College Coaches Discuss Students’ Resilience Amid the Challenges of COVID-19

Since the school year started this fall, headlines have been warning that the challenges of attending college during the COVID-19 pandemic are disproportionately impacting college students of color and those from low-income households. The Washington Post reported that students from low-income households were more likely to drop out of college or not enroll at all. The New York Times highlighted the struggles of these students, “trapped between the financial hardships of the pandemic and the technological hurdles of online learning.” Both articles pointed to an EAB study indicating that far fewer students of color and low-income students submitted financial aid applications or deposits to colleges, indicating that COVID-19 is creating drastic inequities in college enrollment. Another comprehensive study of more than 30,000 students at large public research universities found that students of color and those from low-income and working-class households were more likely to face anxiety and depression, food and housing insecurity, and overall financial hardship.

Even with these added challenges, college coaches at CAP have been inspired by a strong sense of resilience among our students, most of whom are persisting through college despite struggles with remote learning, isolation, new financial hardships (both their own and their families’), illness, and even losses of family members to the disease. At CAP, coaches work individually with students to set and achieve goals, guiding them through the process of college preparation, academic and personal success in college, and entering careers after graduation. The goal is to help students graduate as quickly and with as little debt as possible, ready to enter a career upon graduation.

May Melehan, CAP’s Director of Coaching Services, served as guest host in a wide-ranging conversation with Coaching Services Manager Dr. Kristina Wright and College Coaches Julie Kirk and Ayasha Tripp. The four team members discussed their students’ experiences and how college coaches and other college success professionals can best support their students (and each other) during this difficult time.

May Melehan: What are you finding are the most common personal challenges that students are facing right now?

Julie Kirk: The most consistent personal challenges that I have heard students struggle with this term is just the transition to online courses. It makes a huge difference in their college experience that requires a new level of self-accountability and discipline, and I think our students are navigating that exceptionally well. I have also heard from students who feel really challenged with staying motivated and focusing during online classes. We have coached around trying to find strategies to track motivation levels, to stay motivated, to stay focused.

Dr. Kristina Wright: I totally agree with Julie, and I would add that navigating the family dynamic has come up for a lot of students I work with. Now that students are at home, they have siblings and parents present and all on different schedules. There are so many more responsibilities, especially if you are an older sibling. That has been a real struggle for many of our students: “How do I find the space? How do I speak up for myself and advocate for my needs with my family without making people feel bad?” Some students just do not want to cause any friction in the family, but they are having a really hard time balancing being a student and being a family member.

Ayasha Tripp: I echo those sentiments, and I would add that I have seen a social isolation that some students are struggling with right now. Students really look forward to the clubs, the on-campus events, the opportunity to pledge, and more, and they are now limited to digital interactions or no events at all.

May: Are there particular groups of students that you are seeing who need more support or are finding themselves more challenged during this time? And what additional support are you providing to students?

Ayasha: I am thinking about a couple of first-year students right now, and it is not ideal for them. We have had some honest conversations about their frustration with the fact that they worked all throughout high school to get to this point, to get to college, and now it’s not like anything they’ve dreamed of. But on the flipside, I’ve seen some of my students recognize, “Well, if I can’t control the fact that I don’t have the ideal college experience, what can I still control in this given time?” I am really impressed with their willingness to still stay open and find opportunities where they can and stay patient with the process. I also think it is especially hard for students who are having to live at home and support their younger siblings. There is already the issue of being home, and then they may have to help their younger siblings with distance learning. For those students, I have been trying to just give them that space to express their frustrations. I share that they are not alone, that there are other students who are dealing with this, too—and I hope that creates a level of comfort for them.

Dr. Wright: When I think about the steps that coaches take when we are talking with students, it starts with empowering them and giving them the space to voice their concerns and what they need, and then use our time together to really make sure they have some concrete ways to move forward. If I think about listing out the tangible steps in order, it would be:

Julie: I think that while there might be some common themes that we are observing and supporting students through, I’m trying to be very careful to meet students exactly where they are and be attentive to the unique challenges or successes that each student is experiencing in that moment. I would also really agree with much of what has been said, particularly around students who are at home, even for returning college students who are transitioning back to living at home—having to meet their parents’ expectations and follow the rules of their parents’ home in a way that they hadn’t needed to for extended periods of time after they had moved out. I’ve seen some challenges with that in addition to supporting siblings and other family members, and even some students who are feeling a lot of personal responsibilities and concern around supporting parents who have lost their jobs in the pandemic—which is just a really heavy responsibility for a college student to navigate. So in terms of my role as a coach, I would agree with what Dr. Wright laid out—validating their experience, letting them know that they are not alone, and just supporting them in what they need in that moment. For some students that is helping them find jobs or helping find resources for their parents, and for some students it is providing a space to just be upset or be distracted in that moment.

