There’s a different kind of parade that happens on campus each spring when Mardi Gras ends.
The fading reverb of jazz music and sounds of “laissez les bon temps rouler” revelry mark the semester’s midpoint. Moving in its place, and in droves similar to ornately decorated parade floats, are the term’s remaining academic commitments and opportunities. Lectures, finals exams, checkout appointments, end-of-year programming, senior celebrations, and commencement ceremonies crowd what little class time remains. The global COVID-19 pandemic, however, swiftly and silently ended this procession. It forced most people off campus as our students migrated online to finish their semester. As a result, Newcomb-Tulane College worked to assemble its units to craft a continuity plan that adapted its services and ensured the safety and support of our 8,000+ undergraduate students.
The first to feel the ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis and respond were our international students and globally-focused units. Before exploding in the United States and closing Tulane’s campuses, the virus first seized China and countries across Europe. In total, there are 413 international undergraduate students. One hundred ninety-four of those students are from China, including Wuhan where the virus originated. During the initial weeks of the outbreak, these students reported that their families were quarantined or locked down at home.
Compounding the emotional burden of family burdens were financial concerns, as well. Lockdown and quarantine procedures shuttered many international students’ family businesses, halting their incomes. As U.S. law prohibits international students from working, some students found themselves struggling to support themselves or provide a financial buffer for their families. Looking forward, this consequent economic crisis continues to threaten many of these students’ ability to afford or continue their Tulane education.
As part of NTC’s office of Academic Affairs and the Center for Global Education, NTC’s Office of International Students & Scholars worked and continues to work tirelessly on their behalf. Many students worked through complex emotions of fear, aggravation, guilt, anxiety, and homesickness, all while trying to maintain their academic success, OISS has set up support groups, information sessions, and advocated successfully for emergency funds for these students. The transition to remote learning and request that the Tulane community move home left many international students stranded in the states. Partnering with Housing and Residence Life, OISS has worked to ensure these students had safe, healthy living spaces on campus.
More importantly, OISS team members continue to work with these students as they navigate the legal aspects of remaining in the states. Ever-changing immigration rules and travel bans result in our international students requiring extensive documentation. OISS staff have continued to come into work on campus and remotely to ensure no student’s documentation fails to maintain compliance with U.S. law.
Also caught in COVID-19’s initial impact was NTC’s Office of Study Abroad. With its students’ mid-program at the outbreak’s beginning, OSA thoroughly followed CDC and State department guidelines to prioritize student health and safety. Initially, study abroad programs were only cancelled in China. However, on March 19 the State Department issued a Level 4 “do not travel” advisory for the entire world. Fearing that borders might close indefinitely and make flights difficult to find, Dean Skinner and OSA, in consultation with Provost Robin Forman, made the agonizing decision to cancel all study abroad programs and bring home all students. These students’ safe and secure return would not have been possible without OSA staff, who worked through the night over one full weekend to make it possible. They also collaborated with program providers and partner universities to ensure these students earn their well-deserved course credit. Virtual learning with these institutions will guarantee course continuity.
NTC regrets, of course, that these students’ study abroad experience was interrupted but is grateful that these students are able to continue in their progress toward graduation and that they are safe. In accordance with State Department guidelines, NTC also made the decision to cancel all summer and fall study abroad programs for 2020.
Synchronous with these immediate needs abroad being addressed, NTC worked to prepare the university’s shift to remote learning.
“Our main priority is always the academic success of our students,” says NTC Dean Lee Skinner. “We focused on ensuring that our students had what they needed to be successful as remote learners and members of the Tulane community.”
To ensure student success, NTC first had to ensure staff’s success, preparing them to move online in just a week’s time. With the help of IT and the NTC Operations team, all NTC team members were set up with equipment and access to work remotely, including laptops, Zoom, VPN, and remote system access. Virtual phone access was set up where departments needed it. Team members volunteered to pick up mail on campus and send that information electronically.
Effective information sharing was key. Team members had to create a pipeline of information sharing to kept things running smoothly. A Microsoft Teams page for all NTC staff was created to share information and offer personal support. Each Senior Associate Dean developed virtual work plans with their areas that took into account evolving work schedules for employees with childcare needs and support those with COVID-related personal or medical situations. Senior Leadership also instituted a twice weekly team call and weekly managers call within the college for information sharing, questions, idea sharing, and feedback.
