Hobart and William Smith Colleges - Maintaining Community in a Pandemic
The HWS Update
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Maintaining Community in a Pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread this spring and HWS turned to virtual teaching and learning, “every student had different experiences, different levels of engagement based on their combination of classes, so we wanted to provide one consistent conversation with every student,” says Brandon Barile, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Student Engagement & Conduct.

Supplementing faculty instruction, HWS staff made more than 4,000 calls to students between the end of spring break in March and finals week in May to maintain the connection to the Colleges’ community and ensure students had adequate resources to complete the semester successfully.

“We called with no specific questions, just introduced ourselves and asked how are things going,” Barile says. “Folks opened up almost immediately.”

From the athletics offices to the counseling center, staff members from across campus spent hundreds of hours discussing everything from reading assignments to adjusting to the abrupt changes to daily life.

“It’s difficult when you’ve left home, become an autonomous independent person and then have to go home,” says Alejandra Molina, Director of Intercultural Affairs. “It’s times like these when all the inequities in the system reveal themselves, when you have students going back to a small space, to take care of siblings, to both parents unemployed, to family members who are sick with COVID-19.”

As Robb Flowers, Vice President of Campus Life, says, “Living on campus is an equalizing experience for students — some of the differences in home life that you don’t see on campus have an impact on learning, especially in the face of the pandemic.”

At the end of each call, the staff offered help connecting students with the campus offices and resources to help meet their needs, from financial aid to the registrar, career services to student affairs to the Student Emergency Fund.

Molina notes that while students clearly “missed their professors, the staff they’ve gotten close to, their friends,” most “sounded resilient from an academic perspective.” Speaking with students involved in HWS Votes and the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, Molina says they seemed “even more engaged now because they know what it’s like to be without that, that leadership and community connection.”

“Each time I talked with a student during the call, I could almost see them smile,” says Deb Steward, Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics and Recreation. “The connection to campus seemed to fill them with appreciation for the call.”