UND’s Smart Restart: Student Affairs & Diversity

The goal is to deliver to students the same great UND experience, modified for safety in light of COVID-19, administrators say

At UND, administrators in Twamley Hall and elsewhere are striving to deliver to students a useful, exciting and safe campus experience. UND archival image.

The planning will take months, and the people involved will be many. But the Division of Student Affairs & Diversity’s approach to reopening UND in the fall still can be summed up in three words:  

UND Pride/Flexible.  

“One of the things that guides our division is that we’re often asking the question, ‘But is it right for students?’” said Cassie Gerhardt, associate dean of students.  

Cassie Gerhardt

Cassie Gerhardt

“This year, we’re still asking that question. The only change is that we’re asking it in light of COVID-19.   

“So when it comes to Welcome Weekend, for example, the objectives remain the same,” Gerhardt continued.   

“Our goal will be to make sure that students know we’re excited to have them on campus, and that we’re committed to helping them succeed. We just need to modify our programs.   

“So, we’re going to be there to welcome students into the residence halls. We’re going to be there to help them move in.   

“We might need to have a few less in terms of the numbers; there might be two who can help them, rather than five or 10. And we might be in masks when we see them.   

“But I think they’ll experience that same level of welcome and hospitality and excitement when they arrive on campus, as previous classes have,” Gerhardt said.  

That’s the goal, and it’s guiding all of the planning that Student Affairs & Diversity is doing for the fall.   

At every university, there is life inside the classroom and life outside of it, and at UND, the Division of Student Affairs & Diversity oversees much of the latter. Housing, Dining Services and Student Health Services — the Smart Restart plans of which are covered in a separate story in today’s UND Today — fall under the division’s umbrella.   

So do Student Involvement and Parent Programs, Student Diversity & Inclusion, Counseling and Student Rights & Responsibilities, among other programs. And those — plus Admissions, Financial Aid and One-Stop Services, which fall under the purview of the Provost’s Office— are what this story is about.  

Cara Halgren

Again, the key is the following:  

“For all of us who work in Student Affairs and Diversity, the thing that’s most important is that we have a very strong commitment to the institution and the students we serve,” said Cara Halgren, vice president for student affairs & diversity and dean of students.   

“And so, while we’ll be serving students differently this fall, we’ll be doing everything that we can to provide the same services and level of service for students that we always have.”  

Here’s how that’s showing up in the division’s work.  

A great, and safe, UND experience 

Welcome Weekend will be held Aug. 22-24, and UND Family Weekend will be held Oct. 2-4. At both of these and at other events such as the Student Organization Fair, UND will strive to deliver a great experience while also minimizing coronavirus-transmission risks.   

That means University staffers will wear masks when they interact with others, Gerhardt said. It means events will be structured to avoid overcrowding.  

“So, instead of having an event for one group of 1,000 people, we’re looking at delivering to maybe four groups of 250 people with physical distancing,” she said.  

And at the Student Organization Fair, the tables will be more spread out than they’ve been in years past. Those are the kinds of modifications we’re looking at, but we’re still doing our best to deliver a great experience to students.”  

Student Organizations will be able to meet and connect with students and will have to do so in ways that allow for physical distancing. Likewise, fraternities and sororities will be welcome to recruit, with the first phases of this process likely taking place virtually, while the “house visit” stage will see smaller groups visiting over longer periods of time.  

“Remember, while we all see the Greek houses while we drive down University Avenue, they actually are off-campus facilities,” Gerhardt said. In other words, each house is governed by its local and national leadership, not UND.  

But UND recognizes the houses’ importance in the lives of students and historic ties to the University. “So we’re meeting with them regularly to provide them with updates on what the university is doing and some of the protocols we’ll be using,” she said.  

“We’re also sharing with them what we’re doing in our residence halls. So they’re getting some guidance, in addition to what they’re receiving from their national organizations.”  

Like other campus-service offices, One-Stop Student Services at UND is going to reopen its on-campus facility, while encouraging students to first turn to One-Stop’s extensive online resources. UND archival image.

Counseling services will be available, likely with many sessions — though not all — taking place online. But as Halgren pointed out, “one of the things we’ve discovered is that many students like online services better. In our Counseling Center, for example, the director is seeing very strong engagement by students in support groups online, maybe even more so than had been seen in person.”  

In other words, “some of our Zoom capacities have let students engage in a more comfortable way,” Halgren continued. “So, this is one of those areas in which we wonder: if COVID-19 were to go away tomorrow, would it really be in our students’ best interest for us to change back?”  

