While college students across the country have faced unprecedented challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has created a new team of student advocates who have been making a difference for students in need.
UA Little Rock started the Care Team in January. Led by Heather Reed, director of student retention initiatives, members of the Care Team work closely with students to establish steps to reduce barriers to success.
Care Team members take proactive action to support students in their pursuit of academic success, connect individuals to campus and community resources, create a supportive and caring culture for students, and establish best practices and standard protocols of response for academic referrals.
“One of the biggest benefits that we’ve seen through the Care Team is the ability to triage student issues, especially in the face of the pandemic,” Reed said. “We have a better insight into the challenges students face. We knew students were struggling to find technology in the transition to online classes. Working with university leadership, we were able to purchase laptops and cameras with CARES Act funding and distribute that to the students. We wouldn’t have been able to do that a year ago. We did all that with the university leadership and Ottenheimer Library. Now, we have an ability to address these needs.”
The Care Team is unique in that it provides a centralized point of contact for those who develop a concern about the welfare of a student. The Care Team can refer students to multiple resources across campus that can provide support and assistance needed to stay safe and successful at UA Little Rock.
One of the students the Care Team helped during the spring 2020 semester is Nina Scaife, who was facing a tough time after losing her job because of the pandemic while also completing the final semester of her Master of Social Work program.
“I contacted the Care Team because I was stressed due to needing to supplement my income, and I was worried about how I was going to pay my household bills,” Scaife said. “I received a $250 grant from the Care Team. The funds assisted me because I was laid off from my current employer due to Covid-19, so I was able to use those funds to supplement my mortgage payment. If it had not been for those grant funds, it would have been very challenging to support myself during those uncertain times.”
Members of the Care Team include Dr. Patti Light, director of campus living; Dr. Mike Kirk, director of counseling and health services; Aresh Assadi, assistant director of counseling services; Dr. Richard Harper, dean of students; Reed Claiborne, director of the Disability Resource Center; Kimberly Bright, director of testing services; Erin Flowers, director of student services in the Donaghey College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; Jonathan Coleman, director of financial aid and scholarships; Dr. Mia Phillips, director of the Multicultural Center; Chicketta Jackson, director of student services for the College of Business, Health, and Human Services; Sarah Haughenbury, director of student services in the College of Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, and Education; and Sam DeVilbiss, director of Trojan Academic Advising and Support Center.
“I’m just so grateful the university has established the Care Team,” Flowers said. “I know we are helping our students in tangible ways. Plus, we’re creating a stronger network among the various support offices on campus and learning about all of the amazing work these offices do. Being part of the Care Team gets at the heart of why I work in higher education and I know that is true for the other Care Team members.”
On April 1, Adrienne Gill, a senior criminal justice major, lost her job along with millions of other Americans facing hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gill was taking two classes during the spring 2020 semester and paying for it herself since she’s reached the limit for financial aid.
“I received an email from the Care Team about two weeks after the loss of my job,” Gill said. “In the email, they stated they had received some funding to help students in need during this time. I was on a payment plan as normal, but I wasn’t able to clear my balance after the semester because I just did not have the money.”
With the assistance she received, Gill was able clear her school balance, pay household bills, and buy food for her children.
“I wasn’t getting any assistance from the state or anything,” Gill said. “I only worked, so when I lost my job it was pretty devastating. This was pretty much the only help that I had received during that time except when we got the stimulus check from the U.S. government. I was so grateful when the Care Team accepted my application and cleared the reminder of my balance, so I could continue my efforts to graduate.”
A majority of the students the Care Team assists are facing issues related to the pandemic. The Care Team resolved 443 unique student cases over the spring 2020 semester and anticipate even more during the fall semester. The Care Team had received nearly 700 referrals from students and employees by November.
“More than 320 unique students requested some type of support in the first three weeks of the semester alone,” Reed said. “Dealing with the Covid has been the No. 1 issue we hear about,” Reed said. “Students need help if they or an immediate family member gets Covid-19 or if they have to quarantine. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a lot of requests dealing with access to technology as all classes went online. Now, we are dealing with issues of study skills, classroom engagement, and mental health.”
The Care Team also receives requests from students who need help after losing a family member.
“I remember a student who experienced a death in the family,” Reed said. “Usually students who contact us have lost somebody in their immediate family. This young woman lost a sibling, and she became the sole provider for her parents. She wasn’t working, and now had to balance finding a job with school, grieving, and food insecurity. We worked with her, and she withdrew from one class to give herself more time to focus on her family. We were also able to award her some CARES Act money to help with food and her other expenses.”
Care Team members have weekly meetings to discuss responsibilities, how to get in touch with students, success stories, and best practices. Students and employees who have submitted requests are asked to provide feedback so the team can continue to improve.
After receiving assistance from the Care Team, Scaife graduated in May and now works with foster and adoptive children and their families as a LifeBASE teen coach at Immerse Arkansas. She’s hopeful that the Care Team can provide much-needed support for students who need aid.
“My heart goes out to those students, especially those who were downtrodden and struggling before the pandemic,” Scaife said. “The funds should be available for each student so that they can establish themselves and not have to worry about meeting their basic needs. Each student has the right to have food security, adequate and stable shelter, and a peace of mind while pursuing a degree or continuing their educational goals.”
Students who need assistance can contact the Care Team by filling out this online form, while faculty and staff who are concerned about a student can fill out this referral form.