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Deepening Connections with Students in a COVID-19 World

At the start of most semesters, students arrive on their community college campuses motivated to succeed. This fall, however, many students arrived at college virtually, exacerbating the emotional fatigue and isolation they had likely experienced due to COVID-19.

To understand what students were experiencing during the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, twenty-five community colleges administered an online survey developed by the Center for Community College Student Engagement. The nearly 13,000 students who responded described challenges such as isolation, reduced income, a lack of necessary technology, and food insecurity:

  • 75 percent of students were concerned about feeling isolated.
  • Of the 74 percent of students who worked and attended college before COVID-19, 61 percent reported that their work hours had been reduced; among students whose hours were reduced, 7 percent lost their jobs.
  • Many of the report’s findings highlight additional struggles that many students of color face. Sharing a computer with other family members was a concern for 46 percent of Black or African American students, 37 percent of Hispanic or Latinx students, and 23 percent of white students.
  • Having enough food for themselves or their families was a concern for 67 percent of Black or African American students, 60 percent of Hispanic or Latinx students, and 44 percent of white students.

For many community college students, these types of concerns can persist and become so overwhelming that they may consider withdrawing from college.

The Power of Connections

While colleges can’t solve all of the problems their students encounter, they can encourage students to build the relationships with faculty, staff, and other students that are essential to their success. In countless student focus groups that the Center for Community College Student Engagement conducted over nearly twenty years, students have consistently maintained that even if they thought about dropping out, a relationship with someone else on campus—an  instructor, a staff member, another student—gave them the encouragement, guidance, or support they needed to keep going.

As students face more health, economic, and educational challenges during the pandemic, this support is even more important. Students have told us that simple actions taken by faculty and staff—like just checking in to make sure students are OK—built connections and relationships that made the students feel welcomed and supported:

“I got a call from not one but two advisors. One was my actual advisor for my program. He didn’t really call with any information. He was like, “Hey, I want you to know who I am. If you have anything that goes on over the summer, don’t be afraid to call me.” My second one was my multicultural advisor, who I didn’t even know I had . . . , which was kind of cool. He was just like, ‘Hey, I see you’re taking this many credits. I just want to check in and make sure you meant to take this over the summer. That’s going to be a lot, and I want to make sure you’re on the right career path.’ This process made it feel like they cared about my education.”

“The other day, I missed a class because of something that came up, and I sent a text to my instructor. For one reason or another, the text didn't go through. He sent an email. ‘Where you at? I missed you today. That's not like you.’”

“[I came to] college ten years after graduating high school, trying to remember everything. Our math instructor is just phenomenal. He is so willing to help, gives you his home phone number. He’s like, ‘Call me.’ The positive reinforcement that he gives. If somebody doesn’t understand it, he’s waiting until everybody understands it.”

These relationships work both ways. In faculty focus groups, participants have talked about how relationships with students can reinvigorate their teaching:

“In an online class, sometimes I make up the groups based on how often the students log in so that they’ll be with people who are online at the same time. They really come up with so much rich discussion, and they have so much to offer because of their various backgrounds. When you can group people—an early college high school [student], a veteran student, a single mom who’s come back to school who didn’t think she could do it, but here she is doing it, it’s incredible. . . . Sometimes I feel like I learn more from them potentially than they did from me on a given day.”

Tips to Deepen Connections

As community college students’ typical struggles—including juggling classes with work and family commitments—have now intersected with additional challenges brought on by COVID-19, forming connections will be more difficult. This raises an important question: since strong personal connections are key to keeping more students in college, how can institutions foster stronger connections with (and among) students, even if some interactions are limited to virtual platforms?

The suggestions below can be used to prompt discussions about deepening connections with students in physical and online settings:

  • Build a college-wide culture of connection and caring.
  • Ensure that all new students experience orientation.
  • Ensure that all students meet with an advisor each term.
  • Design experiences to ensure that all students make personal connections with other students, faculty, and staff during their earliest contacts with the college.
  • Assign someone to serve as a primary contact for each new student (e.g., another student, advisor, success coach, mentor, etc.).
  • Talk with students about their outside commitments, responsibilities, and challenges.
  • Offer training for students on the use of technologies employed by the college, rather than assuming that they know how to use them.
  • Promote student connections with college support services such as tutoring or advising by integrating the services into courses.
  • Ensure that courses consistently incorporate engagement strategies that promote student-student and student-faculty interaction.
  • Find out if students have access to computers for uses related to their studies and assist them if they don’t (low-cost or loaned laptops, etc.).
  • Find out if students have reliable access to the internet, and assist them if they don’t (e.g., loaning Wi-Fi hotspots or expanding Wi-Fi in areas around college campus).

Linda L. García is executive director, Courtney Adkins is assistant director of publications, and Mike Bohlig is assistant director of research—all at the Center for Community College Student Engagement.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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