Calling all students 2

Massive project – UND’s second during the pandemic – checks in to ask students, ‘How are you doing?’

Pictured are selfies by just a few of the 58 staff members who are calling all 13,500 UND students: Chelsea Mellenthin, Stacey Borboa-Peterson, Shari Nelson, Gerri Lorenz, Jacoba de Boer, Mary Urbanski, Kristi Okerlund, Amanda Peters. Collage by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

How are students managing during the pandemic?

For the second time, UND decided to call and find out.

Volunteers are phoning every student – all 13,500 of them – to check in and see how they’re doing. During more normal times, faculty and staff have more interactions and visits with students, and seeing a friendly face in a casual encounter can make a difference. Now, students will hear a friendly voice instead.

“It’s just doing the right thing,” said Alex Pokornowski, assistant vice president for student affairs & diversity and assistant dean of students, who is spearheading the project along with Academic Affairs. “We need to do something personal and intentional during the pandemic. Most students are doing okay, but there’s always a chance everything is not great. Our job is to listen.”

“We want to make sure our students are okay, and to check in with them,” said Karyn Plumm, vice provost for student success in the Division of Academic Affairs. “We know some students are struggling, and we may be able to help and provide resources.”

With 13,500 students, it’s a massive project, but 58 staff volunteers have taken on the job. They began calling in late October, and are more than halfway through the list.

“Most students are doing fairly well,” said Ashley Vigen, interim co-director of student academic services & career engagement and one of the volunteer callers. “It’s a weird semester, but they’re getting the hang of it. Remote classes are a totally different way of learning. We want to make sure students know how to get support.”

A personal connection

“We need to connect with our students in a way that’s not virtual or over Zoom,” said Angie Carpenter, director of student academic success, and a volunteer caller. She added that staff enjoy working directly with students, and this is a way to do that during the pandemic.

“It benefits students,” Carpenter said. “I’ve had students start to chat about other things. Some have questions. Most are doing okay. A lot say that it’s so nice of us to call. That personal touch makes a difference.”

Connection is important. Faculty and staff members often notice if a student isn’t doing well, if there’s a change in behavior that may signal a need for help, or if a student just wants to visit. Before the pandemic, students would be able to stop in and chat with a faculty member, or talk with an advisor or staff member about grades, classes, or just coping with college. Now, that’s more difficult.

An expanding project

After UND moved to remote classes in March, staff called all residence hall students, many of whom were new to campus, to make sure they knew about registration, housing and other deadlines.

“We thought the conversations would be a lot about COVID-19 and deadlines, but there were also questions about general things, and appreciation for the calls,” said Pokornowski. “We called about 2,000 residence hall students, and then decided to call all our students.”

Given the success of last spring’s efforts, the Student Government president thought doing the calls was a good idea and encouraged finding a way to do them again. Student Affairs agreed, adding the Division of Academic Affairs as a partner.

Volunteer callers receive a list of names and phone numbers, and call students as they have time. A spreadsheet helps identify students who have requested assistance or need follow-up.

Callers identify themselves as being with UND, but don’t use titles.

“It’s just, ‘Hi, I’m Angie with UND,’” said Carpenter. “We don’t mention our department so that we don’t focus on one office. We are One UND. We’re calling to see how students are doing. It’s just a casual conversation. We get thanked a lot, and students seem to like it.”

Sometimes, a caller can reach 20 students in an hour. At other times, they may be on the phone for an hour with one student.

How are students doing?

“They’re doing okay,” said Carpenter. “It runs the gamut. They’ve had to adapt. The majority say this is not the way they want things to be, but are doing okay for the most part. That doesn’t mean we can sit back. We need to read between the lines and develop new ways to serve students.”

“Our students want the connection,” said Plumm. “This is broader than grades and enrollment and retention. The goal is to make sure our students are supported and cared for.”

“UND takes care of students, and genuinely cares about the little things in their lives on the road to graduation,” Vigen said. “We hear what’s going on in their lives, and help them overcome barriers to reach their goals. That personal touch is what sets UND apart.”