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ASU helping first-gen students rely on the resilience that got them to college

ASU helping first-generation students rediscover resilience during transition.
April 2, 2020

Virtual peer coaching provides connection, support for students who are first to go to college

Students who are the first in their families to attend college can come with both challenges and coping skills — both of which are coming into play during the current pandemic crisis.

Arizona State University has been able to pivot its support for first-generation students to connect them to services and provide virtual peer coaching during the transition to online. As soon as spring break was over, the First-Year Success Center emailed its students tips and resources, according to Kevin Correa, director of the center.

“That message was particularly relevant to our first-generation students because of that core message we convey to them that, ‘You’re not alone,’” he said. 

The First-Year Success Center’s Game Changers program is devoted to first-generation students, with one-on-one peer coaching and other support, like getting help with technology issues and scheduling online tutoring sessions.

“We know that peer coaching in general is an effective tool to support student success, and that’s even more important now,” Correa said.

“These students know that even their coaches are going through the same things they are in terms of this challenging new environment.”

The peer coaches are holding Zoom sessions with students to work through problems, sustain connections and just blow off steam.

ASU has about 25,000 first-generation undergraduate students. Of the total undergraduate and graduate population, about 35% are first generation college-goers — more than three times the proportion in 2002.

Nationwide, first-generation college students are more likely to come from families with lower incomes and to work more hours per week than students who are not first generation. They’re also twice as likely to have dependents, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

The center held a webinar for student-success professionals this week on how to provide support during the COVID-19 crisis. Among the points about first-generation students were:

• With the switch to online learning, many don’t own or must share laptops and have no or limited access to the internet.

• Many depend on their institutions for housing, food and health care and are now insecure in those requirements.

• With schools and daycares closed, many must juggle their class and study time with trying to care for children or siblings.

• Many families depend on first-generation students’ income from jobs, and that pressure may be heightened with so many people out of work.

“One of the biggest things is having someone there to talk to and bounce around this concept of ‘It’s OK you feel this way and we’re all in this together.’”

– Muneeza Rashid, a biochemistry major at the Polytechnic campus.

The ASU coaches try to address all of the students’ needs — physical and emotional.

“We’ve done outreach with students we know have high financial need. Do they have enough to eat? Have they lost their job? We can connect them to student employment,” Correa said.

“Many rely on the food pantry, so we’re making sure they have alternative sources of food.”

The team also is doing targeted outreach to some groups of students, including Native American students who live on reservations and may have technology issues, and students with lower grade-point averages who are being connected to online tutoring.

Making the switch to online learning has presented challenges.

“If you’ve never taken an online class before, how do you adjust to that?” Correa said. “I’ve heard from some students that when roommates are on Zoom at the same time, it can slow down the Wi-Fi.

“They have to have a lot more self-motivation in terms of managing time and taking notes.”

Like everyone else, first-generation students are navigating uncertainty, which can be heightened when there’s financial insecurity.

“By now students should be registered for next semester,” he said. “I know there are some students have questions about signing a lease. They’re unsure if classes will be in person come fall.”

So how do the peer coaches help anxious, stressed-out students? By setting goals, coming up with a daily schedule and working through each problem as it comes up.

“One of the biggest things is having someone there to talk to and bounce around this concept of ‘It’s OK you feel this way and we’re all in this together,’” said Muneeza Rashid, a biochemistry major at the Polytechnic campus.

She said that during the first week of online university, students felt overwhelmed, but by the third week, many have settled in.

“Mostly it was a general sense of unease and almost surrealism, but now the common theme I’ve seen is that students are flexible and that makes me proud,” she said.

Rashid works with students to set up a game plan.

“I ask, ‘What does your schedule look like?’ ‘Are you sleeping all day?’ They need to balance things with self-care and also with pushing themselves to do their best,” she said.

She has also helped students communicate with their professors.

“A lot of students are telling me that online classes don’t meet their needs as far as understanding the material, so I’m working with them on how they reach out in a respectful and effective way,” she said. “Sometimes even if they don’t come up with a perfect plan, they feel better just opening that line of communication.”

Peer coach Ismail Alavarado, a psychology major at the West campus, has found that the new normal is strengthening the bonds with the students she coaches.

“When the students come and meet us in the FYS center, they talk to us about what they’re going through with family or boyfriends or girlfriends, and now those people are right there with them,” she said.

She worked with one student who is balancing work and school and was motivated by her siblings to do well.

“So I was introduced to her siblings at our first appointment after the transition,” she said. “We’re meeting them in their homes, which feels warm and welcoming.”

The coaches have seen their students make the best of the situation.

"You’re a first-generation student because you have a deep drive to pursue a higher education degree, and that’s what we want to maintain, whatever the obstacles.”

— Kevin Correa, director of the First-Year Success Center

“One kind of student says, ‘This is why I didn’t do online in the first place,’ but on the other side of the coin are those who say, ‘I wanted to do in person, but this makes it easier because I just have to go from my bed to my desk so I’m not late anymore and I’m actually in class,’” Alvarado said.

Students who are suddenly back at home also must set boundaries.

“I am still in the dorm room even though my family is 30 minutes away because we live where there are eight people in a two-bedroom apartment and I wouldn’t have space to do my classes or conduct appointments,” said Alvarado, who is herself a first-generation student.

“Students have to navigate difficult conversations with parents or siblings they share rooms with.”

The peer coaches are natural “helpers,” so Correa and the supervisors have worked to keep them from being overwhelmed themselves with frequent check-ins and virtual game nights.

