A man and woman side by side wearing disposable masks and black latex gloves, flashing the peace sign
Photo Credit: University of Washington
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By: Todd Faubion, faculty director for undergraduate programs, Department of Global Health and Noura Youssoufa, academic advisor, MPH and undergraduate programs, Department of Global Health

Like our peers at institutions of higher education across the globe, the Department of Global Health rapidly adapted to support students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  We extended what we hope felt like boundless compassion and found myriad new ways to support student success.  While we’re proud of where we landed, there are always opportunities to do better. We will have missed a profound opportunity for growth and reflection if we don’t leverage what we’ve learned from the pandemic to continue to improve our ability to support student success going forward. 

The life-altering experience of the past eighteen months has caused us to examine our pre-March 2020 life with renewed clarity and introspection.  At the outset of the pandemic, we relaxed or eliminated many traditional expectations, always with the intent of supporting student wellness and minimizing stress.  After a year and a half operating under a different set of standards, we’ve asked ourselves a few important questions:

  • Why did previous structures (rules) exist, and did they really support student success?
  • If our goal is success for all students, why haven’t we always been this generous and flexible?
  • What pandemic changes should we preserve going forward?

We fail everyone—ourselves, our students, our communities—when unnecessary roadblocks (which may trigger a series of issues such as anxiety, fear of confrontation, shame, etc.) of an onerous system stand in a student’s path. It’s not lost on us that the students most likely to encounter these obstacles are immigrant, first generation, racial/ethnic minority, low income, and/or LGBTQIA+ students, among other identities suppressed by dominant axes of power.  Conversations among committed educators and students alike have highlighted how white supremacy infuses our institutions, and how higher education is a key vehicle of oppression if it only operates to foster the success of the privileged.  With these ideas in mind, and ample time for reflection, the following overaching themes will become three key areas of emphasis going forward:

  • Flexibility
  • Emphasis on online support
  • Updated training on mental and emotional wellbeing

Learned Lesson: Flexibility

There are those who feel that offering flexibility to students will result in abuse of privileges. But our pandemic experience teaches us that students are overwhelmingly accountable, and when they deviate from agreed upon plans, it is often due to circumstances out of their control. Many of these situations are emotionally overwhelming, including significant (in)direct financial changes and shifts in housing stability. Over the past year, these stressors sometimes happened all at once, resulting in excruciating losses for some students. 

Our intention is to maintain our flexibility and willingness to accommodate complicated lives permanently. This can mean flexibility on deadlines, helping students find alternate courses to meet requirements, and/or providing students who cheat or plagiarize (practices typically driven by stress) with positive versus punitive support to avoid these missteps in the future.

Next Steps: Evaluate where we can be more flexible (e.g. deadlines, meeting degree requirements, absences, etc.). Students are capable of managing their time and requirements. More importantly, we know that expressing our caring and being open to deviations from the plan are what students need to feel supported. We can encourage our peers to update course requirements, communicate in a more supportive tone, and provide resource guidance for students as they navigate their return to campus.

Learned Lesson: Increased Online Support

We do not need to demand that students come to us.  Rather, we should offer meeting/conversation formats that fit people’s busy and challenging lives.For instance, a student should never have to take a train 90 minutes in each direction just to have an advising conversation. Phone and video chats have proven ideal mechanisms to collapse distance.

Next Steps: We will maintain online office hours along with in-person support. Part of what worked so well about online support initially is that we knew students well before transitioning online, so our job going forward is to establish linkages early on that make everyone feel the online environment is a safe one where trust is present. The boom in software facilitating online interactions has made this work easier. Providing students with the transparency (even if limited) to view an advisor’s calendar and make an appointment themselves via these new tools affirms and reiterates our Open Door Policy while removing the administrative work of coordinating schedules.

Learned Lesson: Training on Wellbeing and Mental Health

Many of our students’ pandemic experiences were traumatic. We saw in a harsher light that students are stretched and stressed beyond what they vocalize or portray outwardly. Easier accessibility to staff advising (again due to online access, which facilitated more frequent interctions and a deeper rapport with more students) since the pandemic started has highlighted both the subtle and overt signs of fatigue in the lives of undergraduates. Anecdotally, our team has seen more students reporting the impact of disability accommodations (or lack thereof), cyber-bullying, and imposter syndrome, among other issues. We’ve found that approaches, timing, and response strategies must modernize to meet student needs earlier.

Next Steps: Continued training in understanding evolving mental health terms, triggers, and stressors, along with the resources available, are crucial to helping students moving forward. We intend to diversify the trainings we attend, which includes asking our peers versed in mental health to develop new trainings that relate to the evolving needs of students. A new and simple idea is to keep a closer eye on and become more intentional in identifying changes in students’ behavior.  In turn, we will encourage our Undergraduate Student Advisory Board to host events in partnership with relevant UW community groups. Potential topics include:

  • Autumn: Balancing workloads and familiarizing oneself with resources at UW
  • Winter: Remaining motivated during the notorious Seattle grey season (which triggers feelings of loneliness and sadness)
  • Spring: Taming anxiety over next steps post-degree

The pandemic was emotionally unforgiving to the educators and advisers who presented their whole selves to students while managing their own challenges. Everyone deserves grace for how they handled the shift to remote learning.  And now, with everything we have experienced and learned, let’s challenge ourselves to revisit practices for a healthy school year as we transition back to in-person learning, research, and meetings in the fall.