We are happy to welcome guest writer, Polly Goss, Advisor at Mentor Collective.

On October 7th, Mentor Collective and Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM) hosted a virtual roundtable that brought together more than forty senior higher education leaders to discuss how higher education institutions can support all students—particularly first-generation and low-income students—to be successful in a virtual or hybrid environment. Here are three of our key takeaways:

Higher education institutions need to broaden their support base for students.

Dr. Joy Clark, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies at Auburn University-Montgomery, shared that 56% of students at AUM are first-generation college students, and 42% are Pell Eligible. Dr. Clark realized AUM had “to broaden our support base for our students in terms of technology, in terms of financial resources and financial advice, in terms of mental health, and academic issues.” To expand access to technology, AUM created a computer lending program to equip all incoming first-year students with a university laptop, and expanded WiFi access to the campus car parks. Increased WiFi access to the car parks meant that students without access to the internet at home could work from their cars on campus.

Dr. Joy Clark, Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies at Auburn University-Montgomery, shared that 56% of students at AUM are first-generation college students, and 42% are Pell Eligible. Dr. Clark realized AUM had “to broaden our support base for our students in terms of technology, in terms of financial resources and financial advice, in terms of mental health, and academic issues.” To expand access to technology, AUM created a computer lending program to equip all incoming first-year students with a university laptop, and expanded WiFi access to the campus car parks. Increased WiFi access to the car parks meant that students without access to the internet at home could work from their cars on campus.

Dr. Brent Marsh, University of MississippiThe COVID-19 pandemic has surfaced and exacerbated the inequities faced by many students across the country. Dr. Brent Marsh, Assistant Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Students at the University of Mississippi, commented that there is “not just one pandemic but multiple pandemics” happening in the US right now. He added, “COVID-19 is shedding light on the great inequities that exist and the great needs that exist for many of our students.” Dr. Marsh urged higher education leaders to provide students with access to food banks, emergency housing, and relief funds to support those struggling financially. He also reflected on the need for hands-on solutions, like career centers having a “career closet where students can check out or just take professional wardrobe items that they can use for interviews for jobs.” Dr. Gary Atkins, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Samford University, noted how Samford University erected large tents to provide socially-distanced areas that students can use to study outdoors. 

Ensuring students feel a sense of belonging and connection to your institution requires collective action.

The biggest challenge students faced this fall, according to a recent Strada Survey, is loneliness and poor emotional well-being. Many first-generation college students, students from low-income families, and students of color (particularly at predominantly white institutions) struggled with feeling like they did not belong at college before the pandemic. The shift to virtual learning has compounded the issue and left many students feeling lost and isolated. Dr. Tamara Floyd-Smith, Associate Provost at Tuskegee University, called attention to the collective action and “culture of caring” required to ensure students have a sense of belonging at an institution. “When talking about a sense of belonging, I want to connect to the theory. Baumeister and Leary, in 1995, advanced this hypothesis about belonging, and the idea is that humans have this innate need for frequent, local, and pleasant interactions in a caring context. Anytime you are impacting a student’s sense of belonging, it involves a group effort among faculty members and administrators,” she remarked.

Dr. Joy Clark AUMDr. Clark shared how AUM has expanded peer mentorship programming to foster a sense of belonging for new and returning students. “We have invested in a relationship with Mentor Collective that is getting our upperclassmen engaged as mentors, which we view as another way of connecting those students to the university, and we are working to recognize their contributions in terms of career development badging and potential recognition at graduation,” she shared.

Technology alone does not guarantee student engagement and success.

Simply installing new technology is insufficient to guarantee the quality of teaching and learning in the virtual classroom. Dr. Floyd-Smith shared that Tuskegee University provided faculty with training in the spring and again in the fall to ensure all faculty members were equipped to deliver high-quality and engaging online instruction. Dr. Floyd-Smith shared how they “used a train-the-trainer model; we had instructors who were accustomed to teaching online assisting other faculty.” Critical to Tuskegee University’s student success strategy is fostering student engagement within the hybrid or virtual classroom environment. “Creating that great learning environment leads to student engagement. Students want to engage in all three domains: they engage cognitively, they engage behaviorally, and they engage emotionally. The literature clearly shows the connection between engagement and persistence. We depended on the literature to guide us, we said if we get students to engage, they will persist,” Dr. Floyd-Smith said. She added, “we have an informal data point that was recently published internally, it looks like our first-year retention ticked up amidst the pandemic.”Dr. Floyd-Smith, Tuskegee University

Technology can be a powerful tool to help institutions create a sense of community and belonging for students within and outside of the classroom. Dr. Marsh suggested engaging student leaders when implementing new technologies. “Quite frankly, sometimes the students are better at this technology than we are; we can learn a lot from them,” he remarked. Critically, Dr. Marsh advised administrators to be intentional about engaging student leaders who reflect the student population’s diversity to ensure that all students’ perspectives are considered and heard. 

The full recording of the roundtable discussion is available here. To start a conversation about how to best engage and support your students, contact Mentor Collective today.