The COVID-19 pandemic has displaced students attending universities and colleges throughout the state of Utah. Many of them are completing their last week as online students for the first time. Utah State University's Vice President for Student Services, Dr. James Morales spoke to Utah Public Radio about ways the university is working to meet student needs from a distance.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: What concerns you most Dr. Morales about this COVID-19 pandemic and how it is affecting students at Utah State University?
Guest- Dr. Morales: The uncertainty that everyone's trying to deal with in terms of not knowing the long term and, you know, the challenges that they face in transitioning from being in a fully immersive residential experience at Utah State to one where they're having to pick their classes remotely, creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. There's still a lot of angst related to not having the social connectedness that they're used to in an immersive campus environment. So I worry a lot about that, that students are struggling to adjust, adapt, stay connected, one of my favorite times of year.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: There is nothing like USU is the spring. It is the payoff for those hard winters. And, so many students are missing that this year.
Guest- Dr. Morales: That's right. Not only that, but sort of having closure to their year, you know, with commencement activities for those who are graduating not being the traditional format. But I think again, those social connections that they really enjoy as students on a college campus- we will try to encourage them to remain connected in a virtual way. And they're sort of the digital natives so they know how to do that. (We are) reminding them how important maintaining those connections are.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: What about the financial aspects? I know many students depend on Work Study, and other funding.
Guest- Dr. Morales: The university has done its very best to honor their commitments for work study students and others who have wage hourly positions on campus through the end of the semester. And, we've been able to do that. And, at times, the job that may have disappeared and needs to be replaced by an alternate work opportunity. The greater challenge is in other places off campus where they're working and where jobs as a result of COVID-19 have disappeared. In those cases students are facing at times some very significant financial challenges. And one of the tools that we created is we morphed our emergency hardship grant to a COVID-19 emergency hardship resources fund. Students can apply for financial assistance. They can also get help in getting a new job if they lose one. They can receive help if they're struggling with their housing needs. There's a whole variety of different things. Over just a short period of time, I'm talking just a few hours, we can easily get 50 applications. Sometimes they just need a couple hundred dollars or sometimes they just need some groceries to get them by to the end of the month. The average grant over the seven year period has been about $1300 dollars per student. More recently, it averages about $750 dollars.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: Because of the demand, right?
Guest- Dr. Morales: That's correct.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: So how does a student go about applying for this, this help?
Guest- Dr. Morales: Go on to the My USU student portal, USU’a student portal, and they can watch for an ad that appears when the application is open. The other way to do it is to just go to the Student Affairs website, and on there is a special tab right at the top of the page, labeled COVID-19 emergency hardship resources. They can click that and it'll take them through the process. We are certainly seeing more donors. They realize the impact that COVID-19 is having on our students and they are willing To step up long before we even began to reach out for this particular effort to help generate funds. The bulk of our funds come from private sources. We'll continue to do this, not just for during the COVID-19 crisis, but beyond because the need students are expressing continues to grow.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: What about the $200 million in federal COVID-19 education relief funding, is Utah State getting any of that money and how will it be distributed?
Guest- Dr. Morales: Yes, Utah State is receiving a portion of the cares Act funding, and we're very grateful for that support from the federal government to be able to help us defray some of the cost and also to support our students needs directly. We're receiving a little over $17 million in our total allocation, and $8.7 million of that must be and will be provided to students through indirect grants to help them address disruptions created by the COVID-19 crisis in their lives, related to food and housing, utilities, those kinds of things. And once we receive that money, which we have not yet received, we will follow it through a process that could get it directly into the hands of students for their needs.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: As university students throughout the state of Utah complete finals online after spending most of the semester taking classes off campus, university officials are trying to determine how to best meet the needs of students come this fall, including how to continue providing education and increasing the number of courses that might be available through distance learning Dr. Morales, distance learning is not new to Utah State University.
Guest- Dr. Morales: Utah State University has been a leader in providing online education for many, many years, and has received accolades for their efforts and doing that in providing access to higher education opportunities for students wherever they happen to be, you know, those that cannot go to an actual state campus especially. And so I think the COVID-19 crisis has certainly highlighted how effectively we’ve been at that, and also has helped us see the impact that this can have on various populations throughout the state of Utah. And we reach, of course, nationally, internationally through our online operations. So it certainly has shed some more light on how important and significant of an impact these efforts can have. Will it change the face of higher education for Utah State University? Probably not to the degree that maybe others that haven't been involved in these efforts might be affected. But what it will do for us is, there may be a shift to more students taking online courses. We were already seeing that trend develop in recent years and that will probably continue. But I think what matters most is the community. How do we remain connected to these students, especially those that are taking the majority or, you know, entirely online courses? How do we help them stay connected to each other and to the university? How do we provide the support that they need in a virtual world? These are all great questions that are all really coming into sharper focus. And while we've been prepared to do this effectively, I think we can certainly expect that we'll move this to an even higher level.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: What have you found to be an effective way of bridging that gap?
Guest- Dr. Morales: Students were already used to living a large portion of their lives in a virtual world. And that's a really good starting point for any higher education institution to build upon that foundation, to strengthen those connections and opportunities to stay engaged with students, and for them to stay engaged with each other. And so, as an example, during this COVID-19 crisis, we are not able to see students for mental health services in person anymore. But we migrated those efforts into a virtual world and have been just as effective in providing the support services they need. Another example is, we currently don't have our recreation centers open. But we've created a whole variety of fitness routines and workouts, opportunities for students to access personal trainers. And all of that's done in a virtual environment. So it's neat to see all that happened and just sort of ramp up in a way that can be sustained for, you know, the foreseeable future, and even when the COVID-19 emergency has passed.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: There are a lot of reasons why students can't necessarily come to a campus to obtain a higher education degree. Right?
Guest- Dr. Morales: The students no longer have to go to a physical campus. At the same time, we want them to feel a part of the Aggie family, we want to know if they are running into troubles with their academic pursuits, that there are advisors available for them online. We want them to be able to take care of themselves and if their well, whether it's mental well-being or physical being is in jeopardy, that there are resources available to them through the university, right online. And it's sort of that brave new world and we're excited that we're able to be a part of addressing those needs.
Host- Kerry Bringhurst: And of course, Utah State University and other higher education institutions in the state have set up website information to keep you updated as to what some of the changes are when it comes to enrollment in the fall, and classes that will be available as we continue to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic as it relates to higher education. Dr. James Morales, thank you so much for taking time to be with us.