Finding steady ground during a shaky time

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The coronavirus pandemic has left community colleges scrambling to change the way they deliver instruction. It also has left a lot of students, staff and faculty struggling mentally and emotionally. 

Community colleges are taking extra steps to ensure their college community has the support needed to make it through the COVID-19 crisis academically and emotionally. 

Care Team: Activate! 

In Colorado, Community College of Denver’s Care Team was developed to ensure that each student has the best support possible. The team assesses individuals-of-concern and connects students to resources. During the pandemic, members of the team are working remotely, but they are meeting virtually for 2.5 hours weekly and on an as-needed basis to help meet immediate needs. 

A Care Team member who talked with some of CCD’s work-study students has heard these phrases: 

  • “I’m close to a breakdown.”
  • “I’m disassociated.”
  • “I’m extremely anxious.”
  • “I’m struggling to find my path.”

Other students are concerned about chemical dependency relapses and being triggered with other traumas. And some of the biggest concerns come from students who are wondering how to navigate courses online. 

As for staff, “they are also feeling some of these same anxieties,” said Christa Saracco, director of marketing and communications. “Some are seeking therapy and other treatment options to manage their anxiety.”

CCD has made contact information for the Care Office, as well as counseling services and crisis lines, prominent on its COVID-19 resources web page. Students are eligible for four to eight counseling sessions in an academic year to help with grief, crisis intervention, stress management and self-care support. Anyone in the campus community – students, staff and faculty – can reach out to the Care Team for support or if they are concerned about another campus community member. 

As anxieties ratchet up, Saracco said she has noticed something special happening: a deeper sense of connectiveness between staff members. 

“They are checking in with one another more, asking each other how they are doing and feeling about things, and following up with people they know live alone,” she said. “Despite the fact that we are working remotely, it’s been an amazing thing to watch our mutual care and concern for one another through this very stressful time.”

Providing an outlet

Alabama’s Wallace State Community College is offering free counseling services to students in a virtual environment. The college is working with David A. Smith of Wellstone Behavioral Health. He is available four days a week to assist students, “no matter how big or small their issue may be,” according to a press release from the college. 

In his first few weeks with Wallace State, a common issue among students has been related to adjustment and students feeling overwhelmed, Smith said. 

“Everyone needs an outlet, ideally a mental health professional, with whom they can unload all the ‘heavy stuff,’” Smith said. “Talking about your problems without censoring any of the sensitive details can be liberating and cathartic.” 

The counseling services are offered through Wallace State’s participation in the Caring Campus Initiative with the Institute for Evidence-Based Change (IEBC). The initiative is a coaching-based approach ensuring all staff have a role in enabling students to achieve success. Wallace State is one of 10 community colleges in the first cohort across the U.S. selected to participate.  

Finding steady ground 

Students at Maryland’s Montgomery College (MC) have expressed “a mixture of anxiety and anger” about the situation, said Stephanie Wills, the college’s mental health services program manager and peer advocate coordinator. 

“Students who have come to online support groups and mindfulness meditations are reporting high levels of stress around their classes especially,” Wills said. 

They are worried about finishing the semester and being able to transfer or graduate, and “things change so quickly and frequently that they find it challenging to keep up with what’s going on and what’s open,” she said. And they are feeling “like the ground is constantly shifting beneath their feet.”

A long-term quarantine could exacerbate the levels of anxiety people are experiencing — even those who don’t have a diagnosable mental health disorder — especially as people lose their jobs, worry about finding food and others products, and face a continuous stream of negative news can become very overwhelming, according to Wills. That applies not only to students, but to staff and faculty, too. 

“Chronic anxiety can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts, which is why it’s so important to try to mitigate these stressors as much as we can,” she said. 

MC doesn’t offer mental health treatment services but it does provide referrals to mental health and other agencies in the community. The college’s Student Health and Wellness (SHaW) Center for Success is continuing some of its regular stress-relief programming, offering daily online mindfulness meditations and peer-to-peer student support groups via Zoom.  

Staff is working to develop and offer other online stress relief activities, such as interactive games, activities and events, to engage students to support their mental health wellness.  SHaW also has very active social media pages, posting about community resources, tips for stress relief and upcoming events.

Several students are seeking opportunities to relieve stress through these events, and are using social media platforms and even volunteering to help in their communities during this time to stay engaged, Wills said, but “there are far more that are not participating with us and are hopefully engaging in other ways.” 

“People are social by nature, and even introverted people require interaction,” Wills said. 

Showing they care

At Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina, the Forsyth Tech Cares initiative will provide support services to help “students and employees make it through this crisis together,” a press release said. A task force made up of staff and faculty, and especially those who cannot work remotely in their current jobs, have become student advocates through the initiative. 

“I worry about our students who are hearing daunting news and feeling more and more overwhelmed by the state of our world,” said Forsyth Tech President Janet Spriggs. “Our student population, in normal times and more so now, faces numerous challenges that are not academic-related, that are barriers to their success in the classroom as well as their daily lives.”

Forsyth Tech Cares connects students, staff and faculty to the resources and support services they need. An online form allows students and employees to request assistance and ask questions. College staff also will connect with every student through email, text or phone to offer help. 

“We want our students to be successful but realize that we need to care for the whole person and not just what happens in the classroom,” Spriggs said.

The student newsletter, Technically Speaking, will give students an opportunity to send in their thoughts, their experiences and how this pandemic is impacting them. The aim of that is to offer hope and help to other students. 

Other supports

For those struggling financially – which is a big source of anxiety – Forsyth Tech Cares can connect students with emergency financial assistance. And, in partnership with the Winston-Salem Forsyth County Schools, free breakfast and lunch will be provided to college students at numerous school sites throughout the county every day. 

 Another amenity the Forsyth Tech Cares task force created is “Crumbs and Chrome,” an event to loan laptops and provide wifi services and snacks for students and employees. 

“When it comes right down to it, we know these are incredibly difficult times for all of us. But community colleges are the best at caring for our students, faculty and staff as family. We are used to rallying around the needs of everyone….when one of us hurts, we all share that pain,” Spriggs said. 

Wallace State’s emergency food pantry remains available for emergency food supplies. The college’s residence halls will remain open for students who do not have alternative accommodations. For those who need financial assistance, the college’s foundation has limited funds available, but several community organizations also are providing emergency financial support. 

CCD’s Auraria mobile food pantry is open for walk-up or drive-up service to campus students, staff and faculty, with social distancing practices being enforced.

At Montgomery College, a recent $10,000 donation from the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation is being used to provide food assistance to students. The gift “will help fill the gaps that so many MC programs were actively playing before COVID-19 imposed restrictions on face-to-face interactions,” President DeRionne Pollard said in a memo to the college community.  

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.