Student Development Services staff pivot during the pandemic

It’s an ill wind, the saying goes, that blows no good to anyone.

The TCC Northwest Student Development Services (SDS) division learned the truth of that adage over the past year when even the pestilential shadow of the COVID pandemic yielded some bright spots. But those silver linings were all but invisible in March 2020 when the College shut down. About all the SDS staff could see was a huge question with very few answers: how do you serve students when there are no students on campus?

“If someone had come to us in February of 2020 and told us we were going to put everything virtual the next month,” said Director of Student Activities Vesta Martinez, “we would have thought we couldn’t do it, or maybe we could do it, but not in a month.”

Then, reality set in. “We knew we had to do it,” Martinez said, “and our motivating factor was to reach our students.”

So, the people in Student Activities, Advising and Counseling, Health Services, Student Conduct and Prevention Education, International  Office and even Financial Aid, which isn’t in the SDS lineup, set aside what had been and tackled what must be.

Necessity became the mother of Invention, and Invention’s children were new ways of doing things.

  • An on-campus health fair was impossible, so Health Services teamed with their colleagues on other campuses to have a Collegewide virtual fair. More than 600 students took part. 
  • Northwest Navigators, the traditional fall welcome event, enlisted volunteers from the faculty and staff to provide online information to students throughout the day and into the night.
  • Financial Aid teamed with colleagues on TCC Northeast to set up a virtual federal student aid application workshop. It also partnered with other campuses to establish email help centers. “During the month of August we had more than 8,000 emails come in,” said Trina Smith-Patterson, director of financial aid. Applicants were able, with approval from the U.S. Department of Education, to send scan or faxes of documents that ordinarily would have had to be hand-delivered.
  • Counseling, even though not allowed to use Zoom or MS Teams, set up special telephone lines to talk with students almost around the clock, providing support that hadn’t been readily available at night or on weekends.
  • Student Activities created online “engagement spaces” where students could interact in a virtual environment safer than many social media sites. “It’s not super-personal, like one-on-one with my camera in my home,” Martinez said. “But they can be involved in an activity with someone they don’t know.”
  • Student Conduct and Preventive Education dealt more with cyber bullying than physical confrontation, but it also offered material such as proper wearing of masks and knowing the signs of depression and where to seek help.

Indeed, many of SDS’s activities during the pandemic targeted the isolation students were experiencing. 

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in anxiety about the unknown, about what’s going to happen,” said Leon Minor, director of Student Conduct and Preventive Education.

Anna Hinman, assistant director of Counseling and Advising, also said there has been an uptick in student angst. “They (the students) are contacting us for various reasons,” she said. “Then as soon as we dive into what they’re experiencing, there’s a wide array of things personally, educationally, familial – just layers and layers.”

Some student problems aren’t as dire as depression, but stem from the normal desire for the college experience, particularly for first-time students. 

“They really want to be with their peers,” Martinez said. “When we went into the fall with new-to-college students, they were consistently saying, ‘I just want to make some friends.’”

But, about those silver linings. “There have been, and continue to be, a lot of great lessons learned working in a virtual environment,” said Vice President for Student Development Services Jan Clayton. “There have been some unexpected benefits. We have broadened access for our students to our programs and services. They are finding ways to connect with us, and that’s a positive.”

“We will be stronger for this,” said Martinez. “We have learned so much from innovation and from our students that we need to keep that momentum of an online presence. Our students are really responding well to it. Sometimes we think virtual means impersonal, but it doesn’t.”

“It’s opened up our services to an even larger group of students who might not have always been able to come to campus,” Minor said. “It’s a win – something that we learned through this COVID experience.”

Going back to the old normal is not an option. “There have been too many lessons, too many gains,” Clayton said. “So, whatever the recovery or the comeback looks like, it won’t be a return to the way we were doing things before. That would be a failure of imagination and leadership. We have to figure out how to take these wins, these unexpected benefits, and bring them back to campus with us.”