“We regularly have conversations with them about how to, as much as possible, leave your work at work to have that compartmentalization, which is so key,” he said.

The First-Year Success team emphasizes the resilience of first-generation students who have already had to overcome challenges to get to ASU.

“The first thing we have them remember is their ‘why,’ and their ‘why’ is so compelling,” Correa said.

“You’re not a first-generation student by accident. You’re a first-generation student because you have a deep drive to pursue a higher education degree, and that’s what we want to maintain, whatever the obstacles.”

Top image by iStock/Getty Images

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU passes milestone of 100,000 Zoom sessions in March

April 2, 2020

University community members finding their way to success in the transition to remote learning, teaching and working

For Leena Tohaibeche, an undergraduate student in the College of Health Solutions, ASU’s move to online modalities has meant attending class and working from home — alongside four siblings. Tohaibeche is among the more than 100,000 students relying on ASU’s array of convenient digital tools to keep students learning.

“All of my professors have been recording their lectures and posting (them) afterwards so that has been useful,” she said.

Tohaibeche also works at the University Technology Technology Office, where she continues to work remotely thanks to tools like Zoom, ASU’s universitywide video/audio conferencing solution.

March marked a milestone for surpassing 100,000 Zoom sessions, with the actual number to date now approaching 150,000. An equally if not more remarkable benchmark is the fact that 60 million minutes' worth of these interactions transpired throughout these nearly 150,000 Zoom sessions. That amounts to roughly 115 years of Zoom. Over this staggering period, the Sun Devils have been busy living out new possibilities for work and learning. 

“I miss the students and my studio, but I have to say I have been so pleased with how our Zoom delivery has turned out,” said Penny Dolin, faculty member at the Polytechnic School. “Students who may not have spoken up much before, appear empowered to do so now. I feel like we are laughing more and I get to see my students’ pets.” 

Each Zoom session — a class, a meeting, office hours, a virtual coffee catchup — has encompassed the learning experiences, collaborative strategizing and personal connections that have helped the university thrive during a challenging time. In a silver-lining turn of events, the move to online meetings has often fostered a greater sense of community than was sometimes possible face-to-face.

“Zoom meetings invite me into everyone’s dining room, thanks to all my colleagues for the fellowship and intimacy,” said Jennie Blair, an ASU adjunct instructor and the assistant director of Enrollment Services, where she oversees the strategic implementation of an integrated front-counter service.

For those who aren’t as keen on giving everyone a glimpse of their natural habitats, custom virtual backgrounds in Zoom are transporting Sun Devils everywhere — including on campus. The ASU Marketing Hub recently released more than 40 virtual backgrounds that capture ASU’s spirit. Regardless of the backdrop, community members are seizing this opportunity as a way to build camaraderie.

“It truly makes business personal when you can be natural and wearing a T-shirt and talk about our new world of work and how everyone and their families are doing before jumping into the project,” said Shay Moser, managing editor at the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“I love using Zoom to meet with my employees one-on-one and to check in with them or meet their pets or children, which is something that was unlikely to happen in the former modality,” echoed Art Hernandez, customer service supervisor for the ASU Operations and Experience Center at the University Technology Office. 

In addition to helping community members form these closer connections, the accelerated use of Zoom is prompting people to rethink their meeting structures. Zoom allows for small-group breakout discussions, instant screen sharing, whiteboarding and more.

“I think that we have different meetings for different purposes: Zoom meetings for coffee talk, Zoom meetings for general updates and acknowledgements and then other meetings that are focused on getting projects done or figuring out how to solve an urgent need,” said Erika Lankton, learning services manager at the Polytechnic School.

For instructional designers at ASU, intentionally selecting a medium for any kind of experience is part of the daily job. The learning design community across ASU has been vital in helping to support faculty needing some guidance on how to leverage a combination of available tools to enable deep, interactive learning. 

“I like that Zoom helps keep me from having long ... conversations typing back and forth. A back-and-forth conversation on Slack or email can take 20 minutes, (whereas) I can accomplish the same discussion via Zoom in five minutes,” said Vicki Harmon, instructional designer and manager of professional development at ASU’s EdPlus. “So the question of synchronous benefits versus asynchronous benefits comes to play in each decision I make whether to Zoom, email or Slack.”

In the end, this is all in service of students like Tohaibeche, who admits that getting comfortable in the shift online took a couple weeks — but understanding faculty have made it easier. 

“My classes are in full swing and I have been able to manage my online classes to the best of my ability,” she said. “I understand that all of us are going through this together, and I thank and appreciate all the ASU professors who are trying their best to make this a smooth transition for their students.”

Faculty are finding new ways to encourage student agency and allow for deeper dives into learning materials, which has been a huge part of this transition.

“I get to watch the lecture videos even after the class (and) if i have any questions, this has been really helpful to go back and check what happened,” said RJ Gopinath, a graduate student in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a student worker for the ASU Learning Futures Collaboratory. “The Zoom classes are more student-friendly; I can take small breaks when I want (and) that helps me keep focused in the class.” 

For ongoing guidance with Zoom and other resources, students and faculty can look to the remote teaching and learning pages hosted by the University Office of the Provost. Staff members can also get started right away by visiting and logging in with their ASURITE. Select the Meetings option on the lefthand menu to schedule a future session, or launch an instant meeting by navigating to the Profile section and finding your sharable Personal Meeting link at the top.

Written by Samantha Becker/UTO