Dean of Students Sees Students Are Not “Fine” During Pandemic

By: Adam B. Jussel, Dean of Students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Since the beginning of the pandemic I’ve heard “It’s fine,” a lot. From all corners of the campus — faculty, staff, and students. I’ve heard this, and it is somewhat cliché, but its apparent from this data that we are not okay. That given the number of stressors our students have experienced in the past year; it is clear that next year will be marked by increased trauma and stress.

In mid-March 2021 we received our #RealCollege institutional report. It was an odd mixture of excitement and fear — we had worked hard to get our student’s input and feedback, but also knew that the data would likely reveal what we knew anecdotally — that students were just surviving.

I’m admittedly a big data nerd. I love looking at next level stats when I watch the Brewers and Bucks games. I’m one of those folks that wants to know what Christian Yelich’s average exit velocity is. Or Giannis Antetokounmpo’s usage percentage. But when I think about these stats and data points, I’m often left with…

What does this all mean?

I’m not sure what to make of these numbers, or what to do with them. I’m admittedly very practical and operational — when I see a problem, I move quickly to seek out voices on how and when we should make changes and then get teams together to actualize those changes. So, while I love the #RealCollege data (awareness is key and all) and am continually going back to our report and discovering different ways to look at the data, I’m ruminating on what is next.

As part of some additional on-going research, I have been engaging in with our partners in Academic Affairs, surveys of our staff shows that a significant percentage screen positive for PTSD as a result of pandemic related events or experiences. While these data points are incredibly valuable, I’ve been thinking — who isn’t represented in this data. (#RealCollege notes that the survey does not take into account the students who stopped out of college or never enrolled).

I was struck by the disparities reflected in the data.

  • 65% of students who identify as LGBTQ experienced basic needs insecurities (BNI) compared to 51% among students who do not identify as LGBTQ. 78% of the respondents did not identify as LGBTQ.
  • Students that identify as Asian or Asian American (55%), African American or Black (68%), Hispanic or Latinx (60%), Native America (71%), White or Caucasian (51%), or other race (60%) experienced BNI.

This data shows what I’ve heard from our students and others — that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted our students of color and marginalized populations. This means that our actions need to be critically focused on these students — increasing awareness of the various campus resources, and decreasing barriers to access. We will need to do this with our campus partners in our multicultural and identity centers.

Data also shows that 19% of students who experienced basic needs insecurity used emergency aid, but 27% had not heard of emergency aid programs. 71% of students that applied for emergency aid said it was stressful. Even more tragic, is that students don’t use campus supports because they think other people need the programs more than they do (77%).

Finally, and significantly, 41% students exhibited at least moderate anxiety, and 36% reported experiencing at least moderate depression.

Now, we face students returning to campus with excitement, fear, and trepidation, to be supported by staff that have themselves been experiencing the pandemic after a year of traumatic events that were exacerbated by students unable to meet their most basic needs.

While there is significant hope on the horizon, and I myself am excited, this constellation of circumstances makes it an imperative for us to act quickly and prepare for a different student experience next semester. As a colleague of mine has said, “we will have to deal with this. It’s not if, but when.

UWM will begin by infusing a culture of care in the campus during both small interactions and big programs. I’ve read Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda’s article, “Formalized Extensions and Pedagogies of Care,” and it is poignant — a reminder of the human behind each student in the classroom setting. What if we took that classroom level care, and expanded it out to the entire edges of the campus?

We will begin offering campus healing preparation programs to new student programs, faculty, student facing staff, and our campus programmers. This is a small step that provides a scalable approach — train a group of folks so they can implement practices into their programs and practices. We will be using #RealCollege data, as well as our own research to develop awareness and provide context for that empathy and care.

We will also provide information to New Student Programs and Admissions to provide to students with the goal to increase awareness of available supports and to demystify the emergency grant application process, and attempt to show students how, and why, they deserve these programs.

Finally, we will connect with community-based resources to create pipelines for “hot handoffs” from campus to community when needed. Additionally, we will focus on the greater Milwaukee and UWM community in seeking support — providing this data to our Development team so they can increase campaigns for our emergency grant and Chancellor’s Student Success Fund to provide students with more direct resources.

I look at this data as a call to action, but we need to be strategic and scaffold this work with existing initiatives. Our students are amazingly resilient, and they have prevailed notwithstanding innumerable challenges before and during the pandemic. However, this data has affirmed that we need to meet them in that space — that it is an institutional imperative, and an ethical obligation to acknowledge these challenges and provide informed care and support.

As Dr. Pegoda noted — this is the time to remind ourselves of the human behind the student and engage in the healing and community building we all need to do for everyone — students, faculty, and staff — to successfully transition back to campus.

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