COVID-19 came, wreaking havoc on colleges and universities, early in the spring of 2020. Our days quickly became overwhelmingly difficult with questions that we did not have enough time or data to answer. Would we return in the fall? What would programming look like socially distanced? Would students comply with safety guidelines? How can we pedagogically approach online instruction to ensure equity? If campuses close, what support do we offer to students for whom home is not a safe or sustainable option?
Faced with a myriad of questions, we often lacked guidance that could lead us to concrete answers. But one thing was overwhelmingly clear: our students were struggling, and we were responsible for providing them support.
As a Latina immigrant who has the privilege to serve as an assistant dean of student affairs at my college, I approach my work with a preferential concern for students on the margins. I predominantly work with those who stand at the intersection of three identities: low-income women of color. And throughout the pandemic, I’ve found them to be the people whom the virus has impacted more than virtually anyone else.
From the very beginning, it quickly became apparent in long phone conversations that my students were handling way more than a college student should ever have to handle. Our calls were frequently interrupted by younger siblings asking for help with remote instruction or a home-cooked meal. At times, my students called late at night as they took a break from their night shift. Other times, I accompanied them through heartbreaking conversations as they shared the direct impact of COVID-19 on their family.
I distinctly remember receiving a call from a student whom I have worked closely with during her four years at the college. She called me late on a Friday night to share the news that her father had passed away due to complications from COVID-19. I attended the socially distanced funeral Mass. It was a small family gathering, and I felt privileged to be there during that difficult moment in her life. As an English speaker and as a leader in her family, she took up the responsibility of funeral arrangements and family support.
My students, many of them first-generation college students — the ones who had to work so hard simply to acclimate to college and succeed in transitioning to such an unknown environment — were now having to face yet another unknown future. They were learning how to balance synchronous and asynchronous instruction. They were attempting to learn online in home environments that were disruptive and at times uninviting. They were caring for younger siblings, parents and grandparents. They were grieving the death of loved ones. And their families were facing historical rates of unemployment, forcing them to take one, two and even at times three part-time jobs to fill the gaps.
As a member of our emergency assistance task force, I read countless applications of students applying to our emergency assistance program that supports students with various needs, among them food insecurity, a lack of a reliable internet connection or a laptop for remote course work, financial hardships, and childcare concerns. Students expressed in applications the dire economic, physical and mental toll COVID-19 had taken on them and their families. Many of the students I encountered in the applications had already been struggling financially to pay for college, and for them, COVID-19 was becoming an insurmountable amount of additional pressure on an already difficult situation.
Overnight, our students became online learners, caretakers and breadwinners — all while wrestling with daily displays of racial violence at the national level. Indeed, my students have been doing all this for more than eight months. This is the real impact of COVID-19 on our students, and we in higher education have inevitably become a part of their life as we accompany them in their educational journey. It is essential that we take this responsibility with great care, compassion, humility and grace.
The year 2020, with the spread of COVID-19 and the essential centering of racial violence in our national rhetoric, has unearthed inequalities that had for too long remained concealed to those privileged enough to not have to confront them daily. The pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income communities of color. Many factors aggravate the spread of COVID-19 in low-income communities of color, among them crowded housing, employment in essential businesses, lack of consistent access to health care, chronic health conditions and stress. All of those pre-existing inequalities have had tremendous influence on high rates of infection in low-income communities of color.
My female students from those communities not only stand at the intersection of class and race, but they also live with the daily burdens that oftentimes fall on women. In our conversations, many tell me that because they are not on campus, their families assume that they are not busy. The taxing tasks of homeschooling younger siblings, tending to house chores, emotionally supporting their households and caring for ill family members — these are all responsibilities I have witnessed my students take on since the start of the pandemic. Yet they often share with me that they feel guilty for not stepping up enough to support their families during a time of need.
When we see the national reality of COVID-19 — the way it has disproportionately affected low-income Black and Latinx communities and the disparate responsibilities that have fallen on women — we as higher education professionals must assume the consequences that this has for our students who stand at the intersection of these identities. It is not enough to develop an online course that we believe fits the needs of all of our students. It is not enough to offer students support services without creating new initiatives to triage concerns for specific populations who feel the impact of COVID-19 more heavily and more profoundly. It is not enough to simply send an email to check in without being proactive in finding other ways and other times of days to reach out.
We must give our low-income women of color solutions and personalized supports that truly address the root of their concerns: emergency assistance, weekly mental health check-ins, conversations that empower and uplift them, accessible resources that are easy to apply for and locate, and tools to help them navigate the additional duties they have taken on.
In my college, such resources come in the form of a grant-funded emergency assistance program. Students can connect with it through a brief application that is advertised every week in the student involvement newsletter and through the student government association. The program is also widely recognized among the faculty, who can easily refer students to it.
We meet weekly to read applications and decide on the appropriate awards to best support the students. If our in-house resources are not sufficient to help a student, our task force then follows up with a call to connect them with state and local resources: food banks, social services and case workers.
This is only one of the many interventions we in higher education can provide for students. It is our ethical responsibility, and if we are committed to immediately addressing the racial gap on campuses, this is the intersection where we are called to respond.