Rachael Durham, the Assistant Director for First-Year Experience in the Center for Student Success at the University of Mississippi, doesn’t usually give her personal phone number to students. But when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, she knew they would need her support more than ever.
Connecting through her personal phone turned out to be essential when several students ended up quarantined at the start of the pandemic, says Durham. While some could drive home to quarantine, one was unable to get home to California and ended up stuck in a local hotel room for two weeks with only her computer and a few changes of clothes.
“I would get text messages from students saying, ‘Where can I get this? How do I do that?’” Durham says. “They really appreciated being able to connect like that.”
Though she doesn’t bring it up herself, colleagues also recall Durham and others in the Center for Student Success working long nights and weekends to make direct calls to students to check in on them and make sure they sustained progress during the pandemic.
That student care approach has always been at the core of the first-year seminars the Center for Student Success delivers — EDHE 105 and 305, for first-year and transfer students, respectively. The three-credit seminar is designed to help first-year and transfer students understand the learning process and enhance the academic and life skills students will need to succeed in university and beyond. Each fall semester, over 100 sections of the course are taught, mostly by the University of Mississippi Center for Student Success staff and other student support services staff across campus, and, though it is optional, over 85 percent of entering students choose to take it.
Keeping the first-year seminar running effectively while centering student care during the pandemic created new challenges. It also generated new insights and practices that Durham expects to sustain after semesters of emergency response to COVID-19.
Getting the on-campus experience
As well as teaching students important academic skills and familiarizing them with university resources, the first-year seminar acts as an important part of incoming students’ social integration, says Durham.
Her team wanted to keep the opportunity for students to attend on campus, even if it ended up being the only class a student didn’t take remotely. They spent the summer of 2020 planning how to safely and effectively deliver the first-year seminar in person, while dealing with moving goalposts as the effects of the pandemic continuously morphed and the State of Mississippi revised guidelines.
They landed on a hybrid format that divided each section in smaller cohorts. A typical seminar has 24 students, but most classrooms were only able to safely hold 10 to 12. Durham and her colleagues decided on a model where each of half of the students would attend one in-person session a week. The instructors would teach the same lesson to each half of the class, and online units would make up the rest of the week.
Durham and her team coordinated with the university’s Facilities Planning and Facilities Maintenance teams that were creating safe distancing for in-person classes and providing masks, sanitizer, and wipes to each classroom. Durham’s office also tapped partners on campus to create some of the online content. For example, the Conduct Office put together a video for the unit on discipline and academic integrity. They also offered two remote sections of the course for students who weren’t able to or didn’t want to attend in person.
Durham says the experience instilled a spirit of flexibility among instructors that she expects to carry forward after the pandemic — to focus more on helping students connect to campus and academic life and less on deadlines and attendance rules.
“We understand new students have a lot of things going on besides school,” she says. “I think our faculty and instructors learned a lot about what really mattered and what didn’t matter at the end of the day.”
Adapting to ongoing COVID challenges
With the new format to the first-year seminar in place, Durham and her team knew they’d need to manage unseen challenges during the fall 2020 semester.
At first, student attendance was a challenge. In the early weeks, state guidelines mandated that if three or more students on a residence hall floor tested positive for COVID-19, the entire floor had to go into quarantine. Instructors created alternate assignments for quarantined students and adjusted attendance policies.
Durham’s team knew they needed to plan for the possibility that instructors would need to be quarantined as well. In normal years, instructors of the first-year seminar were given wide latitude in when and how they covered certain topics. But for the fall 2020 semester, Durham’s team maintained closer oversight of the curriculum so that instructors could substitute for one another if needed.
Many instructors appreciated that lessons were ready to go for them, says Durham. “This year especially, we all had forty thousand things to do,” she says. “The support has always been there for our instructors, but this was a step further.”
She says that after the pandemic her office will continue to build standardized support to bring more consistency across all sections of the first-year seminar.
Above and beyond with student support
Finally, Durham and her team knew they’d need to raise the level of student support they offer. Because most of the EDHE 105 and 305 instructors are Center for Student Success staff and other student services support staff, says Durham, the support system is really based on the instructor-student relationship. Instructors answer student questions, connect students with resources, and even act as mentors to guide them through tricky situations.
“At the end of the day,” says Durham, “we strive to make sure students have at least somebody they feel comfortable going to who’s knowledgeable about campus resources.”
For example, one afternoon Durham was meeting with a student who suddenly realized that he had missed a test in one of his remote classes that morning. Durham immediately switched gears to help him work through writing a professional email to his other professor and to work on resolving the problem.
Continuing to revise
In 2021, Durham’s team decided to offer the first-year seminar in the spring semester for the first time and has already gotten a good response. As they look ahead to fall 2021, they’re conducting roundtables with instructors to get feedback on how recent semesters went and what other practices should be continued.
All in all, the most important thing about the first-year seminar is that students feel like they have an advocate and a resource during a time of their lives that’s already difficult before factoring in COVID-19.
“Things happen to college students in their first year,” Durham says. “Loved ones pass away. They get sick for the first time while they’re on their own. They may have a fender bender and not have a clue what to do. I feel like the students who took this course this year could really tell and feel that their EDHE instructors cared about them, and that ultimately was the goal.”
For more ideas and resources on student-centered teaching practices, see The Caring For Students Playbook.
Image from cssfye.olemiss.edu