Student Success

Outreach Supports Student Success During Pandemic

Proven Strategies Expanded to All Students

April 23, 2020
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D-Term presented challenges to WPI’s community that would have been hard to comprehend even two months ago. Remote learning, a campus shutdown, and an ever-present worry rapidly flipped the end of the academic year. But it didn’t stop it. Even when WPI’s students aren’t physically together, they still have a support network to make sure they navigate this uncharted territory.

As COVID-19 altered plans across campus, new strategies kicked into high gear to establish personalized connections, expand support programs, and ensure that each student felt the concern and compassion the community has for them. In response to the crisis, departments across campus worked together to identify, modify, and use the best practices for online students and make them work for all students.

Although the situation is unexpected and unprecedented, students are determined to find a way. “WPI students get things done, and they do hard things,” says Debra Boucher, director of special academic programs. Watching how the community is working to support students and each other is inspiring, she says.

A proven strategy for supporting full-time online students is now being used for graduate and undergraduate students whose on-campus world was upended. Jody Reis, associate director of program delivery, says online students already received personalized guidance from her team of student success managers. That help, which includes assisting students with almost any university detail that isn’t coursework, has been expanded to include those who had been on-campus students. “Most of the informal networks students rely on have gone away,” Boucher says. “The world they thought they knew is very unsure right now.”

Reis, who works primarily with graduate students, says WPI knew that students who successfully navigated classrooms, labs, offices, and support networks on campus could feel adrift and disconnected in an online environment. She also knew that her team could help, but any approach needed to be fast and effective—and would involve nearly 700 newly remote graduate students, in addition to the 1,000 usually online and corporate students.

The program delivery team contacted each full-time, on-campus grad student to offer support while Boucher’s team began outreach to undergrad students. “The number one response we heard was that they were grateful someone from WPI was reaching out to them,” says Reis. Terri Camesano, dean of graduate studies, agrees. “We are finding that students are very appreciative of the outreach they are receiving from their student success managers,” she says.

Lori Kendall-Taylor, one of five student success managers for graduate students, says many students feel pressure as the economic shift impacts the job market. International students report worries about returning to their homes or staying in Worcester—all with concern over family back home. Still others had basic questions. “A lot wanted to know what would happen for Commencement or when they would get their diplomas,” she says, “... some of it was the unknown.”

 

This is a really challenging time for our students. We are committed to making sure that every single student has a positive academic experience this semester and is still on track with their graduation plans.
-Terri Camesano
Dean of Graduate Studies

Students needed guidance as they navigated academics, group work, or even registration. When teams don’t have answers, they know who can help. When students had concerns about jobs and the economy, they were connected with the CDC, which was holding a virtual career fair, says Reis.

Camesano A.jpg

Terri Camesano alt
Terri Camesano, Dean of Graduate Studies

“This is a really challenging time for our students,” says Camesano. “We are committed to making sure that every single student has a positive academic experience this semester and is still on track with their graduation plans. We also know that students will need extra support in looking for employment and in career and professional development. There are many resources available, and we are doing our best to connect students to these resources.”

Stacy Chiaramonte, executive director for WPI’s Corporate and Professional Education (CPE), says that although the scale of services has broadened because of the crisis, the foundation was in place. Many years ago, when CPE was expanding its online course offerings, the department began building a support system to keep students on track and engaged with each other, faculty members, and the university itself, even if they never come to campus. “They are full WPI students no matter where they are,” she says. “With the type of program we offer and the level of education we offer, it’s critical that we see them through to completion.”

For many years. Sandy Wellinghoff, director of blended learning at Foisie Business School, has assisted MBA cohorts as they earn their degrees, often while they’re juggling full-time work and family responsibilities. “We let them know we are here for them, and we are working behind the scenes with other departments to make sure students feel fully supported,” she says.

The fast pace of the COVID-19 crisis meant changes needed to be fast and effective. “We have to remember that students haven’t chosen online learning, and faculty haven’t chosen online teaching,” says Boucher. “And we are doing this in the middle of a pandemic, so this has implications for all of us. We are sensitive to lots of pressures.”

Reis’s team connected with faculty to offer resources if they had worries about any students who might not be logging into Canvas or showing up for class times. If that happens, Boucher says someone from the team will reach out to offer the connections and assistance that will help them get back on track.

When Paul Reilly assistant dean of Student Success, hears of students who are foundering, his team helps with everything from connecting with academic help to time management assistance. Sometimes, he says, just having that human contact to hear about their concerns or how their lives have changed can help them cope. “The students, faculty, and staff have all shown such incredible resilience,” he says. “They’ve all had to pivot so quickly.”

Reis says the commitment to helping students is strong across the entire WPI community, and while that’s always been important, the benefits have never been more apparent. The result has been proof that WPI was well-prepared to make the required shifts and that students, and the university, will emerge from the crisis stronger. “This is not ideal,” she says, “but we were able to get students up and running because we already had so much in place.”

-By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil