When the COVID-19 pandemic intensified around the world, it was unclear whether universities would meet in person for classes — or if students, including international students, would be able to travel or keep their original study plans.
Last year looked a bit different, but students and staff made the best of it, whether learning on campus, studying virtually in the United States, or learning in their home countries via Live, Shorelight’s award-nominated digital classroom experience.
Here is a look at how students and staff overcame obstacles during the pandemic and how they made the semester a success, despite dealing with the unexpected.
Getting to the United States During Coronavirus
For international students who made the decision to travel to the United States, there were unforeseen challenges, but the commitment to student success ensured staff could address student needs and keep everyone on track to meet their educational goals.
For Wael Bahhur, Cleveland State Global student services advisor at Cleveland State University (CSU), and Robert Schleper, student services manager at Cleveland State Global, communication was more important than ever.
“There was a lot of fear with students; if word gets out that someone had issues at immigration, there is a ripple effect,” Schleper explains. The solution? Supportive communication.
Fears over whether student visas would be processed in time were common across campuses, including for Tomas, a Florida International University (FIU) student from Argentina, who was originally hesitant about starting college during quarantine. “I thought it wouldn’t give me the full experience,” he explains. “But luckily the campus team made me feel welcome and helped me throughout the registration process.”
At University of Dayton, it meant working with students one-on-one to come up with the best solution for their needs. The student visa process could be especially challenging: In some cases, students could go for visa interviews, but would not be able to arrive for the start of class.
UDayton Global staff coordinated with students and their families, as well as faculty and departments, to determine the best approach. Several students were able to take classes virtually until they arrived on campus. Other students, like those traveling from China, needed to quarantine in another country before arrival, adding another layer of complexity. In each case, advisors worked closely with students to come up with personalized plans.
Even though the process of getting to campus looked a bit different last year, ensuring students felt safe and knew the team was there to help them was extremely important to Bahhur and Schleper.
Normally, Bahhur greets students on campus so they see a familiar face they have been in contact with all along. Last year, the team had to arrange transportation from the airport to bring students directly to their housing, eliminating in-person contact.
“We had to have more individual touchpoints this year,” adds Schleper. “We looked at it as an opportunity to really personalize the experience.” While the team could not greet students in person, they made sure transportation was streamlined, with someone to help with luggage and guide them as soon as they landed.
With evolving Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and City of Cleveland mandates, CSU scheduled daily Zoom calls with students to share the latest information. Once everyone settled in, regular check-ins were set up that accommodated class times and study periods. Students met biweekly with staff and also met during office hours.
“Access is important,” says Schleper, pointing out that was true even before the coronavirus. Students can contact the CSU team via cellphone, email, Pronto, and WhatsApp, to name just a few options.
Studying at US Colleges from Virtual Classrooms
Because of visa delays, travel restrictions, or public health concerns, some students decided to attend university remotely instead of traveling to the United States. With programs like CSU Live and UDayton Live, students were able to start their education at a US university on time and will be able to complete their degree programs on campus.
For CSU, the biggest challenge was ensuring students had what they needed in a timely manner, such as an identification number or access to university email.
At UDayton, the main focus was ensuring students knew the process to get in touch with a team member: Students simply needed to email the UDayton Global team to request an “in-person” (e.g., face-to-face) conversation.
With one-on-one meetings online, the team was able to help students, regardless of where they are, with any issues that arise, whether that is getting logged in to university systems, activating accounts, accessing university email or the Live platform, and understanding how to use each platform.
Students taking classes via the Live platform had group advising once a month, connecting with someone on the UDayton Global team as well in-country team members. During these advising meetings, students were encouraged to ask any questions, big or small.
The UDayton team also individually connected with students once a week to check on how classes are going and how students are feeling overall. The team sent out a quick five-minute survey to check in and students could request meetings with a team member. They also worked with university partners to offer virtual sessions, like a women’s tea, that allowed students to connect outside the classroom.
Studying in the US During the Coronavirus
For most international students we spoke with, studying during the coronavirus pandemic was a big adjustment, but all agreed that the support they received helped make things easier.
The Global First Year team made sure to assist us in every way possible. They frequently check on us and how we’re doing. Professors are friendly and understanding, too. Each of them does their best to support us and maximize the productivity of our Zoom sessions.” — Olena, Ukraine, FIU
She, like many international students at FIU, originally thought some classes would be in person. Moving to online classes was simply another adjustment.
“Going remote was more of an adaptation than a decision I had to make,” says Tomas, who had watched his brother study via online platforms in his last year of college. His brother’s advice? Increase time management to keep up with classes. “Once I got the hang of it, I was able to organize myself and manage my classes.”
Fabiana, an international business major from Bolivia, agrees, noting support from FIU staff, such as her academic advisor, as a major reason she and her classmates feel comfortable. “So far, I am having a good experience here!”
For many campuses, going online began with orientation. UDayton did a fully virtual orientation, as did CSU and FIU. For the CSU team, it was especially important that they adapted all the typical orientation activities for wherever students were — whether they were on campus, online, or studying via CSU Live.
At publication time, CSU was offering a hybrid learning model with students in lab-intensive programs, such as premed and biology, learning on campus in socially distanced labs and classrooms. Courses largely moved online for the humanities.
However, learning online got students thinking about the positives of virtual classrooms. For Tomas, remote classes at FIU mean he has more time, since he does not have to get to and from classes around campus. Another FIU student, Iara from Argentina, agrees. She lives off campus, and notes that less commuting time means more time for completing homework assignments.
One major challenge that students are still navigating is learning how to socialize and make new friends.
“I call my friends frequently, and it’s not hard to meet up with some students while practicing social distancing on campus,” says Olena.
“Making friends was difficult at first,” admits Tomas. “The first two days on campus I felt a bit lonely, but this helped me look for ways to get involved, from floor meetings to other activities on campus.”
Now he, like Olena, is able to meet with friends for socially distanced lunches and dinners, but there is a tangible excitement for what is possible when they are able to meet in larger groups.
Students and staff alike look forward to when they can meet in person again.
We’re thrilled to have students join us in whatever capacity they can, whether on-campus or online, but we can’t wait for students to come to campus when this is over — it’s going to be bigger and better than ever.” — Robert Schleper, student services manager, Cleveland State Global
Bahhur adds that he’s already planning in-person events when students are able to participate again.
“I’m really looking forward to maybe joining a club and starting other activities,” says Tomas. “I’ve designated this semester for grades and adaptation.”
But while planning ahead, staff is also very much focused on helping students through the here and now.
“Families are putting everything on the line so their child can come to the United States and be a student,” says Schleper. “Taking care of them is central to our mission.” Keeping that at the core, Schleper and Bahhur note the importance of relating to the families they serve. “We’re parents, too, so this is a labor of love,” says Schleper.
“What you realize, and students are realizing, is that no matter where you’re from, COVID doesn’t discriminate,” adds Bahhur. “It hit everyone. We’re all in the same boat.” It makes conversations more personal than ever. “It’s a deeper conversation beyond ‘how are classes going?’ It’s ‘my father lost his job,’” Bahhur explains, noting that they are working with students one-on-one to help them keep their finances on track in a way that works for them and their families.
“We need to allow people grace,” emphasizes Schleper, adding that they urge students to take care of themselves, just as they encourage their colleagues to do the same.
As we look ahead to future semesters, Shorelight universities are focused on adapting what has worked, making adjustments as needed, and always putting students first.
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