Editor’s note: We would like to thank Megan Schutte, Director of the Writing and Literacy Centers, Community College of Baltimore County, Baltimore (Maryland), for providing this piece. To contact the author, please email Megan Schutte. If you would like to share your writing center’s experience during COVID-19, please submit via WLN.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed the Community College of Baltimore County’s campuses in March 2020, we moved the Writing and Literacy Centers’ (WLC) services online. As we already had an Online Writing Lab, faculty who staffed the physical centers were shifted to providing asynchronous feedback. However, while OWL is an amazing service, it is not able to provide all the support we normally offer. While it helps with writing issues like organization, citations, grammar, etc., a large portion of the work we do in the WLCs includes intangibles, or “warm and fuzzies,” like emotional support, confidence building, and being an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on.
In response to this missing component, I created the Emotional Support Team (EST), a small group of caring, empathetic, and knowledgeable professors whom I entrusted with calling students to simply check in and ask “How are you?” “Are you aware of the services CCBC has to offer students during this difficult time?” EST staff directed students to OWL if they needed writing help, but their main purpose for calling was not to promote our services, but rather to support our students.
I found contact information for approximately 300 students who had used our services in the spring semester prior to classes going online. Over five weeks, EST staff called 272 students. On the first round of contact, they spoke to 124 students and left 121 voicemails. They also attempted follow-up contact with 50 students, during which they were able to have an additional 29 conversations.
The average call was 6.4 minutes long. Considering that these were “cold calls” with the recipients not recognizing the number that was calling, that average length makes it clear how much students were struggling and needed someone to talk to. Here are a few specific examples that encapsulate the work that was done:
- Student dropped her ESOL course because of an increased work schedule. She wanted to enroll in a class later in the day, but did not know where to get that information. EST found it for her.
- Student was struggling with intermittent power outages. EST shared ways to contact the electric company and advice on keeping in touch with his professors.
- Student, mom of three kids under the age of seven, was worried about how dropping a class would impact her FAFSA, without which she must quit school. EST found that information for her.
- Student had questions about the new pass/fail grading option. EST talked student through the options.
- Student dropped classes because she worked in healthcare. EST walked student through the paperwork required to get voucher for a free future class.
- Student struggling with classes due to minimal computer access. EST texted her information about computers that the school purchased for students to use.
- Student’s father expressed concern about if his deaf daughter would be able to receive support. EST explained disability accommodations.
- Student was locked out of email due to a damaged computer and unable to contact her professor. EST emailed her new cell phone number to her professor.
- Student was struggling with addictive behaviors. EST encouraged her to contact her therapist and attend an online AA meeting.
The EST was a new service, one born out of necessity, in our COVID-dominated semester, but these final thoughts from staff show how impactful the work was:
“Although there were some core discussion topics, there was no such thing a ‘routine call.’ It’s been exhausting—in a good way; anyone who offers emotional support to others understands that. We provided essential and reassuring assistance to students who would have been at one kind of disadvantage or another except for our calls.”–Ann Kirby
“Being a part of [EST] has been moving and, at times, draining. Many students expressed gratitude for my call and assured me they were fine. Other students explained through tears that they were struggling. What do you say to a student who just lost their job due to the pandemic? What do you say to a student when they ‘wonder when things will just go back to normal’—when you, too, wonder when that might be? What do you say to a student who is sobbing and telling you how hard things are? At the end of each workday, I could feel the weight of the tougher conversations. But these calls also left me feeling more connected with students—a tough feat during social distancing—and I ended each call knowing that my encouragement might have been just what a struggling student needed.”–Deanna Murphy