In a recent summer staff retreat, I gathered the Academic Advisement Center team at a nearby park, and I sent them in small groups to find shady spots where they could sit, read and discuss the poem To be of use by Marge Piercy.
The poem expresses the beauty in all that is messy and agonizing about work; that we all yearn to perform “work that is real.” This is the spirit that defines the AAC family bond, whether in our regular operations or in the most challenging times. The advisors are passionate, hard-working, and optimistic.
Fast-forward to Thursday, March 12, 2020. I called the team into an unplanned meeting to finish out the day, and I went around the circle, asking each to state their needs for remaining safe, calm, and productive as the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold.
Each one subtly expressed their dilemma: feeling torn between their mission to serve students and “to be of use” on the one hand, and on the other, to protect the health of themselves and their families.
The next morning everyone sprang into action. By the next week, we were ready to launch the Virtual AAC.
We keep our student employees busy at the virtual front desk; they have responded to hundreds of non-confidential inquiries in our first three weeks of online operations. To sustain a rapid pace for students not in need of a 20- to 30-minute one-on-one appointment, we created a substitute for walk-in advising called “Rapid Advising.”
This self-guided, online course planning form offers the promise of a response by phone or e-mail from a professional advisor within one business day of student submittal. For students seeking a more in-depth conversation, we offer individual appointments via Zoom.
Student feedback continues to be stellar:
“The rapid advising experience was fantastic! It was quick and easy; I was helped within less than an hour! Shout-out to Shannah, who was extremely helpful. I really appreciate how quick everything was.”
“My advisor was really patient even when I was having technical difficulties. She . . . not only shared concern for my education, but also for my well-being. She explained everything thoroughly, resulting in me not having any questions at the end. Thank you!”
Every month we analyze the demographics of our student traffic. We strive to contribute to addressing equity gaps as a matter of regular practice. Typically, some of our team members spend time each week or month in Diversity Initiatives and Resource Centers and other partner areas to ensure that we connect with underrepresented campus communities.
We regularly match or surpass the demographics of the campus in general in AAC utilization. Virtual operations have not slowed us down in this regard. In just our first three weeks online, for example, we saw that 7 percent of visits to our center were by African American students, who number below 2 percent campus-wide. Hispanic student visits comprised 44 percent of our online traffic so far (43.8 percent campus-wide).
We take pride in making it look easy. We miss one another, and the transition has been tough. The advisors’ work is real, and knowing that is what will sustain and fortify us for as long as this pandemic keeps us at home.