How 3 megauniversities think local to aid students during natural disasters

by Joseph K. Clark

When Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Houston in 2017, the category 4 storm destroyed thousands of houses and left much of the city underwater. At the time, officials at Western Governors University, an online college that today enrolls more than 120,000 students nationwide, knew scores of them were experiencing the devastation firsthand.

Even before Harvey, Western Governors officials kept an ear to the ground for events that could hinder students’ ability to take assessments, specifically. The university uses those tests to help students pace through its competency-based programs. But the cataclysmic event spurred officials to expand those efforts, now called the Environmental Barriers Program, to provide individualized support to learners whose education is disrupted by natural disasters, not just those taking assessments.

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“That’s when it really took off,” said Debbie Fowler, senior vice president of student success at Western Governors. Today, the program’s team members survey the news for natural disasters, determine how many Western Governors’ students could be impacted by an event, and notify their assigned mentors so they can offer support. That can include linking the affected students to resources or allowing extra time on assignments.

“The secret is being able to leverage the large staff of program mentors … who already have that relationship with their particular students,” Fowler said. A single mentor works with about 90 students on average.

Western Governors adopted the program last spring, when the coronavirus began affecting daily life in the U.S., to address students’ pandemic-related needs. “We were just so unbelievably thankful that we had that system set up when COVID hit,” Fowler said. “We saw every flavor of impact.”

Coordinated coronavirus support

The Environmental Barriers Program assists thousands of Western Governor’s students each year. According to a university webinar held last summer, the year after Harvey, the team monitored 32 events, identified more than 11,000 students who might be impacted, and followed up with about half to help them carry on with their studies.

But the pandemic presented a new challenge. Early last March, nearly 300 students living in Washington state, one of the areas first hit by the virus, needed assistance due to the pandemic.  Two weeks later, that number surged to around 7,500 students nationwide.

Officials knew they needed to expand the program. They began holding daily meetings, where the Environmental Barriers team updated university leadership about where the coronavirus impacted students the most and what kind of support they needed.

The team also updated how it tracked students’ needs. The university already had a system to note how severely an event impacted a student, such as being displaced from their homes. According to the webinar, they modified it to capture pandemic-related issues, including when a student was dealing with death from COVID-19 complications.

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