In early March, SFA students' slight concerns about COVID-19 were drowned out by excited buzz surrounding the impending spring break. With midterms finished and bags packed for visits home or road trips with friends, they departed campus and Nacogdoches in the usual droves, anticipating a respite from day-to-day college life and a return to their routines in a matter of days.
But it was not to be.
In response to the rapidly developing health emergency, SFA classes were moved online practically overnight, spring meetings and events were canceled, and students became full-time distance learners as the nation focused on flattening the curve. Meanwhile, all across campus, extraordinary efforts were being launched to ensure students remained connected to the critical support services, co-curricular programming and engagement opportunities that greatly contribute to the transformative educational experiences for which SFA is well known.
In the ensuing weeks, traditionally face-to-face activities — from peer tutoring to mental health counseling and from career coaching to exercise classes — were transitioned to online formats for the first time in school history. Even the SFA Spirit Teams tryouts were held online. As the semester rolled on, SFA hosted its first-ever 100% virtual commencement ceremony, transfer orientation, summer advising and registration, student government elections, service activities, and numerous special events and awards ceremonies.
"The overarching goal of SFA's strategic plan is providing transformative student experiences, and one of the essential ways we accomplish that is through student engagement," said Dr. Adam Peck, assistant vice president for university affairs and dean of student affairs. "When COVID-19 hit, this engagement became more essential and more challenging than ever. I am really proud of how our team adjusted to unprecedented changes and challenges while keeping the needs of our students at the forefront."
Serving Students From Home
On the surface, switching to online classes midsemester doesn't sound like a big adjustment for a generation of college students that has never known a time without smartphones, social media and Google. But in reality, many students struggled with this transition, in part because it didn't happen in a vacuum. They suddenly found themselves back home, oftentimes without ideal technology or internet connectivity, perhaps also sharing computers with siblings or parents who were now working from home. Many continued working or started new jobs during the crisis to help their families make ends meet.
Meanwhile, university staff members were manning call centers, sending mass emails, and constantly updating social media and webpages to help guide students and families through this unprecedented time. Counseling Services began providing consultations, individual sessions and referrals to local mental health providers virtually, along with tips for stress-management, relaxation and overall well-being. The newly created Student Emergency Aid Fund was used to help pay living expenses for students who suddenly lost jobs and to cover shortages at the on-campus food pantry, which continued serving students with food insecurities.
"Answering our students' questions and connecting them to individuals and resources across campus that could help get their needs met became a 24-hour-a-day job," said Peck, who was a constant presence on social media throughout the crisis and hosted virtual "Check with Peck" meetings to provide updates and respond to concerns.
Tutoring options quickly move online
Previously, SFA's Academic Assistance and Resource Center had offered students myriad face-to-face peer tutoring options with a few virtual services, such as the Online Writing Lab. But when COVID-19 forced the AARC to close its doors, all Supplemental Instruction groups, learning teams, one-to-one appointments and walk-in tables were expeditiously moved online. Key to that transition was a redesign of the AARC's website to help students navigate the new virtual offerings.
"As a lifelong educator and a parent, I was very sensitive to the anxiety our students were feeling as classes were moved online, and they suddenly weren't able to access our services in the usual way," said AARC Director M.E. McWilliams. "But, thankfully, very quickly we were able to reassure our students and their parents that we were still doing absolutely everything we were doing before, we were just doing it online."
In addition to providing tutors with the technology to work virtually, the AARC trained them to help students feel comfortable and gain confidence using Zoom. McWilliams and other AARC staff members also took to social media to provide study and time-management strategies and tips for maintaining a positive mindset during the online-only period.
Virtual career services and job fair
The Center for Career and Professional Development also went into virtual mode when the campus closed. Almost 500 résumés and other professional documents were reviewed online during the spring campus closure, and a large teacher job fair was reimagined as a virtual event, allowing students to network with potential employers online. During April, 132 students attended CCPD's Zoom-based workshops covering job-search and interviewing advice, specialized software training, and entrepreneurship guidance to help them jump- start their careers.
Other career services previously offered in person, including dozens of career-coaching appointments, mock interviews, and assisted job and internship searches, also were provided digitally during the second half of the spring semester and throughout the summer.
"I think our staff did a fantastic job of just maintaining that consistency for our students at a time when so much of their college experience had suddenly been pulled away," Jamie Bouldin, CCPD director, said.
"One day they were on campus just going through their routines and utilizing all of these services, and the next day they were thrust into this really uncertain situation. So, as much as anything, our job initially was simply communicating to our students that, although things may look a little different right now, our office is open, and we are still here for you."
In mid-May, the Student Recreation Center became the first facility on campus to reopen with new physical distancing and other health protocols in place to help keep patrons and staff members safe. But two months prior, the center already had begun offering virtual exercise classes through a national coalition of university recreation departments to help SFA students maintain their physical and mental wellness during the stay-at-home period. Likewise, the offices of Multicultural Affairs, Greek Life and Student Engagement moved all of their programming online, transitioning beloved traditions like The Big Event, Dance Marathon, Week of Reflection and the annual Lumberjack Achievement Awards to virtual platforms.
"We were extremely committed to maintaining our programming throughout the spring because, number one, we wanted to keep all of our students engaged with us and having fun," said Molly Moody, assistant director of student engagement for leadership and service. "Number two, we wanted to honor the hard work that so many of our students had put into planning these events for the entire year."
She said the first challenge was to reassure and encourage SFA student leaders who also were reeling from the sudden disruption to their lives. "We got on Zoom and had our moment, venting our frustrations and saying ‘OK, we all agree this stinks.' Then we took a deep breath, got back on Zoom the next day and got to work on our new action plan.
"That might end up being the biggest takeaway for our students from all of this," Moody said. "When things don't go as planned, you get busy and you reassess. You help each other, and you press on. That's just what Lumberjacks do."