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The altered college experience

Sarah Grulikowski misses the pre-COVID-19 version of Southern Oregon University. During most of her first three years on campus she could hardly walk from one side of the quad to the other without bumping into a fellow student, a professor or even an administrator who was willing to strike up a conversation.

That intimacy was one of the reasons Grulikowski moved here from Orange County, California, to major in elementary education, and she had plenty of reasons to look forward to her senior year after being elected the Associated Students of Southern Oregon University student body president last June. Her description of what her typical day looked like at SOU before the pandemic hit paints an idyllic, quaint picture of small-college life that wouldn’t be out of place in a school brochure.

“It’s a regular thing when we’re on campus for a professor to see you and walk by and ask you how you’re doing,” said Grulikowski, 21, who’s in SOU’s Honors College. “For me, someone who’s involved in the student life side of things, I might see someone in the student life office walking across campus and we have the kind of campus culture where maybe it’s the dean of students, maybe it’s someone in student life, maybe it’s the university president, but if they see you walking to class they’ll stop you or walk with you, depending on where you’re going, and ask about your day and how you’re doing.

“As someone who’s loved my college experience because I feel so seen and heard and valued by my university and my campus community, finding new ways to engage in those casual conversations with people across campus virtually has been really interesting.”

Grulikowski is one of 5,900 SOU students whose college experience was altered dramatically last spring by the novel coronavirus beginning. Now, roughly seven months after classes began shifting to online instruction SOU is almost exclusively remote, and the tendrils of that and other coronavirus safety measures, along with the impact of the Almeda fire, have spread like another sort of virus to virtually every facet of student life.

Anna D’Amato, the executive director of the student health and wellness center, said it has become clear that some students are “really struggling” with remote learning, whether that consists of live Zoom classes or recorded lessons. Since the start of the school year, she said, 127 students have accessed the health and wellness center for counseling — mental health services are all being handled remotely — and many of those cases are related to the now familiar COVID-19 lifestyle.

SOU Dean of Students Taylor Burke and her staff employ a case management approach to head off any number of challenges that may, if allowed to fester, come between a student and his or her education. When that happens, SOU Student Life staffers like Burke reach out to the student to build a support plan. This school year, she said, the number of cases, classified as SOU Cares reports, has jumped 40-to-50%.

“That’s not surprising given the fires and the pandemic,” Burke said. “So we see a lot of impacts — both students directly impacted as well as indirect impacts. Many of the concerns will come in with students being academically impacted but as a result of family health concerns or their own mental health concerns. So our work in this case management approach and really, basically, the SOU Cares system, is to have the right level of intervention for the concern so that students can thrive and move forward with their academic and personal goals.”

And of course, the vast majority of those interventions are handled virtually, not only because safety protocols demand it but because SOU’s residence halls are as empty as ever. According to Staci Buchwald, SOU’s director of student housing, the university began the year at only about 60% occupancy in order to conform to COVID-19 space guidelines set by the Oregon Department of Education.

Grulikowski, who lives off campus, could have gone home to finish out her degree but opted to remain in Ashland. She said at the time she was making the decision she wasn’t sure what the 2020-21 school year would look like and felt, given her involvement in student government, staying in town seemed like the right move — the fact that she has three younger siblings back home in Southern California was also a factor, she added with a chuckle.

Her professors have done what they can to help make a tough situation palpable, Grulikowski says, and though all five of her classes are being conducted remotely she has zero regrets. Maintaining as many personal connections as possible, she said, is very important, even if most of those relationships are digital.

“It might be someone greeting you when you enter the Zoom call or a private message in the Zoom,” she said, “just like, ‘Happy that you’re here.’ It could be a good luck email. And then on the professorial side, even over the summer I was taking some summer courses and I had professors holding casual office hours or little Saturday Zoom sessions that were just like, ‘I’ll be here for an hour and a half, come meet your classmates, drop in, drop out.’ And so it’s been really nice to see people trying to facilitate those spaces for casual interactions.”

D’Amato said the health and wellness center has actually been less busy than usual so far this school year, but pointed out that that’s because some of its medical services are now being handled remotely and it’s likely that students currently living in their home town are simply accessing their family doctor. But even while the total number of students who have accessed the wellness center (521, at last count) is down, D’Amato said her mental health staff, which includes three counselors and two mental health interns, are usually booked solid every day.

Many of the students seeking counseling are anxious about the possibility of contracting the coronavirus, but that’s hardly the only COVID-19-related mental health issue her staff is running into.

“The other issues,” D’Amato said, “are students feeling challenged with remote learning, being isolated – because even if they’re living in the dorms we have all these safety protocols: you can’t be within six feet, you have to have masks on, no big parties. So they’re having a little bit harder time making friends. And then if they are ever exposed to somebody who has COVID and we have to put them in quarantine for 14 days, that’s really hard.”

When that happens, she said, an SOU staffer — ideally this will be somebody who already has a relationship with the student — will reach out one or two times every day to check in.

Financial hardships related to the pandemic and, later, the Almeda fire also represent a major obstacle for some SOU students, and counseling isn’t the only possible solution the school offers. Burke said in general, mental health represents the greatest share of concerns brought to SOU Cares but that SOU Student Life has seen “far and away” more financial and housing concerns submitted this year.

That shouldn’t come as a shock, she added, when you look closer at some of the numbers. At least 102 SOU students were directly impacted by the fire — there are likely more, but not every student is aware of SOU’s services — and almost 50% of those had either lost their homes, had been temporarily displaced or experienced the loss of an intended rental, Burke said. The timing couldn’t have been much worse, either — the Almeda fire struck on Sept. 8, about two weeks before the first day of SOU’s fall term.

Those students who did reach out to Student Life were, in some cases, guided to the university’s express sign-up for CARES Act funds. “That money is being disbursed out to students directly,” she said, “and it does go through the same federal aid package. So if students are having a financial concern and they haven’t yet requested CARES Act assistance through the institution, and that financial concern is related to COVID, then they can do that through financial aid.”

Members of the SOU community in the form of individual donors have also done their part to help students in need, Burke added. In fact, she said, besides the CARES Act funds individual donors represent the largest share of financial assistance that the university has at its disposal for students. SOU’s fundraising arm, the SOU Foundation, is having success in this area, Burke said, thanks to the generosity of others. One-time awards known as SOU Cares scholarships would give staffers the flexibility to help students in ways that best fit their needs.

While the past several months have posed for students an unprecedented challenge, Burke said, their response has inspired her.

“I will say that our students are unbelievably resilient and capable with the smallest amount of help of continuing with the pursuit of this educational goal that they’ve set out for themselves,” she said, “and that’s beautiful to see.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsSouthern Grounds coffee shop inside the Hannon Library on the SOU campus is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.