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Opinion: Pandemic students overcoming unique challenges

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The full impact of COVID-19 on our students hit me in 2022 when one of my best students sat in my office sobbing. Besides being the provost at Ozarks Technical Community College, each semester I also teach a class. I had asked the student to come talk with me because I was worried. She was engaged in college, had a well-defined path and consistently earned high grades. So, what on Earth was going on?

It turns out she was struggling with what many of us have: the recent failure of a long-term relationship. While the relationship may have been the trigger, I could tell the weight she was carrying was much more than the souring of a young adult romance.

This breakdown from one of my best students got my attention. I thought, “If she’s struggling this much, what are my other students going through?”

It should not be that surprising. Think about what our local first-year college students have been through since they began high school in the fall of 2019:

  • 2019-20: COVID-19 hit, and the world shut down in March 2020.
  • 2020-21: Partial in-person and partial remote learning.
  • 2021-22: Multiple COVID-19 and weather-related remote learning days.
  • 2022-23: Their first “normal” year of high school, and they graduated in 2023.

While we learned that children may have been the least susceptible to the disease, they were not immune from its impact emotionally, socially or intellectually. Some students lost a loved one to COVID, many of their parents lost jobs and the social isolation boiled over.

Everyone in education did their best during that time, but the impacts on student preparation for college are undeniable.

Community college students are sometimes less well-resourced than their peers who attend four-year residential institutions.

In the wake of the pandemic, we see the difference between students who had easy access to computers, high-speed internet and private tutors in high school and those who did not.

While our students face challenges, our job as educators is to meet them where they are.

During the pandemic, OTC employees began a calling campaign to do wellness checks on all our students. We called every single student – not just once, but multiple times. While most students did not express an immediate need, many were thankful that someone called and cared about them.

Out of that calling campaign was born the college ethos we call OTC Cares. This means that all decisions at the college are filtered through the lens of four pillars: Decisions must be student-centered, holistic, proactive and data informed.

We cared about our students before the pandemic, but during COVID-19, we doubled down and showed our students that we really meant it. Now OTC Cares is a systemwide initiative.

Another example of OTC Cares is the Eagle Breakfast program. All students can receive a free meal at any OTC location, which means no stigma of a free or reduced lunch. It was an effort born during the pandemic, but we have sustained it at every OTC campus.

Nearly 4,000 students participated in Eagle Breakfast during the last academic year. Those who took part in the program completed their classes at a higher rate than those who did not take part, and they also had better grades.

The efforts are paying off. We retained hundreds more students this semester than in the fall of 2022. That means hundreds more educated and skilled workers.

We all need to realize that, as children, these brand-new adults experienced a global phenomenon the baby boomers, Generation Xers and millennials never could have imagined. As educators, we are to help our students overcome those challenges by meeting them where they are today. Our younger generations have not come through it unscathed, but despite that, my daily interactions with students leave me confident in their ability to persevere.

Older generations may complain about “kids these days” and worry about the future, but I can assure you: The kids are all right.

Tracy McGrady is the provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at Ozarks Technical Community College. She can be reached at mcgradyt@otc.edu.

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