By Cory Phare
Even before the global COVID-19 pandemic, Metropolitan State University of Denver students were delicately balancing employment and academics.
Roadrunners’ median age is 26, and 77% of students work full- or part-time, often at multiple jobs and many in the service industries hit hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak. Add in frequent care for family, and the challenges become exponentially greater.
These lived realities require a new kind of thinking and responsiveness as colleges and universities nationwide mobilize their campus communities online.
“First things first, our top concerns are for the health and safety of our community and the academic success of our students,” said Will Simpkins, Ed.D., Vice President of Student and Academic Affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU Denver). “That guides all of our decisions.”
For many college students, unmet basic needs such as food and shelter – or more often than not, both – are foundational concerns.
“For many, it was already hard work navigating these systems, and this crisis is hitting them even harder,” said Sam Borrego, M.S., Coordinator for First-generation Initiatives at MSU Denver’s Center for Equity and Student Achievement. She’s working with students who are the first in their families to go to college, noting that about half of MSU Denver’s first-gen students are also low-income, struggling to deal with the ripple effects of layoffs and downsizing.
One of the key resources for front-line support professionals like Borrego is the Student Emergency Fund. It allows students to apply online for immediate resources to help with housing and food – and also access to technology to continue their studies online with as much semblance of normalcy as possible.
The University is also providing how-to guides and loaner laptops to students through the Instructional Technology Services Online Ready portal and announced it will continue to pay hourly staff and student workers for the time they had been scheduled to work for the remainder of the spring semester.
“Our student support resources are still there – they’re just there in a different way,” said Braelin Pantel, Ph.D., Associate Vice President for Student Engagement & Wellness/Dean of Students at MSU Denver.
Between March 13 and 26, the MSU Denver Student Emergency Fund distributed $83,000 among 133 students that applied for help with food, housing and/or technology.
Staying Engaged Online
Extending support goes beyond access to technology – it’s staying connected as a community. For Borrego, that has meant creating resources to walk folks through working online and phone-based study groups so they don’t have to go it alone.
Above all, though, she stressed the importance of remembering that the one-size-fits-all approach is out the window when it comes to the complex realities today’s college students navigate.
“In addition to thinking about their academic selves, our students are parents, who now have to become teachers; they’re waitstaff and fast-food workers who don’t have the luxuries many others take for granted,” Borrego said.
A Position of Strength
“We know our students have this strength in resiliency,” said Ally García, Ed.D., Assistant Dean and Director of TRIO Student Support Services at MSU Denver, a federally funded grant program to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Now more than ever is our duty to remind them that they have this kind of capital and that they prove it every day of their lives.”
This relentless tenacity is a hallmark of the Roadrunner community and one that positions its members as flexible and savvy.
“Our students are experts at riding the waves… they’ve been through tough times before,” García said. “They know what it’s like to juggle things and how to navigate the systems.”
Content provided by Metropolitan State University of Denver.
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