Toward a More Resilient Student Body

DePaul staff are making sure students have the support and resources they need to weather the unprecedented challenges of learning during a pandemic.

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It is winter, and a chill wind clips the air as the trees that line the streets and decorate the quad on DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus stand dormant and bare. In Chicago’s Loop, the ‘L’ trains continue to clamor overhead and rumble under State Street, but car traffic is light and foot traffic lighter still.

DePaul is a bit lonely as pandemic precautions have kept most of its students, faculty and staff off campus—but looks can be deceiving. As Rev. Guillermo (Memo) Campuzano, C.M., vice president for mission and ministry, put it, “Young people are fighting to pursue dreams. We are here to help them achieve this purpose.”

When the university shut down in-person learning last March to protect the DePaul community, faculty quickly transitioned to online classroom instruction. At the same time, DePaul staff who support students outside of the classroom have been working overtime to help students overcome barriers to continuing their educational journey.

Emergency financial assistance

The Dean of Students Office exists to serve the urgent needs of students, whether it is a referral for health care or assistance with an academic leave of absence. Now, during the pandemic, one especially urgent need students have is making ends meet. Many students have lost the jobs that help them pay for rent, food, textbooks, and new software, internet service and other technological assistance for online learning. The Dean of Students Office is ready to help with grants from the Student Emergency Assistance Fund (SEAF).

Dean of Students Ellen Herion Fingado says, “I and my team of three assistant deans listen to each student’s circumstances and help determine if SEAF would be appropriate for them and what the appropriate award would be. We also connect them with campus and community resources.”

Typically, SEAF administers between 30 and 40 requests a year, primarily for crisis situations such as a house fire or hospitalization. “The great thing about SEAF is that it provides real-time assistance in just a matter of days,” she says. Once the pandemic hit, student need increased exponentially. “We really had to pivot to help our students get through,” she continues. “During the spring term alone, we had 852 requests and dispersed more than $570,000 to 595 individual students. Since the pandemic hit, we have awarded more than
$600,000, thanks to the generosity of the DePaul community and other donors who contributed to the Now We Must fundraising campaign.”

To handle the need virtually, in-person student meetings and paper applications shifted to Zoom calls and online applications. Grant money transitioned from paper checks to Zelle transactions. Importantly, SEAF went public.

“SEAF wasn’t widely known,” Herion Fingado says. “Our key stakeholders across campus knew about it and would refer students to us. But we never had it on our website. So, we had to make the application accessible to everyone and really message to the community that this is one of the places you can go to help get you through the end of the term.”

Empowerment for the differently abled

Students with a variety of disabilities can find higher education a difficult experience. For that reason, DePaul has made a major commitment to improving and expanding opportunities for these students.

Gregory Moorehead, director of the Center for Students with Disabilities, says the center is “a very well- established department that has a very strong reputation with regard to supporting students with disabilities.” It serves about 1,230 students—a number that continues to increase—with services such as extended time for exams, note-taking assistance, captioning and sign-language interpreting.

“What’s unique about DePaul is that in addition to providing the traditional accommodations, we do a little bit more than most disability services offices do,” he says. For example, the center has part-time clinician-educators who provide students with remedial support, as well as advocacy, study support, time management and other similar skills that are so important to their success.

Although all students can benefit from these kinds of services, what makes the center’s work a little different, says Moorehead, “is that we actually have people on staff who are trained to support students with disabilities. There is a whole generation of students who have been accustomed to having accommodations in grades K through 12, so they expect to have those same accommodations when they get here.”

This expectation bumps up against the reality of college life. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides comprehensive coverage for elementary and high school students, but when they pursue a college degree, the law changes.

“The university isn’t initially responsible for their success,” Moorehead says. Students with disabilities must seek out Moorehead’s office. “Only then does the university become responsible for providing access to accommodations. So, part of our job is to help parents and students prepare for and understand how accommodation works in higher education and how we can be supportive.”

Online learning during the pandemic has led to some challenges and surprises for Moorehead and his staff. “Some of the accommodations have worked pretty effectively online, for example, extra time for exams. For students with vision loss, we’ve had to be innovative in trying to get magnifying hardware to them on a temporary basis.
“For some of our students, especially those on the autism spectrum, the online modality has actually been a little bit of a blessing,” he continues. “We’ve heard reports from professors that these students are so much more engaged online, which kind of makes sense because it’s less challenging for them to talk to someone online than it would be to sit in a classroom. Our office, like a lot of other offices, is going to have to reassess what actually needs to happen in person and what can happen remotely and what provides a better, more supportive service to our students.”

Help for adult, veteran and commuter students

DePaul’s diverse student body presents a constellation of needs to faculty and staff. James Stewart, the director of adult, veteran and commuter student affairs in the Division of Student Affairs, works with these three student populations to help see them through the challenges they face in meeting their educational goals.

Like most of DePaul’s student-facing operations, the entire division has created a virtual office with software that allows staff to answer their campus phones at home. The office also added a live chat to its website, which has made it easier for students to ask for help.

