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Daniel Turner & Teri Farr, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Turner & Farr.jpgAs colleges and universities prepare to welcome back students in person or otherwise for the Fall 2020 semester, the Division of General Studies took a moment to reflect on what had led us to this point and the quick decisions we made when changing course for Spring 2020.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when we realized our lives would change due to the coronavirus. We knew at the start of the Spring 2020 semester that this was already impacting some of the Chinese students enrolled in the Division of General Studies (DGS) at the University of Illinois. At least one student from Wuhan had been quarantined and was not able to return to campus or the United States by the start of the semester in late January. With over 5,000 international students from China enrolled at the University of Illinois, we knew this virus would impact our students, but had no idea how dramatic the impact would be. 

In DGS, we decided in late January to order a box of face masks to make available to students to prevent the spread of the flu this year, knowing how many students our advisors see at the start of the semester, all in close proximity. The media continued to deliver reports of the impact of the virus in China and then in Europe. Plans started to be made to figure out what to do with just over 800 Illinois students who were abroad for Spring 2020. Meetings were quickly called with our international education representatives and college deans to discuss options and make decisions to best support our students and academic community. The focus at this point was on our students abroad. We weren’t considering how the virus would impact our students in Urbana/Champaign . . . yet.

We noticed in late February/early March that the Champaign County Health Department issued a statement recommending all residents have enough groceries, medications, and supplies to last at least two weeks. This was before any stay-at-home orders had been issued anywhere in the US and before any campus conversations about going online were known. We started to consider what would quickly become reality. The World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a worldwide pandemic on March 11. 

On March 11 it became official: our world changed. Many of us in DGS were looking forward to spring break and taking advantage of visiting family or friends or just getting caught up in the office on various projects and tasks. In our office, several of us were planning to travel as a team to the NACADA Region 5 conference in Milwaukee for a few days of education, professional development, and connection with colleagues and friends from all over the Midwest. Instead, COVID-19 arrived and completely disrupted our way of life and how we connect with each other and with our students.

On March 11, we received an email from the system president that all U of Illinois campuses would begin migrating to online delivery with a goal of completing this move in just over a week after classes resumed from spring break on March 23. That the Urbana-Champaign flagship campus moved 5,000–6,000 courses to online delivery in just over a week was an amazing accomplishment. The DGS team quickly worked to develop a plan to deliver advising and support services online and remotely. 

DGS leadership made the call to work remotely a week before it was enforced by campus, and most of our staff started working from our homes on Monday, March 16. We quickly had to figure out how to best support our students while setting up home offices. We analyzed our resources in terms of technology. Did we and our staff have the tools they needed to effectively work remotely? What online platform would work best for us to conduct online advising appointments? With campuses and courses across the country turning to Zoom, should we consider an alternative? We reviewed using Zoom, Skype for Business, and Google Hangouts Meet considering ease of use for our staff and students and decided initially to go with Google Hangouts Meet to avoid demands on Zoom. We developed user guides and resources for our staff and determined procedures for how students would make appointments and meet virtually or via phone with advisors. 

As the campus leadership was determining how deadlines would be pushed back for course drops, electing credit/no credit, and other academic policies, advisors in the DGS were preparing to support our students remotely. We considered the impact of academic policy changes and how we would reinforce the communication students received from campus. We adapted our weekly newsletter to focus on these changes and provided the pertinent information our students needed in this new environment. 

What happened was a bit of a blur to many of us as we very quickly adapted. As academic advisors, our skills at problem solving are quite good. What really happened was support and care for our staff and students. We made thoughtful decisions and relied upon the expertise of each other. In our unit, we have empaths, cheerleaders, logisticians, planners, and weavers. We all have a gift, and we used them. We are always thinking about students and how they are doing and trying to figure out ways to ensure they know they are cared for and that we are here to help. 

Our director created two new committees—one designed to support students and the other to support staff. The student support committee worked hard to create a central clearinghouse webpage on our website so we could keep track of everything in one place. We created a survey to assess how students are adjusting so we can use that information moving forward when developing programming or services for students. The staff support committee planned creative online meetings designed to encourage continued professional development and growth.  We hosted happy hours and Zoom bingo. We checked in on each other regularly and did what we can to make sure everyone is feeling cared for during these surreal times. We continually looked for ways to motivate our team. Since we used Zoom for staff meetings, we were able to have experts from around the country stop in on our meetings to offer words of wisdom and motivation. Surprise guests included leaders in advising and NACADA, Charlie Nutt, Jenny Bloom, Michael Broshears, Erin Justyna, Cecilia Olivares, Peter Freitag and Blane Harding as well as Illinois Chancellor Robert Jones. 

This new environment has been challenging for all of us. We have staff balancing multiple professional schedules while working full-time from home and taking care of young children. We have staff members recovering from melanoma who no longer have the same access to health care as they did before. Others are waiting for cataract surgeries that have been cancelled while others have adult children with medical issues for whom care is being postponed due to the pandemic. Many of us have elderly parents who we are very worried about and can only visit through phone or online. Many of us live alone in apartments and had been confined for months. We all worry about the possibility of catching this virus while we’re doing normal activities such as getting groceries or picking up meals. 

Through all of this, we’re still focused and worried about our students. We worry about students who have to change their learning style to adapt to online learning. We are concerned about students who have gone home to additional responsibilities of taking care of parents and siblings and for our students who don’t have a safe place to go home to. We balance all of our personal commitments with our commitment to ensuring our students are supported and feel cared for.

We understand the 2020-2021 academic year will be unlike any other.  We are focused on the health and safety of our students and staff and look to creative approaches to delivering exceptional student support services in a mostly online environment.  We recognize that although much has changed, that one day we will all be together again working side by side in offices and seeing students in person.  Advisors have exceptional interpersonal skills and will continue to rely on these in support of our students.  Now more than ever, we must use technology, communication skills, and care for each other and our students as our critical competencies to be effective academic advisors.  It is too early to reflect on the true impact the pandemic will have on higher education and our culture. We know we’ll have to continue to adapt to provide opportunities for students and support their personal and academic growth and development. Because this is what academic advising is and what advisors do.

Daniel Turner
Director
Division of General Studies
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
djturner@illinois.edu   

Teri Farr
Associate Director
Division of General Studies
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
tjfarr@illinois.edu


Cite this article using APA style as: Turner, D., & Farr, T. (2020, September). Division of general studies: A reflection on 2020 pandemic. Academic Advising Today, 43(3). [insert url here] 

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