NTC offices that engage directly with students were transitioned online immediately to ensure continuous service. Many units such as success coaching, career coaching, and academic advising had elements of virtual access pre-COVID, utilizing online platforms. However, to meet the surge online, many of these units had to revamp their remote procedures. One example of this rapid-paced adaptation is the NTC advising team, led by Senior Associate Dean Amjad Ayoubi.
All academic and pre-professional advising appointments switched to online delivery via Zoom beginning on Monday, March 16. By Friday, March 20, all advising services including Advisor of the Day and their 30+ forms and petition processes were moved from being paper based to dynamic digital forms and online workflows. This large-scale overhaul came prior to the start of one of their team’s most demanding campus events – Honors Weekend. Falling mid-March each year, this is a prospective Honors student’s chance to explore campus, meet professors, identify potential involvement opportunities, and register early for classes. Since it was one of the first large-scale campus events moved online, the Honors Program staff worked with admissions to immediately convert on-campus activities into virtual sessions. Advisors then worked with these students in attendance and assist them in scheduling remotely.
NTC advisors also had to field the many questions students hurled at them during their fall scheduling and senior check-out appointments. To find answers, they had to wade through fluid academic calendar deadlines, a temporarily administered “Pass/Minimal Pass/Unsatisfactory” grading scheme, registration policy changes, the exponential growth in both incoming and continuing students’ interest in new online summer school courses, as well as the announcement of the new VirTUal Tulane program for the 2021 incoming Spring Scholars cohort.
In total, NTC advisors conducted 4,450 meetings this spring. When comparing last year’s meeting statistics from the same period, that is a six percent increase. Pre-professional advising meetings also rose 54 percent compared to last year, with 757 students scheduling appointments. Additionally, the team effectively certified more than 1,700 degrees for our Spring 2020 graduates.
In addition to student services, several NTC offices run their own courses. The faculty who were teaching courses through the Honors Program, Career Development, Naval/Army/Air Force ROTC, and English for Academic & Professional Purposes all had to move to remote learning, and NTC staff helped as much as possible. English for Academic and Professional Purposes also quickly redesigned its summer language program for many incoming first-year international students so they can provide this instruction online.
Transitioning to remote learning poses a new, unique set of challenges for students. NTC and many campus partners committed to working together to ensure students had a network of academic and emotional support online.
The Center for Academic Equity immediately understood that the announcement about remote learning would have disparate impacts. Some students would have difficulty moving out and returning home. Others rely on campus resources, notably computers labs and the library, to complete assignments, and would not have access to a personal computer or WIFI at home. The variety of home-life situations in which students live mean that students’ abilities to continue their coursework would be more challenging for some than others. To ensure these students have the resources necessary to complete their semester, CAE worked with Student Affairs and Information Technology to help provide emergency funds and technology for students’ academic needs. CAE staff and its affiliate mentors continue to stay in touch with some of Tulane’s most vulnerable students to ensure they are continuing to make successful academic progress in these challenging times.
NTC also launched an online student support team to work on behalf of students. In an effort to look holistically at their potential needs, this initiative evolved into a cross-departmental group led by Senior Associate Dean Kelly Grant, that includes success coaching, The Goldman Center for Disability Services, academic advising, Tulane’s Innovative Learning Center, Center for Teaching Excellence, the Academic Learning and Tutoring Center, Information Technology, NTC Communications, and Case Management.
Identifying immediate challenges students and faculty may face when transitioning to the new online environment, the online student support team then designed and delivered toolkits with resources to these affected parties. For students, the Virtual Learning Student Support Webpage was created. This page detailed academic support resources, offered advice for easing into this transition, and was continuously updated over time to meet new or anticipated needs. Additional email and phone outreach were implemented to steer students who may be in need of services such as case management, success coaching, peer tutoring or career coaching due to the online transition. Success coaches also took on extra work, filing academic alerts on behalf of students having difficulty with their online courses. For faculty, an email campaign was launched; connecting them with the university’s Teach Anywhere toolkit and addressing concerns for factors such as technology, recordings, meeting times, and time zones. Students and faculty were able to give feedback on these resources and raise concerns regarding a courses’ progress through an Online Course Concern reporting form the online student support team generated. Submissions were reviewed by team members and responded to promptly with quick problem-solving and real-time innovative resolutions.