May: It sounds like “meeting students where they are” is an important point in our work. And just to name some of the challenges our students have been facing: we are talking about students who themselves have gotten sick or been diagnosed with COVID-19, who have lost family members, who are dealing with family financial issues. And then not to mention all of the other things that are going on in higher education—of students not being able to be in school and having to live in a place that they weren’t planning to be, finding physical workspace, and more. Given all of this, can you share a few specific examples of what coaching looks like right now?

Julie: Our calls and the virtual space that we share together is a space that I always hope they know they can show up to authentically—even if we are checking in on a goal that we set last week and they didn’t accomplish it. I’m not going to judge them; I’ll say, “I’m not upset. I understand.” In my introductory calls with students, I share that I am always going to be checking in on their wellness; it is my top priority. I want to check in on students and ask, “How are classes going?” but also, “How are you doing? What are you learning? How have you grown?” I think that one of the most important things that we can support students in doing is helping them develop a self-awareness, and that requires a lot of reflection. I try to provide a place for students to reflect and share some of those things in a non-judgmental space.

Ayasha: One thing that I’ve been really trying to keep at the center is letting my students know that even though we are isolated, we are not alone—even sharing other students’ stories in appropriate ways just to let them know, “Hey, there’s another student who’s struggling with this motivation, too.” And trying to make more effort to create spaces to connect students virtually. Another coach and I recently started the Wellness as Identity group that allows students to come together with other peers who also want to keep wellness and their overall self-care at the center. We are seeing that building a community out of that can really help them feel supported in a different way than one-on-one coaching. Right now, I am really thinking about ways to connect that allow that sense of community to happen in a non-traditional way, so that people can still feel supported. I think that is very, very important for students right now.

May: What practices or resources have you seen within your students’ colleges and universities that have had a positive impact on our students during this time?

Dr. Wright: There have been several success programs on college campuses that have found a way to go remote—I have seen online graduate school and job fairs. They are really trying to bring as much of the things that would be on campus normally for students to the virtual world.

Ayasha: I have seen writing centers and tutoring services transferred online, and I have also seen success from individual professors. I am thinking of a particular student whose professor encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to attend a virtual public health conference, which she did. Some students have told me that their professors have been very flexible in working with them around deadlines, getting additional support, holding additional office hours, and just being patient with the whole Zoom process. So, even though it has been difficult, it is good to hear students report back that most of their professors are willing to work with them and are not putting too much strain on an already stressful situation.

May: What would you recommend about how we can best support students, and how we take care of each other as a team?

Julie: I think there is value in humanizing ourselves to our students—finding common ground with them can be very validating to them and their experiences as well. In my conversations, I have found that it has sometimes been helpful to just say, “I get it. When I woke up this morning, I honestly did not want to get out of bed and go to work.” Or “Yeah, I’ve really been struggling to stay connected as well. Here are some of the things that I have tried. Have you tried any of those things?” And just saying, “You are not alone.”

Ayasha: When I look back even prior to the pandemic, what is still consistent is keeping compassion at the center of everything we do. I think about the idea in Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, that people are doing the best that they can. Going into my work, when I am meeting one-on-one with a student, meeting up with a colleague, going to a staff meeting—just recognizing that we are all doing the best that we can in this given moment. And showing compassion—in little ways, big ways, all ways—is so needed right now.

Dr. Wright: “Grace” has been our vocabulary word for the past seven months: grant each other grace, grant the students grace, grant yourself grace. And then as a manager, I think encouraging and modeling taking care of ourselves, so that we can be in the best health as we help our students. I’ve been encouraging coaches to take the time that they need to recoup, to regenerate that energy so that when they are able to come back, they will be fully charged and ready to have those conversations with students. And modeling that as a manager as well so that staff know, “Okay, she isn’t just saying it; she’s also putting those things into practice.”

May: Thank you all so much for sharing your experiences today. With coaching, of course we focus on the student experience, but coaching is a partnership that in the best-case scenario really transforms both the coach and the student. And I always remind the leadership team I work with that our greatest responsibility is to our students, but that we are really doing our best work when we are taking care of ourselves, because we can’t really show up for our students and our community and for other people unless we are at our best.