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Employees of Undergraduate Studies Rally to Support Students Amidst COVID-19

Published on Fri 04/17/20
More than 450 employees deploy alternative versions of 45 programs
By Anna Transue, Texas A&M University Undergraduate Studies
Online workstation Director on zoom Zoom call
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Holly Hudson, Executive Director of Education Abroad, was settling into the beginning of her spring break on the evening of March 11 when President Trump announced that travel restrictions would begin in two days for people coming from 26 countries into the United States. 

Hudson called an emergency meeting that night, and a majority of her staff rallied to pitch in. They began a sort of triage that involved taking phone calls, answering panic-stricken emails, and communicating action plans to get students home right away. 

Some of Texas A&M University’s senior leadership showed up that night, including Provost and Executive Vice President Carol A. Fierke, Vice Provost and Chief International Officer Michael J. Benedik, and Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Amy B. Smith. Together, the group worked into the early morning hours to ensure all 300 students studying abroad this semester were able to return safely.  

“The team has been unbelievable during all this,” Hudson said. 

The next day, March 12, Provost Fierke announced that classes were cancelled the week after spring break and would resume online-only starting March 23. Staff members across all nine units of Undergraduate Studies began rapidly moving their support services and operations online, along with the rest of the university

How Undergraduate Studies Rallied

Undergraduate Studies employs more than 450 employees (including staff, instructors, and student workers), and collectively offers more than 45 programs and services. It houses nine units, including the Academic Success Center, Center for Student-Athlete Services, University Writing Center, LAUNCH, Math Learning Center, Public Policy Internship Program, Education Abroad,  Transition Academic Programs, and the Higher Education Center at McAllen

The University Writing Center, for example, was able to offer all their appointments online less than four days after the March 12 announcement (an accomplishment that was aided by the fact that they already offered online services), and their consultants have conducted more than 800 appointments since then. 
Similarly, the Academic Success Center’s Tutoring and Supplemental Instruction (SI) Programs moved all 506 hours of weekly, face-to-face tutoring/SI online in about one week and in time for classes to restart. 
Ensuring no loss of service during a time of drastic change and uncertainty often required working long hours and lots of coordination. Amelia Parnis, SI Program Coordinator at the Academic Success Center, had just arrived in Michigan to begin her spring break when she heard the news. She immediately got to work and created a 10-page action plan for her team of 75 SI leaders and distributed it before spring break was over. 

“I've been trying to be extra attentive even during non-work hours to make sure everyone has clear expectations and answers to their questions,” Parnis said. 

Student Employees Step Up to the Plate, Too

Like many departments and units at Texas A&M, numerous student workers within the Undergraduate Studies branch provide important services like tutoring, peer mentoring, and other essential office duties. 

Florence Davies, Program Coordinator, helps manage a group of about 30 writing consultants who are student workers at the University Writing Center. Davies said, overall, the writing consultants reacted positively to this situation. 

“Our writing consultants were immediately like, ‘Yeah, I want to work, just tell me what I need to do,’” Davies said. “It really is a testament to the folks that we've hired, how great they are, and how willing they are to help despite having their own personal upheaval.” 

The Emotional Toll Felt by All

The emotional toll students are experiencing is permeating conversations all throughout the University. Employees who work in advisor-type roles are having to help students navigate sobering realities like worries about their own health, as well as that of their loved ones, along with looming concerns about the harsh economic effects of the pandemic. 

“I think a lot of it is just kind of validating that, yes, you’re allowed to feel weird about this,”  said Morgan Jones, an academic coach and instructor, while describing how she has responded to students’ concerns during one-on-one appointments. 

Employees feel it, too. Hudson spoke to how the very act of calling students back from trips abroad was counter to the organization’s mission. 

“We fulfill dreams, we don't dismantle them,” Hudson said. “The emotional toll of having to dismantle all of these programs and bring students back when they're begging us not to and when they're saying, ‘We don't want to go. Please, don't make us leave,’ was so hard.”

Going Forward

While employees rallied to move their support for students online quickly across Undergraduate Studies, making hard decisions and solving problems hasn’t ended. Instructors are thinking about how to administer online final exams, staff members are battling Zoom meeting fatigue, and leaders are preparing for a variety of future scenarios as the situation evolves. 

However, Kathleen Speed, Associate Director at the Academic Success Center, summarized a sentiment that resonates throughout the university, saying, “We’re all committed to helping students be successful, and we will find ways to meet those needs, whether it be face-to-face or remotely.”