Also included in this web of support was final exam resources. Switching to online delivery immediately with supplemental instruction, the ALTC’s online tutoring continued via GoBoard and Zoom. The Success Coaching Team’s Peer Success Leaders held “Ask a PSL” hours, giving classmates the opportunity to Zoom in with questions for final exam preparation. In the week prior to exams, the ALTC and success coaches worked together with other on-campus partners such as Campus Health and Information Technology to host their Study Hall program. At Study Hall, students usually join the Student Success team for free snacks, free Blue Books, scantrons, and study supplies. The team reserves rooms for students to work in where ALTC content tutors, Peer Success Leaders, Success Coaches are available on-site to answer quick questions regarding prep and course material. Adapting to being off-campus and online, the Student Success team worked with IT on creating one Zoom meeting location for the event. When students entered the virtual space, they could enter breakout rooms that connected them with support resources. Added to this semester’s support roster, Campus Health representatives with wellness resources and IT representatives for questions about taking online exams.
With so much lost as a result of students’ premature campus departure, NTC also prioritized student engagement. NTC wanted students to continue to connect with peers and faculty to remain tapped into the Tulane community. Pre-scheduled programs and initiatives were revamped for online and new programs were forged for students.
“Tulane has a rich, rewarding academic environment,” says Dean Lee Skinner. “Keeping that going in the online space means our students still get to enjoy some of their favorite parts of learning and working at Tulane.”
Small touchpoints for meaningful engagement such as faculty office hours were easily moved online. The College’s large-scale and celebratory programs, however, required more innovation to maintain impact. As students who write honors theses devote an extraordinary amount of time and effort to developing their research before and throughout their senior year, the Honors Program’s Honor Thesis Forum was moved online. Some senior students presented together in a live-via-Zoom panel format while others prerecorded their presentation. These videos were then compiled on the Honors Program website for the Tulane community to celebrate this milestone to graduation.
The 2020 NTC Senior Awards Ceremony was adapted to be an online ceremony with recipients being notified via email that they had been recognized and were invited to gather their household or forward their invite to family and friends to share in watching. Dean Lee Skinner, deans from the College’s five schools, and other department leaders provided students words of encouragement and congratulations as names and awards were read.
New ways to engage with NTC staff were also forged in the switch. The NTC Career Services team launched the Career Chats program to alleviate student concerns with finding career opportunities amidst COVID-19. These weekly sessions are formatted similar to an Instagram Live event, allowing users to stream a video feed and engage in real-time through commenting. The interaction resembles a roundtable discussion where student attendees submitted questions drive the conversation’s direction. The first three Career Chats have engaged close to 100 students, and sessions will be available throughout the summer.
Without the regular summer opportunities such as study abroad and in-person research or internships, many students opted to further their education. All 2020 summer school courses were moved online, making it possible for students to work towards their degree or pursue other academic interests from anywhere. Upon the switch to remote learning for summer, over 50 courses/sections were added. Undergraduate enrollment for summer school more than doubled from 1,200 to 2,677 at present and continues to increase. Part of that enrollment were several former Tulane students, several former Tulane students who were a few credits shy of graduating. These students reported that the online format is allowing them to complete the requirements for their degrees in a very convenient manner. To ensure this swell of courses is designed to be an interactive, engaging remote learning experience, there was a high participation rate for NTC’s Summer School faculty in the formation and teaching methods for the Online Teacher Training through CELT and Innovative Learning Center.
Fall 2020 is still uncertain. In anticipation for a tech enhanced learning model that incorporates social distancing practices in the classroom and continued online learning, NTC units have refocused their work on strengthening their tools and support resources for students. Nonetheless, NTC looks forward to welcoming back its students with carnival-like fervor. As the university continues to adapt its policies to prioritize campus health and safety, hopefully we all can readopt our preferred masks in time for the next Mardi Gras season. ■