The rapid evolution of the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) crisis into a pandemic has forced Clemson’s faculty, staff and administration leaders to make sweeping changes to the way the remainder of the Spring 2020 academic semester and summer sessions will be carried out. In the midst of these monumental shifts, directors of the more than 30 programs in Clemson’s Division of Inclusion and Equity mobilized to ensure the success of their strategic plan to promote an inclusive environment for higher learning continues.
The disruption caused by the abrupt change has caused uncertainty and stress for many students, but perhaps none more so than those students who are supported by programs sponsored through Inclusion and Equity.
“The inequity between students isn’t new. COVID-19 is just bringing it to light,” said Lee Gill, chief inclusion officer and special assistant to the president for inclusive excellence.
For instance, the decision to move all classes online presented particular challenges for students who come from rural or underserved areas and who might not have reliable internet connectivity or equipment in their homes.
“This whole thing started when the kids were on spring break. They were home, they needed a break and weren’t thinking about online classes,” said Amber Lange, executive director of Clemson’s Office of College Preparation and Outreach.
Enter Russ Kaurloto and Nathan Long from Clemson Computing and Information Technology (CCIT). The team in Inclusion and Equity turned to them as soon as they realized students would not be returning from spring break.
Fortunately, early on, Kaurloto had anticipated this need and had began ordering hotspots, laptops and headsets well before spring break started.
“We were ahead of the curve on laptops and hotspots, but fell into competition with the headsets,” said Kaurloto. Nevertheless, once students started contacting them with issues, CCIT and Inclusion and Equity were able to meet these students’ needs, sending laptops overnight and even practicing social distancing while meeting students on the school’s nearly empty grounds to deliver equipment before the campus was closed.
As of April 8, CCIT had supplied 99 loaner computers, 275 mobile hotspots and 25 headsets to students, said Long. “These numbers continue to increase every day as people realize they have needs to teach and learn remotely, but we’re in good shape, if things follow current trends.”
“CCIT has really stepped up,” said Lange. “I had one student who didn’t have Wi-Fi, and he had a hotspot sent to him immediately. He said it works perfectly. I had another student whose webcam broke and she couldn’t find one anywhere – everybody is sold out – so I gave Nathan her information. He’d just had some shipped to their office, which is locked, so he met up with her outside and got her one. I have to give it to them. They’re doing everything they can to get students what they need.”
Inclusion and Equity staff are addressing all issues as they become aware of them.
“The main priorities during this unprecedented time have has been to continue maintaining connections to students and the entire university community while still offering cultural awareness and education opportunities,” said Kendra Stewart-Tillman, executive director of the Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center. “We are in uncharted territory as far as programming, but we did not want to miss important opportunities to continue highlighting and supporting Clemson’s diverse campus community.”
Stewart-Tillman said the Gantt Center already had events scheduled for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Clemson Pride 2020 prior to the decision to move classes online. She did not want to simply cancel them, especially in light of incidences of bias and discrimination targeting Asian-American and Pacific Islanders due to COVID-19 and challenges for LGBTQ+ students shifting to home environments that may not be as welcoming and supportive.
Her team quickly partnered with other departments and multicultural student organizations across campus to move events online, using such platforms as Zoom, Netflix watch parties, GroupMe events, and Instagram and Facebook pages, to continue providing spaces for connection, mental and emotional processing and learning.
“We understand students are experiencing a range of emotions right now and that for some the community they physically had at Clemson University was their safe place,” said Stewart-Tillman. “That makes our campus efforts to create a virtual community and support imperative.”
Clemson sophomore Tyler McDougald, the Inclusion and Equity chair on undergraduate student government, spoke about the spirit of the student body during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Students have been using their voice to advocate for themselves, but even more so for their community members,” he said. “A lot of the conversations I’ve had so far have not been, ‘I’m dealing with this,’ but rather, ‘I’m concerned about how those that have less than me are dealing with this.’”
The first step in serving them is understanding where they are and what they are going through and to make sure the greater Clemson community has that knowledge, McDougald said.
“It’s so early, many hardships haven’t hit yet,” said Lange. “Food and other insecurities could start showing up in the next few weeks, and that’s what we’re preparing for. We’re continually checking in with our students, and they know we’d never let them go wanting.”
Lange said another group who stepped in immediately to help, to no one’s surprise, is Clemson alumni.
“What we have is so nice – I have donors who have already reached out. That’s a luxury we have that I don’t know if other students have. Clemson alums are just so great when they learn of a need.”
Lange said new donations of time and money from alumni coupled with already established funds and the reinforced dedication of every member of the Inclusion and Equity team should be more than enough to get every student through the pandemic with their schooling and spirit intact.
“It’s appropriate to take a moment to pause and reflect on the extraordinary efforts of Clemson faculty, staff, administrators and alumni as they band together to ensure every student is safe and cared for during the crisis,” said Gill.
“There is an upside to this,” he said, “and that’s witnessing this community come together stronger and broader than ever.”