnected? What can be done to prevent such disconnection from happening?

The pandemic is already causing low-income students to fade away. Some colleges and universities have been stepping up, such as in the case of the University of Minnesota ending its contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department. At other institutions, administrators have reached out to support students in other important ways -- for instance, helping LGBTQ students find alternative housing. Hunter College’s counseling center started a support group for its students experiencing academic and/or personal difficulties due to COVID-19. Students will remember who was there for them during these perilous times.

To this day, I wonder if Derek was going through such times when we last talked. I reflect on what he needed to hear in those moments. I think about all the questions I could have asked, whom I could have connected him with and what information I could have shared. Maybe he had already made up his mind, so it wouldn’t have mattered.

But COVID-19 has forever changed our work in student affairs. Derek forever changed how I engage with my students. If you’ve been working in our field long enough, you have a Derek (or Dereks) of your own. Let’s be sure to prepare for those students and their possible traumas, too.

Bio

Maximillian Matthews works for the Upward Bound TRIO program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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