“We always try to come up with program services and strategies that can help these students be successful at DePaul,” he says. “The veterans receive full, wraparound services because we execute benefits and requirements of the GI Bill and the post-9/11 benefit, including financial aid and grade reporting.” Veterans were especially concerned when classes moved online because the Veterans Administration typically reduces the post- 9/11 benefit by 50% for online classes. It was up to Stewart and his team to reassure these students that the federal government’s COVID-19 relief package allowed universities to count classes that were originally supposed to be in-person as in-person classes.

Many adult students have to juggle the responsibilities of work and family with pursuing their education. “It’s always a challenge, but the pandemic just made this challenge potentially worse,” he says. Thus, one of the most popular benefits Stewart’s office offers is a time man- agement program. “This program is attractive to adult and veteran students as a very tangible benefit,” he says. “But everybody is dealing with time management and motivation issues now,” he says, and traditional students have been signing up for the program in greater numbers.

Stewart says the division worked hard to try to replicate a “warm handoff” in a virtual setting. “In a big university, you can have a lot of ‘Wrong office. Go to this website.’ Instead, we have Zoom links readily available to send them to the right place the first time,” he says.

Food insecurity

Helping to eliminate food insecurity among students is one of the responsibilities of Rick Moreci, director of housing, dining and student centers, and his staff. Based on research he has conducted, Moreci asserts that “the number of college-age students across our country who are either housing or food insecure, or both, is shockingly high. We have a lot of DePaul students who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”

The food pantry run out of the St. Vincent de Paul parish has long been available to needy students, but it is only open one day a week, and Moreci says students may be reluctant to use it because they feel more uneasy in such a public setting and don’t necessarily feel that it is there for their use. With the increased demand caused by the pandemic, it was time to launch a plan to open a dedicated student pantry on campus.

“So we decided to open a pantry on campus just for students,” says Moreci. The plan for such a pantry actually was in the works for two years as Moreci’s team figured out where to locate it, how to source and pay for food, and how to handle food donations. “We found a space in the Lincoln Park student center, and we cleared it out for the pantry.”

The pantry is designed for confidential use. Students use their student ID to swipe into the pantry, and unless there is another student inside, they don’t interact with anyone else. “They can just go in, help themselves to whatever they need and be on their way,” Moreci says. “They can come as often as they like. There are no restrictions for our students.”

The response has been, as Moreci puts it, “really stunning. We’ve had to restock often because people are going in and utilizing that resource—almost every day in the summer and 750 times since the ID swipe system has been in place. It’s been pretty amazing to see the gratitude that students have and the generosity of those contributing to the pantry.”

Physical and emotional health

The university’s health-related services could not have been more important when the novel coronavirus arrived in Chicago. The trick was to deliver those services remotely. Shannon Suffoletto, director of health promotion and wellness and interim director of university counseling services, and her staff moved quickly into action. “It has come together really nicely in both areas,” she says. “Everything students were able to take advantage of in person is now available in a virtual space.”

She is particularly proud of the Refresh Sleep program, a self-paced, email-based resource that helps those who use it learn how to get a better night’s sleep. The program was especially popular given that sleep was one of the things that was most disrupted by the pandemic.

Self-care has not always been a priority for students. Suffoletto says, “We tend to see the students who were already engaged with our offices wanting to stay engaged. I think help-seeking became a little bit harder through the pandemic for new clients because of the things they were dealing with in their lives.”

Those life circumstances have meant that students who are seeking help have more complex needs than ever before. “We’ve had to make more connections across the university and in the community to services beyond health promotion and wellness,” she observes. Those services encompass financial issues, mental health concerns and other factors that affect students’ studies.

“We’re learning a lot of great things about what telehealth and virtual services can and are doing. For example, our health promotion and wellness team of peer health educators go on Instagram to talk and answer questions. I also know that there’s a loss for some people in not being able to work with someone in person,” she says, “but I want to continue to let people know that our resources are out there so that when students are ready to take advantage of them, they will seek help for themselves.”

Driven by mission

What sets DePaul apart from most other institutions of higher education is its dedication to mission. Gregory Moorehead says, “One of the things that really attracted me to this job is the mission we have here. This is the perfect context in which to do the kind of work I do. Disability services offices usually don’t attract donors unless people are really reaching out. But our donors are very much engaged, and very much want to see how they can move the program forward.”

Ellen Herion Fingado says, “Not once did my staff say they were overwhelmed. They knew that this is what we were called to do during this time. We’ve been messaging to students that it’s hard to ask for help, but that’s what we’re here for. You are not alone. Our students have so much gratitude for the support they are given.”
Shannon Suffoletto perhaps sums it up best: I don’t know if you can find a silver lining in a pandemic, but the ‘Take Care DePaul’ message has come to life in a really remarkable way that connects to our Vincentian mission. I’m so proud of the DePaul community for working to live out that message.”

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