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Online Student Engagement: Bridging Gaps in the Midst of COVID-19

Health, Safety, and Well-being Student Success Financial Wellness Career and Workforce Development Supporting the Profession Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice AVP or "Number Two" Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
July 24, 2020 Mordecai Ian Brownlee St. Philip's College

Online Student Engagement: Bridging Gaps in the Midst of COVID-19

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly 20 million students were slated to attend an institution of higher education in fall of 2019. Community colleges, as a sector, were slated to account for six million of those enrollments. However, now with COVID-19 wreaking havoc around the world and certainly within the higher education community, only time will tell how many students will continue on their academic pathways. Even more anxiously, how many first time in college students will take their first steps towards a college credential during this unprecedented era? Student affairs professional stand on the front lines of their institutions, ready to onboard, support, and engage students along their journeys towards career preparedness and intellectual enlightenment. Quite arguably, is was the student experience crafted by student affairs professionals that nurtured and honed the uniqueness of institutional brands that shaped the differentiation of colleges and universities nationwide. Thus, serving as the tipping point in many a mind of students in their decisions towards college application submittal and attendance. However, the coronavirus with its trail of nearly 4 million cases of infected persons and almost 150,000 deaths, institutions will need to develop new and innovative means of bridging the gap of engagement, inclusion, and connectivity between the student and their institution.

Below are three opportunities for consideration in ensuring that your institution is best positioned to support its students in the COVID-era of higher education.

Bridge the Gap on Digital Divide

In an article recently published article byEdSurge, I highlighted the digital divide present within higher education and its impact on student success. As student affairs professionals, our students are depending on us to work with our college and university administration to provide resources (e.g., laptops, hotspots, instructional support, etc.) to all students in need. Student advocacy has many forms and in this era of higher education, connectivity is an essential element to bridging the gap between student dreams and their reality. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that students from low socioeconomic communities stand to lose the most during these times due to lack of available resources. Over the past several years, great gains have been made in the areas of race, gender, and economic equity. Let us not allow COVID-19 to undo all of the progress we have intensively fought to make.

Bridge the Gap on Experiential Learning

In a recent study by Ellucian, 1,000 students were surveyed regarding their academic career pathways, their selected majors, and their confidence with those selections. The survey found that just under half of all students who participated in the survey were confident with their academic major selections. Now, translate that to our college and university campuses and think about the implications that COVID-19 has and will continue to cause. Not only are students more likely to experience discouragement and hardship along their academic pathways, but students will also be more likely to disengage with their career pathways due to the economic downturn. Now is the time for student affairs professionals to partner with instructors and academic administrators to create engaging experiential learning opportunities for students to take advantage of in the safety of their homes or at their leisure (and availability) within their communities. Also, let us not forget the importance research has shown us regarding student mentorship networks, as our students will benefit tremendously from the wisdom and guidance of professionals within their desired fields during these unprecedented times.

Bridge the Gap on Campus Community

At the start of the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic, Inside Higher Education published an article in support of educators who suddenly had to cease face-to-face instruction on how to reinforce relationships and advance rapport with students remotely. This reality also rings true for student affairs professionals as many of our co-curricular, extra-curricular, service learning, and experiential learning opportunities came to a screeching halt due to the coronavirus. For some of us, our institutions possessed the technological infrastructure to quickly pivot towards providing service and support to students remotely. Unfortunately, for many others the lack of physical presence between the student and their institutions spelled disaster. Student affairs professionals must ensure a robust and intentional program strategy to educate, engage, and support students remotely throughout the entirety of this crisis. Students should feel connected to their fellow students outside of their curricular-driven weekly discussion posts. By creating new means of human-to-human connection and networks for our students to interact amongst themselves as well as with their institution, students will be better served and supported during these uncertain times.

In closing, there is not one person alone who has the answer as to how to best serve our students during these times. However, as a community we can share best practices, promote innovative thinking, and drive the improvement of our student experiences at the rapid pace that these challenging times call for. Remain safe, be smart, and best of luck as we aim to provide the best student experience possible during this COVID era.

About the Author

Dr. Mordecai Ian Brownlee currently serves as the vice president for student success at St. Philip’s College, the only federally dual-designated historical Black college and university (HBCU) and Hispanic serving institution (HSI) in the nation. Dr. Brownlee also serves as an adjunct professor at Morgan State University School of Education & Urban Studies and the University of Charleston School of Business & Leadership. For NASPA, Mordecai serves as the Community College Institute Director-Elect, a member of the Community College Division Board and a member of the James E. Scott Academy Board.