Reflections on Faculty Supporting Students during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

OVPFA Conversation

McMahon and Bennett.

Mary Pat McMahon, Vice President and Vice Provost for Student Affairs
Gary Bennett, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Bishop-MacDermott Family Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience, Global Health, and Medicine
Interviewed by Claudia Gunsch, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and Theodore S. Kennedy Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Claudia Gunsch: Please describe the respective roles of your offices and which parts of your organization have shifted most significantly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mary Pat McMahon: In the Division of Student Affairs, I like to say that we put ready learners into people's classrooms and labs. We provide the services that help enable students to learn and thrive. This includes dining, health services, Counseling and Psychological Services, DuWell, and Duke Reach, as well as housing, residential life and campus life. Since the onset of COVID-19, we have shifted many of these services, to support students who have returned home as well as our remaining residential students.

Student Affairs also includes identity centers, such as the International House. This group, for instance, has been in significant contact in the past month with students who have questions and concerns about traveling and returning, visas, etc. The Career Center is also a part of Student Affairs. There, demands have shifted profoundly in the past few weeks. Staff members are assisting students who are trying to  explore summer as well as permanent employment opportunities that are changing as we speak. 

Gary Bennett: In the Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE), we support and deliver curricular and co-curricular programs for undergraduate students. This includes support for student success, such as Academic Advising and the Academic Resource Center, but also programs that help light a spark for our students intellectually such as Duke Engage and Duke’s Global Education Office. OUE also promotes student-faculty engagement programs like FLUNCH and Duke Conversations.

The division between OUE and Student Affairs has been starker in years past than it is now. These days, our offices work in very complementary ways with the goal of always putting students first. I really care a lot about Mary Pat’s entire portfolio and Mary Pat cares a lot about ours. Duke students are whole people who can't be easily separated into classroom students and outside-of-the-classroom students.

CG: It is clear that a student's ability to thrive really requires support from both of your units. Broadly speaking, OUE provides broad opportunities and support for academic engagement and student affairs makes sure the out-of-classroom student needs are met. With that in mind, what are the biggest challenges that our undergraduate students face during this pandemic and how can faculty best support them?

GB: Students are experiencing a lot of the same things that we are all struggling with during this pandemic. Our students have also been asked to experience their academic endeavors in a really different way than they ever have before and that really matters to our students. I believe the breakdown of their social networks has affected them even more profoundly. They were abruptly displaced during Spring Break. We could not allow the vast majority to return to get their belongings. A few hundred were allowed to remain on campus for health and safety reasons, but were moved to different housing and are not allowed to leave campus. Whether at home or in Durham, our students are separated from their friends and their strong social networks, which include faculty, student affairs professionals and all of the other staff who make up the Duke community.

I've been saying for the last couple weeks that faculty are really on the front lines. Faculty are really the ones who are seeing students each and every day in the classroom. And so I've asked our faculty to acknowledge them, to be as human, flexible and accommodating in an empathetic sense as they possibly can be to help our students navigate this ongoing situation.

MPM: I would just ask faculty to think about how they felt as sophomores in collegedeclaring their major, thinking about friend groups and all the other stuff that was happening outside of the classroom. And then think about what it might have been like if all of a sudden in March you were in your bedroom back home. I was talking to a kid yesterday, and he was telling me he could hear his siblings through the walls and could feel them rolling their eyes while he participated in class. Forming your independent identity as a person outside of your family is such a huge part of life, and they just had that experience transformed.

CG: Other students who are seriously affected are the seniors who are not going to experience graduation in a typical way. They are also facing a lot of uncertainty on the job market. Could you talk a little bit about those challenges and how faculty can also help them navigate that landscape?

MPM: Faculty already have been really helpful with some of the job issues. Duke is fortunate in that it has a lot of reach into different set of employment industries via alumni contacts, through academic departments and through the schools. One of the things we have to do is to centralize our efforts so that we're working together. The faculty can really help students to think about which industries may actually grow. We have seen instances where some industries are actually wanting to hire more students in certain areas than what they had originally planned.

As for mentoring seniors, it is good to keep in mind that the postponement of a commencement ceremony is a real loss and acknowledging that loss is helpful. I recently sat with the financial aid team and talked about families whose goal has been to get their kids to that degree ever since they were born. Faculty can help students understand their Duke experience is not only about these last eight weeks. It is their whole four years. There are many different rich components of the students’ Duke experience and they continue. Their friends are still connected. Faculty mentorship continues. Their connection to the institution continues. Duke students are lucky in many ways because in other places this connection stops at graduation but that is not the case at Duke.

GB: I just encourage faculty to listen. Just sometimes listening is all that is being asked for.

CG: There have been several recent reports about how underrepresented communities are being impacted by the crisis, maybe disproportionately so. What types of efforts are already ongoing in this domain and how can the faculty support these groups intentionally during this crisis?

GB: The best thing faculty can do if they perceive some of their students are experiencing a challenge is to ask them. In the very early days of this crisis, there was a lot of concern about the technology access challenges that students might have. There are certainly students who had those barriers, but we were prepared to respond to those. Attention to these obvious challenges sometimes distracts us from asking about the less obvious experiences that some of our students are having. What they really might need is to talk about how to maintain appropriate physical distance from a parent who is a clerk at a supermarket. Students might have a mom who is a CNA is in the hospital washing laundry and they don't know whether they can hug her. It’s important that we stop presenting as if we know the answer or even the questions but rather simply and openly ask students about their experiences.

CG: That is very profound and goes back to your point about listening. Sometimes that's the easiest thing we can do. Did you want to add something, Mary Pat?

MPM: We have a lot of students from New York and New Jersey. Their parents are surgeons, doctors or frontline healthcare workers. That same principle carries through. Faculty might just want to ask, “How's it going for you?” “How's it been at home?” “What do you need?” and then just wait and let students answer those questions. Most of our faculty are really good at this but sometimes in an effort to be helpful, somebody might want to sort of show students that they understand the possible challenges of being a low-income student or being the child of a health care worker. I might caution against that. Instead, show your empathy by asking a direct question, as opposed to trying to name somebody else's experience.

CG: I know that a lot of people are doing a lot to help in during this crisis. And I'm wondering if you're aware of any efforts that are led by our students to help their community.

MPM: Duke Mutual Aid is just one example of many. It’s a grassroots effort that has happened on many campuses around the country. At Duke, a first-year student took the lead in connecting donors and students in need via a Facebook interface. She ended up transferring many donations out to people and then we ended up centralized her effort and converting it into the Duke Emergency Fund. That student instinct to help is amazing.

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