Apart Together

Top of the Hill at UT.

Apart Together

University officials say that even with physical distancing and virtual classes, students want to be on campus as much as possible.

by jesse fox mayshark • december 4, 2020


The Hill on UT's Knoxville campus is quiet now, with students returned home for the semester.

For college students, life on campus has always been about more than just trekking from the dormitory to class and back. But for University of Tennessee-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman, this unusual fall semester has illustrated just how much more.

Campus leaders from across the country reflect on lessons from the fall semester.

“As much as we would like to think that students come to college so they can major in blah-blah-blah, students come to college also to have a roommate, and to experience that, and to begin to live independently, and to join a Greek organization,” Plowman said this week during a virtual roundtable with other university leaders from around the country. “It’s the whole package.”

Plowman and her peers said that despite the pandemic restrictions in place on their campuses — including mandatory face masks, limits on social gatherings, and testing and quarantine regimens — students have made clear they want to experience college in person as much as possible.

“For most of them, it was about that ability, even though altered, to still have that peer support, to still be able to build those peer networks, to be able to study with friends,” said Maurie McInnis, president of Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island. “Being in person was very important to them, even if they had no in-person classes.”

The panel Tuesday afternoon was part of a digital summit called Project Launchpad organized by Boise State University in Idaho. It focused in particular on the ways colleges and universities are trying to meet the social, emotional and mental health needs of students in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joan Gabel, president of the University of Minnesota, said she has been impressed by the resourcefulness of students — whom, she noted, had already had lives marked by upheaval even before the pandemic.

“They were born in the shadow of 9/11, they entered late elementary school and middle school when the bubble burst, and they're coming of age right now,” Gabel said. “So while they're young, they have had to already cope with a lot. And what I see in them is a lot of grit and resilience.”

UT Chancellor Donde Plowman on a virtual panel

UT Chancellor Donde Plowman appeared on a virtual panel with other university leaders Dec. 1.

That includes the youngest, this year’s freshmen, who had to navigate a major transition in the midst of broader turmoil that included not only the coronavirus but the summer’s protests for racial justice.

Plowman said that at UT Knoxville, each incoming freshman was assigned a three-person team to keep tabs on them: an academic adviser, a “success coach” to guide them to tutoring and other services if needed, and a student services representative to help with registration, financial aid and other administrative details.

“Every one of those new students were contacted, and they began a relationship throughout the semester,” Plowman said. “So that's one specific strategy that we put in place this year, and we will keep it after COVID.”

At Amarillo College, a community college in Texas, President Russell Lowery-Hart said he found returning adult students had just as many challenges as their younger classmates.

“The majority of our students are adult students that have families and jobs and kids at home, and hear the term “online learning” and think they don't have the skill set for it,” he said. “They aren’t comfortable with it, and they're overwhelmed with facilitating their own kids’ online learning.”

Some adjustments were small but significant. McInnis said that online students began to value pre- and post-class times, when they can talk to each other or chat informally with professors. So Stony Brook asked its teaching staff to open Zoom sessions 30 minutes before class and leave them open 30 minutes after. Faculty aren’t required to be present during those times, but, McInnis said, it allows students to foster a sense of community among themselves.

Most of the panel members agreed that they have seen increased demand for mental health services from students, which are now being delivered in new, virtual ways, through telemedicine or even through texting. Several said students seem more willing to ask for help than they have been in the past.

“They're accessible in ways that they were not before, and we're doing a lot of work around  destigmatization (of mental health needs),” Gabel said. “I think that one of the outcomes of the pandemic is a lot of destigmatization.”

With no end to the pandemic in immediate view, despite the promise of new vaccines, panel members said that after what was in some cases a rough start to the year, students seem to have settled into their new routines.

“It was this dynamic learning experience as we went,” Plowman said. “I'm really proud of the students. It wasn't easy for anyone, they didn't like it. And I don't blame them — you don't come to college to not have parties.”