Throughout the University’s move to all remote learning in spring and summer, students faced hurdles: the loss of jobs by them or their parents, unreliable internet service, changed roles at home such as caring for younger siblings or other family members, little privacy or space to study and much more.
Despite the challenges, they’ve persisted, held their own and succeeded. The numbers confirm that success.
Comparing spring 2020 to the previous spring, measures of undergraduate academic performance held steady, according to the Office of the Registrar. The average undergraduate grade point average rose from 3.16 to 3.23. The rate at which students dropped classes increased less than two-tenths of a percentage point (16.90% to 17.09%), while the percentage of students withdrawing from school decreased from 0.90% to 0.63%.
Resilient and resourceful
The numbers also illustrate how University staff who serve students and their families describe students: resilient and resourceful. Those staff members, in offices such as the Academic Advising Program in the College of Arts & Sciences and the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid, are listening to students and helping them find ways to continue their studies successfully.
“They are adaptable and have found ways to succeed despite the obstacles,” said Katie Cartmell, senior associate director in the advising program. “They worked extra shifts or drove to jobs an hour away. Some had parents who were either laid off or unemployed, so they are doing everything they can to help their families.”
During spring and summer, students overcame a formidable learning curve and made adjustments that will help them in the fall. Molli Walsleben, a senior political science and religious studies major from Charlotte, said that “all of my professors were so helpful and set office hours to meet if we needed help. They wanted to know if we didn’t have good internet access or, if we didn’t have books, to let them know.”
Walsleben’s experience in two summer classes was similar.
“I, like a lot of my friends, appreciated the synchronous format because it provided a sense of camaraderie,” she said. “In summer, we met every day, so I was kind of sad when class ended.”
She heard from friends in organic chemistry and other science classes, who used the pass-fail option enacted by the University. She also knows of classmates who had to adjust to a shift in responsibilities after moving home, such as taking care of younger siblings while parents work or look for jobs.
All walks of life
When advising students, Cartmell and her staff saw students participating in weekly group meetings and being engaged in discussions. Still, they realized that not every student reads emails with critical information or knows how to ask for assistance. “Some are especially proud and don’t want to ask for more assistance, especially financial,” she said.
“They are extremely resilient problem-solvers,” Cartmell said. “They didn’t hesitate to reach out to faculty. In dealing with the situation they’ve been handed, they know that the goal is to pass the classes.”
With finances high on students’ worry list, the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid broadened its role. The office normally serves low-income students and those with financial need, including those who qualify for the Carolina Covenant Scholarship. But the office saw students from all walks of life who were immediately affected by the pandemic, according to Rachelle Feldman, associate provost and the office’s director.
“Students and their parents lost jobs and some needed help with relocating,” Feldman said. “Between spring and summer, we helped just over 2,000 students with $2 million from the Student Impact Fund and other sources like federal CARES Act funds.”
The office created an application process for assistance, which Feldman said students found simple and nonjudgmental. “They said it made them feel comfortable asking for help, which was great feedback to get,” she said. “Undergraduates, graduate students and professional school students received funding — a really broad spectrum of different kinds of students.”
Students used the money to buy food and pay critical bills, to travel home or to purchase study aids such as a desk or internet access.
Meanwhile, campus offices increased interaction with students through Skype and Zoom. “For us, it was successful, maybe even higher than traditional in-person sessions,” Feldman said. “We also had orientation leaders host sessions for new Covenant scholars and their families. We are learning how to better serve students during this time.”
Many work-study students lost their jobs, but federal regulations for emergencies enabled Carolina to pay what their projected earnings for spring 2020 would have been. “That really helped alleviate a lot of worry at that time,” Feldman said. The University may not have that kind of flexibility in the fall, so Feldman’s office is exploring what kind of remote work and on-campus jobs may be available.
Students are persevering and asking good questions in their quest to figure out how to succeed.
Feldman said that students are reaching out for guidance and resources. “We’re grateful that they’re coming to us and that we can serve them. We’re thinking hard about how to create a sense of community when students are in such a different mode. Carolina is relieving some of the stress of academic progress through things like grading accommodations.”
Students and faculty adjusting
Students acknowledge that their professors were also learning at the same time. Some were used to remote instruction and their approach and subjects lent themselves to highly organized classes. Others videotaped lectures and leaned more on asynchronous activities.
Viren Baharani, a biology and psychology major from the island of St. Martin, stayed in his Chapel Hill apartment instead of returning home. He said that students and faculty faced a learning curve, not just with using video platforms such as Zoom but also with understanding how everyone balances time differently, particularly while completing asynchronous assignments while juggling roles at home.
Baharani said that most people he knew returned home after being independent at Carolina, often to difficult circumstances and roles such as caring for siblings or unreliable internet service.
“One of the reasons why I didn’t go back home is internet connection there is very bad, so I knew that wouldn’t be a sustainable option,” he said. “It’s important for students like me, who don’t have access to resources back home to return to campus where we at least have internet access, a good place to live and a safe learning environment. I know the University is trying its best with the Roadmap and trying to promote social distancing and good sanitation practices.”
Summer as an opportunity
For students who took Summer School classes, the positives continued as Carolina increased course offerings by 21% in the first session and 40% in the second and hired more instructors. Compared to 2019, summer session I enrollment jumped by 56% and session II by 63%, according to Summer School Interim Dean Sherry Salyer.
Salyer said adding more courses was “heroic work” by department chairs, department summer school administrators and Summer School staff.
The pandemic canceled study abroad courses, internships and medical shadowing, so students turned to the increased number of Summer School courses. Carolina also upped the limit on enrollment in each summer session from eight to nine semester hours of credit.
“They saw it as an opportunity to take more classes,” Salyer said.
All along, students, faculty and staff were learning and developing ways to cope. The COVID-19 Student Care Hub shares the latest information, and offices supporting student life offer numerous ways for students to express their concerns and to seek help with any situation. One-on-one conversations have become even more important.
Frustrations and a silver lining
Still, students wrestled with changes and supported each other during frustrating circumstances.
Ananya Tandri, a junior biomedical engineering major from Cary, said, “The biggest issue that my classmates and I faced was the unpredictability of the situation, which I’m sure is something our professors struggled with as well.”
“We were able to get through this through communication with our professors and collaboration with each other, but it’s something my classmates and I are still concerned about going into another semester of mostly online learning,” she said.
Tandri said that the pandemic has forced students to be creative and resourceful in finding ways such as Zoom study sessions and virtual labs to maintain the education, traditions and experiences they would normally have. In places like Reddit, students are helping each other with schedule questions or the latest news on parking. “They say misery loves company,” Tandri said, “so I think it’s important for us to have places where we can sympathize with and help each other over the uncertainties we face.”
The University will also continue to help, and administrators such as Feldman remain confident in students.
“It takes a certain resilience and perseverance just to earn your way into Carolina, so we’re not surprised to see that same resilience as students prepare for the semester, and it’s very impressive,” she said. “I hope that even as they ask critical questions, that they reflect on the fact that we are trying so hard to meet them where they are and to meet their needs.”