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How to Support Diverse Student Communities During COVID-19

Power of Ideas
How to Support Diverse Student Communities during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly challenged each of us to look at the world through a different lens. At the outset, we asked our Florida International University (FIU) colleagues for five things: to remain calm, to have clarity about the challenges ahead, to use that clarity to drive intentionality, to be creative, and to remain flexible. Through this framework we have learned important lessons: (1) What we said today that we would not do, we ended up doing the next day; (2) We found out that we were more agile and responsive than we previously imagined—today’s limitations became tomorrow’s opportunities; (3) We crafted innovative strategies and approaches overnight that otherwise might have taken months or years to develop and implement.

One of the many challenges has pivoted around the value of remote learning—both then and now. For most university leaders, the goal has been to foster a new normal, but largely through the restoration of intense face-to-face interaction—both in and out of class. After all, most institutions of higher education are still place-based. But the pandemic has also shed light on the fact that for some learners, a holistic approach that uses technology and remote learning can be a game changer for success. This is particularly the case for students with disabilities and for transfer students.

For some learners, a holistic approach that uses technology and remote learning can be a gamechanger for success

We assist a community of differently abled students and patients through our FIU Embrace initiative. Our focus is on adults aged 18–26 years who have autism, ADHD, Down syndrome, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and other neurodevelopmental disorders. During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, these individuals and their families faced severe disruptions to their lives and their learning and care journey. Isolation led to lack of services, inability to visit family and friends, and severe mental health issues. Together with our partners at Citrus Health Network, we transitioned to a telehealth model and were able to provide interventions that have kept families intact and reduced in-home conflict. This model has been so successful that today, FIU and Citrus continue to use telehealth for psychiatry and other behavioral health services.

The negative impact of isolation brought on by the pandemic also opened our eyes to some gaps in the programming for our FIU Embrace Education students and their families. For students with autism registered in degree programs, we set up a program with a face-to-face and an online component to help strengthen decision-making and communication skills. Some of these students performed successfully in an academic setting with a remote modality, which led to the creation of a remote animation opportunity through a partnership with the nonprofit Exceptional Minds.

In addition, our remote transition to Supporting Transitions for Embrace Parents (STEP) program allowed more parents to participate, and the program remains remote today. All seminars and independent-living training classes were also shifted to remote plat forms through our FIU Develop website, and we plan to seek a micro-credential for seminars that will allow us to reach statewide and international audiences.

FIU is passionate about transfer students having close working relations with the state college system and the need for a statewide system of seamless articulation and common-course numbering. With the pandemic, we established remote pre-transfer advising via Zoom for rural students seeking services from our transfer-oriented FIU Connect4Success Bridge Advisors. During the height of the pandemic, our bridge advisors met with 1,549 students—305 more than in 2019—many from partner rural campuses such as Miami Dade College - Homestead Campus and Palm Beach State College Belle Glade and Loxahatchee campuses.

And to address declines in transfer-student enrollment during summer and fall 2020, we developed a communication campaign that included focused messaging about financial support, academic advising, and course availability. The campaign reached 625 students and enrolled 394, a 63 percent yield. For enrolled transfer students, we offered financial support as part of the CARES Act. More than 3,500 transfer students from our three Connect4Success partners received a combined $7,168,500 in relief funds.

Despite the challenges brought on by COVID-19, we have learned many lessons about how universities can and should respond to the needs of our learners and our community. This pandemic has fostered very promising creativity and flexibility. We are expanding high-quality education services for traditional students and nontraditional learners alike. As a result, our institutions have greater possibilities to achieve agility, accessibility, and inclusivity that can promote student success and learner competency as never before. We are even more excited about our ability to make a difference in the lives of our respective communities.