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SU Academic Centers Help First-Year Students Bridge COVID-19 Education Gap

University Writing Center
The University Writing Center has seen a sharp increase in appointments among first-year students this semester as they navigate the COVID-19 education gap.

SALISBURY, MD---Study after study has shown that many of today’s first-year college students are woefully unprepared for university-level classes due to what many are calling the “COVID-19 gap.”

Up to two years of lost instructional time, along with staff shortages, prolonged illnesses and mental health challenges, has made “devastating impacts” on students who graduated high school in 2022, according to the Brookings Institution. Faculty and staff at Salisbury University are seeing the results as incoming students struggle to keep up with their junior, senior and even sophomore peers.

“These are the students who have felt the impact of COVID-19 the most,” said Dr. Melissa Stoner, director of SU’s Math Emporium, noting that many in this year’s incoming class faced more non-traditional classroom time than those starting their first semesters at the University in fall 2020 or 2021.

However, there is some good news: Support systems already in place have helped mitigate some of those negative impacts. As directors at nearly all of SU’s academic assistance centers cite unprecedented demand for services this semester, students are working to close the gap. Many already are seeing positive results.

Learning Study Skills

“I think part of it is, students in high school [at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic] didn’t learn traditional study skills,” said Dr. Heather Holmes, director of SU’s Center for Student Achievement (CSA). “Preparing for a history exam is different than preparing for a chemistry exam.”

SU faculty noticing similar issues in their classes have reached out to the CSA and other SU academic support centers to make in-class presentations, something Holmes and others are happy to do.

“We’re trying to be flexible and meet the students where they are,” she said.

That includes the ability to schedule sessions and find more information about the services the CSA and other SU centers offer through the Navigate app, available to all SU students.

The CSA works to promote study strategies and time management as part of its success coaching program — one of the center’s three core offerings, along with tutoring and supplemental instruction. Its 50 or so coaches, tutors and supplemental instruction leaders have seen requests for assistance double since fall 2021.

The University Writing Center (UWC) also has encountered a sharp uptick in appointments among first-year and graduate students this semester.

“That’s a good thing,” said Dr. Melissa Bugdal, UWC director. “That means they’re finding us.”

The center helps hundreds of students each year with academic papers, though the requests this fall have been slightly different than in previous years.

“More first-year students are coming in for sessions throughout the writing process instead of just a final check-in at the end,” said Stephanie Davis, UWC academic program specialist.

Historically, most students using the center have seen their grades rise after as few as two sessions, she added.

Beyond papers and reports for class, up to 30 consultants at the center also assist students with other necessities such as resumes, job applications, and applications for scholarships, graduate school and national fellowships such as the Fulbright. This semester, however, some are going the extra mile.

“They’re helping students learn to be students,” said Dr. Beth Towle, UWC associate director, noting center staff has leaned into teaching new students the nuances of such tasks as asking professors for extensions on assignments and handling school-related stress.

The one good thing that may have come out of the pandemic for these students? Virtual UWC appointments have dramatically increased this semester, expanding a service that was offered on only a limited basis prior to 2020. As students have become more acclimated to online teaching environments, requests for help in that format also have increased, said Bugdal.

STEM Assistance

Many of the same students seeking writing assistance also are reaching out for help in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas. According to Dr. Stephen Habay, director of SU’s Chemistry Support Center, the facility has seen a 25% increase in use this semester, jumping to about 400 students — many of whom are in their first year of general chemistry classes.

“We are actually struggling to keep up at some times of the day,” he said, noting that a single faculty member or tutor at the center may be tasked with helping 15-20 students in one session.

Like Bugdal, he believes this is a good sign, with more students willing to seek the help they need with assignments including homework and laboratory reports. Some have even adopted it as their go-to study space, where they can work through assignments with their peers outside the classroom.

Also like Bugdal and Holmes, Habay initially noticed a lack of study skills among incoming students this semester, so much so that the center organized a special workshop on the subject for first-year chemistry students. Its success is likely to lead to a second in the spring.

Similarly, the SU Math Emporium has seen about 400 students seeking help with their mathematics classes this semester, according to Stoner. Again, the bulk of those students are first-years.

About half of the emporium’s clients are taking pre-calculus classes at SU, with another quarter enrolled in introductory calculus courses.

“Anyone who teaches calculus will tell you it all hinges on their algebra skills,” said Stoner. “That’s where you would expect to see the COVID-19 gap materialize.”

And again, there is good news: Stoner has noticed improvements in both grades and skills among the students who have taken advantage of the emporium’s services, especially those who have become “regulars.” As at the UWC, more first-year students are coming to the Math Emporium throughout the course of their assignments, not just when they’re stuck on a particular section.

“The goal is to make sure someone is always there for them,” Stoner said.

TRIO Program Support

Of all first-year students navigating the COVID-19 gap at campuses nationwide, first-generation students may be struggling most of all. SU’s TRIO Program traditionally has helped first-generation, low-income students, and those with disabilities, thrive. Now, its work may be more important than ever.

“I think our first-year students thought they were prepared,” said Dr. Margaret Sebastian, TRIO director. “First-years right now seem to be extremely overwhelmed.”

One of the first lessons the TRIO Program is striving to teach new students this semester is how to advocate for themselves. Those who have spent a considerable amount of time learning remotely in the past two years tend not to reach out as easily when they discover they need help, Sebastian said.

“It’s difficult to do things when you’re not part of a community,” she said.

Over the summer, TRIO saw 97 applications from first-year students to join the program, which can accommodate only 150 altogether, from first-years through seniors. Sebastian and her team are using lessons they learned during the early days of COVID-19 to better accommodate them.

“We realized during the pandemic that it was important to have a student worker team focused on program infrastructure,” she said. Now known as the program’s communications team, that group helps coordinate outreach that helps TRIO students learn to socialize among their peers, including dinners, activities and social media groups.

A second team of TRIO student ambassadors provides mentoring support for students, from academics to other issues with which they may need assistance. At the pandemic’s peak, Sebastian and Phillip Brunecz, TRIO administrative assistant, oversaw the development of a dashboard for the program to help ambassadors ensure they meet with students regularly and to ensure students who may need academic or other help receive the resources they need.

Those resources extend beyond the traditional classroom and into TRIO’s required services, including financial literacy, education surrounding financial aid, academic transition and graduate school preparation.

At the height of COVID-19, Sebastian realized a substantial need to better convey to students the scope of preparing for graduate school — not just academically but in terms of how to choose a program and school, how to arrange living accommodations, etc. — and what some careers actually entail rather than what students believe they do. Students may not realize the number of administrative responsibilities each profession has and that, often, they are developing transferrable skills connected to their current courses, she said.

To help solve this issue, she established the TRIO Future Talks series, through which students hear first-hand from professionals about what it takes to develop an educational and career path — including the fact that graduate school, study abroad opportunities, scholarships and fellowships are not out of reach for most students, regardless of their backgrounds.

“It’s really about helping them create the life they want to live after SU,” she said.

Striving for Student Success

Even as SU’s academic outreach centers see record demand, its directors are striving to improve the services offered. The CSA and UWC, for example, ask students to complete a brief assessment after each visit, and Holmes hopes upcoming focus group sessions will provide even more direction about how the CSA can meet changing needs.

While each support center has its own focus, they don’t work in a vacuum. Referrals and collaborations among them are common as they work together to provide the best service possible for students.

“The wrap-around care is here for students if they take advantage of it,” said Holmes. “There’s a good synergy between all of our offices. Student success is our ultimate goal.”

Habay agreed: “We’re happy to help as many students as we can.”

For more information about academic support services at SU, visit the following webpages:

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