It’s no secret that students choose Villa Maria for the unmatched support they receive and the genuine sense of community they experience during their time at the College. Especially during the spring semester, the small campus is bursting with excitement, passion and activity. The unexpected and indefinite temporary closure of the Villa Maria campus due to Covid-19 has been upsetting, to say the least.
The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted everything Villa prides itself on – community, inclusiveness, and individual support. In what could be a time of panic, the Villa Maria community is standing strong. More than ever before, the College is committed to supporting its students in every way possible, even if that support is delivered in new ways.
When the College was forced to temporarily close its doors, administration had to quickly determine how to ensure students would have access to the technology they need to complete their coursework online. “In the end, we did something that very few colleges would even dream of,” said Dr. Matthew Giordano, Villa Maria’s president. “We immediately began physically handing out our computers for students to take home with them. A team of faculty and staff members, along with vice presidents, rolled up their sleeves, got the word out to students, came to campus, and began giving away older computers and lending out some of our most powerful classroom machines. In the end, we distributed computers to nearly 25% of our student population.”
Besides offering up computers, Villa Maria has also made an extraordinary effort to keep its student service offices fully functional. The Student Success Center, for example, has made use of Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams to provide the same academic and social support students receive on campus. “Villa is a refuge for some of our students,” said Jessica Siegel, director of the Care Center. “Technology has enabled our students to have meaningful social interactions during a time in which they may feel quite isolated and alone. On the academic side, it’s given our tutors and academic coaches the ability to provide the same excellent support we provide in person.”
In addition to providing their typical academic support, the Student Success Center has also been working with students to troubleshoot issues with technology and the unexpected change in classroom delivery. They are working to help students navigate Teams and Zoom, video conferencing tools, and D2L, the College’s online learning tool. “Unexpectedly, during the last few weeks, the SSC has worked with students in whole new transition—transitioning from seated classes to distance learning,” said Elizabeth Kerr, director of student success. “Luckily—we know how to help students transition! We are checking in via text, email, and video chats with students and are helping students with disabilities make sure their accessibility needs are met in these new formats. In fact, one coach even worked with a student to enable the text-to-speech features on her personal laptop and iPhone, just so she could navigate a more text-heavy classroom assignment.”
Finally, the Student Success Center has made extra effort to reach out to students who have missed a class. “We want to make sure any absences that do occur are legitimate, and not because a student didn’t have the tools or support he or she needed to attend an online class. Our whole operation has moved from the ground floor of the library building to computers in our home offices—and while we miss running into students in the hallway and dining hall– we are committed to continue supporting success in this temporarily virtual Villa,” said Kerr.
The same goes for the Care Center (counseling center). “There has been little disruption to the services we offer students through the Care Center,” said Siegel. “As soon as campus closed we began utilizing doxy.me, a HIPAA compliant telehealth platform, which allows the Counseling Center to offer its sessions virtually. It is a big change, but it is working. Students have made a point to say they feel the same support and attention that they do on campus.”
On the Student Life front, efforts are just as obvious. “Our student emergency fund has been in existence for a long time,” said DJ Schier, Villa’s director of student affairs. “It was not created in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has certainly come in handy.” The long-standing initiative exists as a result of the donations received from staff members. We’ve tapped into the fund to help students experiencing financial hardships that are completely beyond their control. Since March 18, Villa’s staff has added several hundred for students to the fund in direct response to the hardships caused by the Coronavirus outbreak.
On a lighter note, the Office of Student Life has also shifted much of its programming to an online format. “We’re hosting virtual meetups and programs for students,” said Schier. “We will be hosting specific virtual events for the rest of the semester as well, including live music from students, bingo, discussions, and more. We are reaching out to individual students and student-run clubs to host virtual events as well. All events will be recorded so students who miss the live event will be able to view it and participate on their own time.”
“Speaking of student clubs,” continued Schier, “We’ve ensured that all our students have access to Microsoft Teams so they can meet virtually, connect as a club and continue to plan virtual events for the entire Villa community.”
“As a whole, Student Life has increased its outreach through social media,” said Schier. “We’ve always had a Facebook group for students that allows them to ask questions, express concerns and just generally connect with one another. Now, we’re spending even more time engaging students in this space by answering pressing questions as fast as possible and providing students with resources such as free e-texts, free internet, free computer programs and more.”
Like the rest of the world, Villa Maria is experiencing an unprecedented time of uncertainty. Never before has the College closed its welcoming campus to students and employees alike. Never before has our inclusive and supportive community been forced to physically separate so abruptly. Instead of allowing this disruption to define the rest of the Spring 2020 semester, the Villa community is coming together to ensure student success in new, creative ways. When the community is able to return to its home at 240 Pine Ridge Road, it is sure to be stronger and more tight-knit than ever before.