Similar observations are being made in Admissions & Financial Aid, which for a few years has offered extensive services online. That has helped make any coronavirus-related changes much easier, said Janelle Kilgore, UND’s vice provost for enrollment management.  

Janelle Kilgore

“A lot of students interacted with us by electronic means already,” Kilgore said. “They would call One-Stop Services, they would email One-Stop, or they’d have a live chat going with One-Stop. So it’s nice to have an online environment for students that our teams are already comfortable with, and we can transition to without missing a beat.”  

This year’s UND identification card or U Card is another example. UND’s online students have always submitted their photo online and had their card mailed to them. This year, all students are being asked to submit their photos online, greatly reducing the prospect of crowding in U Card offices in Twamley Hall.  

And that “ask” was made easier by UND’s experience with getting cards in online students’ hands, Kilgore said.   

An approach grounded in education 

Among Halgren, Gerhardt and their colleagues in recent weeks, other conversations have centered around discipline. What will happen to a student who, for example, ignores or flouts UND’s new COVID-19 guidelines? Will that student be subject to disciplinary action, traditionally a function of the Division of Student Affairs & Diversity?  

The answer lies in a big sign that hangs in the University’s Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities, Halgren said.   

It reads, Make mistakes. Learn from them. Move on.  

At UND, “even our disciplinary process, our student conduct process, is grounded in the notion of education,” Halgren said. “And that’s our philosophy going into this: we need to be really clear with people about what we hope they will do, and why we think it’s important. In other words, how do we educate people to be in line with the guidance we’re putting out there?”  

So, “will we have some people who choose not to support it? Yes, I suspect. And will we have conversations with them? Yes, we probably will.  

“But again, our first route is through education, and making it really clear to everyone why we think this is in their best interest and the best interest of our community.”  

A similar process unfolded when UND went tobacco-free, Halgren noted. “We talked a lot about, ‘How do we help educate people to comply with the the expectation and the policy?’ And over time, we’ve seen that for the most part, that works out really well. That’s the approach we’ll be using as we go into this fall.”    

One place where that strategy will show up is in role modeling, Gerhardt said. “So when people come for Welcome Weekend, we’re going to be out there with masks on. I think that’s part of how people come to understand what the community standards are.  

“Plus, it’s up to us — as leaders of the institution — to role-model the behaviors we expect. And so that’s what people are going to see.”  

In all of the above, UND is vowing to be sensitive to students’ individual circumstances.  “Even before COVID-19, we knew that the farm economy and — especially in western North Dakota — the energy economy were struggling,” Halgren said.  

The coronavirus compounded this by throwing thousands of North Dakotans out of work. Couple that with the fact that online classes are a significant part of UND’s response, and you’ll see why the University is being extra sensitive to students’ technology and other financial needs.  

Along those lines, “we’re encouraging students to tell us when there might be barriers or concerns, so we can address those as quickly as possible,” Halgren said.  

That’s also the approach being taken by UND’s Office of Admissions & Financial Aid, Kilgore said.  

“You know, a survey was done here shortly after the 2008 recession, and it indicated that financial issues were a bigger stress-point for students than academic difficulties,” Kilgore said. “And we’re already anticipating that the coronavirus will have intensified that pressure.”  

That’s why the University is encouraging students to get their financial-aid forms filled out early, and to contact Kilgore’s office with any concerns. “We really encourage them to reach out now to our team; we can do Zoom appointments, we can do phone appointments, and so on. That way, when they get back on campus in the fall, they won’t have to worry about their finances.   

“We want our students and families to know that we’re here to try to help them navigate that pressure.”  

For all of the above and across UND, Kilgore said, the bottom line is this: “Once we can get our students back on campus, we’re all going to be overjoyed, because we’ve just missed them so much.  

“We know that things will look a little bit different, but we want to make sure students feel comfortable and safe.”  

Gerhardt agreed. “You know, when you talk to alumni about their experiences at UND, a lot of times it’s about the experiences they had, the connections they made, the people that they knew. ‘I felt like I was part of something’ or ‘I felt like I was connected,’ they say.   

“And so again, if we can create that same experience for students, even through different modes than what we’ve done in the past, I will suggest that we will have done what we need to do.”

For the most current information regarding notifications about the coronavirus, UND’s response to in and any impacts on university classes, operations or events, visit UND’s Coronavirus Updates Blog. This blog will be updated regularly throughout the summer and fall.