Trustee committee explores impact of COVID on underrepresented students

July 17, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The Penn State Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Affairs and Student Life engaged in a panel discussion on July 16 about the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on underrepresented populations at the University, featuring input from Penn State leadership and students, faculty and staff of color.

The panelists sharing their experiences during the pandemic with the committee included:

  • Lisbeth Brito, an undergraduate student studying rehabilitation and human services who began her academic career at Penn State Berks;
  • Shana Clarke, an academic adviser and the coordinator of multicultural initiatives in the Division of Undergraduate Studies (DUS);
  • Gabrielle Foreman, founding director of the Colored Conventions Project, Paterno Family Professor of American literature and professor of African American studies and history;
  • Nyla Holland, president of the Penn State Black Caucus and a senior studying political science and African American studies; and,
  • Quiana Jackson, a second-year graduate student in the College of Education and recipient of the Bunton-Waller Fellowship.

The panelists were joined by Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity; Renata Engel, vice provost for Online Education; and Yvonne Gaudelius, associate vice president and senior associate dean of Undergraduate Education.

Whitehurst began the conversation by sharing how Penn State and Student Disability Resources (SDR) took an active role during last semester’s shift to remote instruction by seeking out and connecting with students in need of additional support. For example, SDR worked closely with faculty members to support visually impaired students by providing accommodations to help them adjust to remote learning ---- such as printed materials and recorded Zoom lectures. He also discussed the outsized impact of the pandemic on ethnic and racial minorities by explaining that members of underrepresented populations are at greater risk during the ongoing pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long-standing systemic health and social inequities have put some members of racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting COVID-19 or experiencing severe illness, regardless of age,” Whitehurst said.

Gaudelius spoke to her role alongside Engel as co-leads of one of the coronavirus response teams that has focused on course continuity and enrollment management. As part of this work, they formed an ad hoc working group that is charged with assessing the outcomes of the shift to remote learning and whether or not these outcomes had a disproportionate impact on different populations of students. She said several steps the University took last semester — such as the implementation of an alternative grading system — were of significant benefit to students. She also said that the data collected by the working group reveals that African American, Hispanic and first-generation students were more likely to have opted into the alternative grading system, and that the working group is focused on finding ways to support these and other underrepresented populations. Gaudelius noted the same data revealed that withdrawals from the University during the spring 2020 semester were roughly half as many as the previous spring semester – something she sees as an indication of how Penn State’s efforts during this time helped many students successfully complete their semester.

Engel said the information the working group has been gathering, including individuals’ stories and experiences, continues to shape the resources available for students in the fall, and that making sure those resources are available through multiple pathways is key to engaging and supporting students.

She said many offices across the University, such as Information Technology and the Office of Student Care and Advocacy, have been working to connect students with the technology, financial resources and support they need to succeed, and that these efforts will continue as the University moves into the fall semester. Engel encouraged students to visit to learn more about the support and resources available to them. Whitehurst also noted several other resources across the University, including the Multicultural Resource Center, the Paul-Robeson Cultural Center, Counseling and Psychological Services and the Office of Graduate Educational Equity, each of which has been engaged in student outreach during the pandemic.

Foreman spoke about the remote work being undertaken both at the Colored Conventions Project and the Center for Black Digital Research launched at Penn State in 2019. She praised the students involved in these efforts for their resiliency, hard work and passion. Foreman said she and her colleagues have been focused on “fostering a community of care,” with colleagues and students performing daily check-ins, drive-by graduations, food deliveries and other acts of community to support each other during challenging times.

Jackson said she has faced “extreme financial instability” as result of the pandemic. Even with fellowship funding Jackson still faced economic hardship as she tried to balance her graduate studies, her teaching work, bills and financial obligations, and her life at home. She said that these stressors, combined also with national tensions around race relations, had a negative impact on her mental health, and that fellow students and colleagues often reported many of the same concerns to her.

Brito talked about her experience as a first-generation student, and explained how a desire to make her family proud has been a driving motivator during her time at Penn State. However, a number of difficult and personal struggles during the pandemic left her feeling overwhelmed and struggling academically. In retrospect, Brito said, she wishes she had reached out for support.

“Looking back now, I know I could’ve reached out to people and talk about my problems. Instead, I held it all in,” Brito said. “I wish I would’ve reached out to counseling support, and to my professors to let them know what was going on, but I didn’t at the time. That was hard for me.”

Holland spoke to her role as president of the Penn State Black Caucus working on issues related to the safety and well-being of Black students at Penn State, and also as co-chair of the new task force tasked with a full review of the Student Code of Conduct. Holland said she and her co-chair – Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Penn State Law – are reviewing potential methods for holding students accountable for hate speech and how the Student Code of Conduct can further protect marginalized students.

“What we’re hearing today mirrors what we’ve been hearing from students,” Clark said, explaining that DUS advisers like herself work across a large swath of incoming students.

Clarke said she and her colleagues have seen a “disparate impact,” with some students struggling with lack of access to technology, internet service and a productive learning environment. She described a conversation with one student who has been looking after four siblings — each under the age of 10 — while his parents work during the day, making it difficult for him to find time to devote to his studies. Clarke also spoke to the positive impact that academic safety nets, such as an alternative grading system, and culturally competent counselors can have on the success of underrepresented and first-generation students.

Trustee Steven Wagman, the immediate past president of the Penn State Alumni Association, said the conversation helped illustrate why the University’s Back to State plan will benefit students in need by giving them access to a safe and supportive campus learning environment.

“It’s something we need to do for a lot of good reasons around our students and making sure they can be successful,” Wagman said. “This is incumbent on everyone to make sure that we can open up safely and that all of our students respect the rules of the road for COVID, including masks and distancing, so all of our students can be successful.”

Last Updated July 17, 2020