Professional Development in the Time of COVID

For an in-depth view of how COVID-19 is impacting college access and success professionals at the institutional level, we reached out to Karin Elliott, Executive Director of the National Partnership for Educational Access (NPEA). NPEA has put together a comprehensive page of COVID-19 Information & Resources for organizations, programs, and higher education institutions.

What new kinds of professional support has NPEA provided for member organizations since the beginning of the pandemic?

Over the past six months, NPEA has pivoted to provide many more virtual gathering opportunities than we normally would in the spring and summer months. We would usually be holding our in-person national conference in April—which we cancelled due to COVID-19—and over the summer we would take a step back since so many of our members run summer programs for students. With increased interest in professional development as a result of the pandemic, as soon as we could get a handle on member needs, we started holding remote Community Forums for members as a way to bring people together to process the many changes we were all facing, share ideas and best practices, and simply “be” together in a space. We’ve held more than 20 virtual gatherings since March on a variety of topics: how to develop virtual summer programming, fundraising during the pandemic, challenges in higher education, and most recently forums on the #BlackAt Movement taking place in independent schools. We’ve heard from members that the opportunity to come together virtually as a community has been invaluable as we all are navigating similar challenges. NPEA plans to continue its online programming throughout the year and will hold a virtual conference in April 2021.

What skills do you believe anyone working in higher education should be focused on improving so they are better equipped to support underserved students through this pandemic?

Of course, there are the obvious skills of being able to deliver high-quality virtual and remote content. Beyond that—and specific to historically marginalized students—those in higher education should continue to find ways to frequently connect with and communicate with students. As one of our spring webinar presenters from Let’s Get Ready shared, it’s important for anyone working with underserved students now—either in higher education, K-12 schools, or community-based organizations—to be the “lighthouse.” That is to say, be the constant light for your students, and even if they aren’t responding right away, make sure they know you are there and supportive.

Historically marginalized students are facing so many challenges right now, including technology barriers during remote learning, racism, increased mental health concerns, health concerns in general related to the pandemic, and others. Many colleges and universities are looking to other institutions that are actively taking steps to become anti-racist institutions to learn from them about how to increase supports for their BIPOC students, staff, and faculty, particularly in light of all that has happened these past few months with systemic racism and incidents of police brutality. Schools are looking inward to better understand the ways in which they might be contributing to some of these issues and sharing information and action steps with each other. NPEA has held online forums for schools to learn from each other and will continue to provide these learning opportunities in the coming months.

With regard to community-based organizations (CBOs), I think the communication piece is so important for them, too. It’s critical to make sure students are staying on track with college plans, but also for CBOs to connect with their students who are in college right now. Lastly, I’ll say building in time for self-care is an absolute necessity. I have a hard time doing this myself, but it’s the idea of putting on your oxygen mask first before you can help others. If educators are stressed and exhausted and dealing with their own challenges, it’s that much harder to provide support to students. Self-care and supporting the mental health needs of not only students but also staff is something that came up quite often during our summer forums. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it’s important for employers to prioritize for their staff and to keep care front of mind.

A presenter from Davidson College said something during one of our higher education forums that really resonated with me. She shared that we all have to have grace and flexibility now more than ever as we handle an ever-changing landscape, and that rings true for staff and students. Creativity, innovation, and partnering are also now more important than ever, and we’ve seen some remarkable work done by our members as they’ve figured out ways to support students during these difficult months.

With so many conferences cancelled or shifted to a virtual setting, what can you recommend college success professionals do to ensure they are continually learning and connecting?

This is a tricky one. There is a lot of Zoom fatigue right now. We are all feeling it! On the plus side, though, there are great learning opportunities out there as so many of us (NPEA included!) are trying to provide critical content for college success professionals. My recommendation would be to make a list of your learning goals—whether those are to become better at remote teaching, communicating with students, or focusing on DEI, social justice, and dismantling racism—and keep track of opportunities that come your way that will help you meet your goals. If you have a budget for virtual events and conferences, that’s great. If you don’t, many groups are offering free webinars. I would also say don’t forget about the old fashioned way of reading articles, blogs, research studies, and newsletters to stay on top of learning. Zoom is great for making and maintaining connections, but for me, the pendulum is swinging back to making phone calls and just checking in with folks to stay connected.


What are some of the most innovative practices your member organizations are engaging in to support students, and how can members continue to learn from each other?

NPEA members are incredibly innovative and creative. Typically, every summer NPEA conducts a small number of in-person site visits to Boston-area members running summer programming. Since we couldn’t do that this year, we conducted virtual site visits, which actually allowed us a window into the amazing work of so many more programs from all across the country. We are writing up highlights so we can share them back out with the larger membership this fall for additional professional development and learning. One of the innovative practices was from Emerging Scholars in Washington, DC, which began their summer program a week earlier to allow for assessment of the technology needs of students and instructors. Another member, SMART in San Francisco, distributed dozens of computers, WIFI access points with data plans, school and art supplies, and other learning materials to families.


Many professionals’ careers may be derailed—hopefully just temporarily—by the pandemic. How can those who suffer setbacks such as layoffs or decreased opportunities for advancement still ensure they are making progress towards their career goals?

We know that many organizations and schools are facing budget cuts that are impacting jobs. I think ongoing networking and maintaining relationships is essential for anyone who loses their job or is at a standstill in terms of advancement. I’ll give NPEA a plug here by saying that we do have an individual membership that is perfect for anyone who is between positions, but would like to stay connected to a broader community. Also, NPEA sends out a Jobs Bulletin every month and keeps our online Job Board current. While we aren’t receiving as many job postings as we did pre-pandemic, we do receive postings every month. We are also rolling out a new membership system and website this fall with an enhanced career center, so we can be even more of a resource. Beyond NPEA, though, there are many other groups offering similar ways to stay connected. LinkedIn is always an important tool.


What are you doing for your own professional development these days?

A lot of my own development is closely tied to work right now. As NPEA is switching to a virtual conference in 2021, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and learning how to successfully run a virtual conference, which includes attending virtual conferences that others are holding. I’m spending a lot of time learning new technologies, which is fun and important, but also challenging! We are learning a new platform for the virtual conference and are also working on a new website and membership platform, and all of those require many online trainings. I’m reading Wes Moore’s new book: Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City and recently finished Tara Westover’s book, Educated. I highly recommend both of them.