Responding to students in the midst of the crisis

UM News, 03-31-2020

Dr. Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs, puts the needs of her students first.


After 38 years at the University of Miami, Dr. Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs, has handled more than her share of crises: hurricanes, 9/11, the financial meltdown of 2008, the ValueJet crash in the Everglades following commencement in May of 1996. And, now she adds another to her list, COVID-19. "This is unlike anything I’ve seen in my career," she says. "Everything is moving so quickly, changing from one day to the next."

With no pandemic playbook, Whitely is following the north star that has always guided her—putting the needs of her students first and foremost. Working alongside university leadership, she quickly identified her three most immediate priorities: the health and safety of students, their academic continuity, and the Class of 2020 commencement.

Since the decision to move the spring semester to online instruction happened during spring break, Whitely and her team arranged for students to check out of their residence halls from a distance. Then, they locked up each student’s contents for safe keeping and pro-rated room, board and parking for the remainder of the school year.

For international students who aren’t able to return home and others who face extreme hardship, provisions have been made to allow them to continue to live on campus. Those 267 students are receiving two take-out meals a day, and are abiding by the strict social distancing practices that have been put into place.

In addition to ensuring that all students have access to the technology they need to continue their academic studies, Whitely and her team have moved many student services to online platforms. Students can connect virtually to counseling and health services. Even the 315 student organizations are carrying on, holding meetings via Zoom, creating budgets online and selecting next year’s leadership virtually.

"I am so proud of how my team has put its creativity and technical skills to the test. Every day they are coming to me with new and better ways for us to stay connected with our students and provide them the care and support they need at this time," Whitely says. "It’s extraordinary. Maintaining a sense of normalcy in these unprecedented times is so important."

As for commencement, Whitely is committed to providing the Class of 2020 the pomp and circumstance they’ve earned. "Our seniors are sad," she says. "They are going to finish their senior year safe and with their degrees, but certainly not in the way they envisioned or aspired." That’s why, come this December, the university will stage two full graduation ceremonies—one for the class that is graduating in the Fall of 2020 and a completely separate one to celebrate the Spring class of 2020.

When asked how people can help, Whitely says students are hurting. Many are facing new or escalating financial challenges. Her office is working hard to answer calls for emergency funds for food and housing as well as to replace lost wages. Scholarship support is more important than ever. And, she notes, for the graduating class, they are entering the job market at a difficult time. "Hire a ’Cane. Think of them for internships. Offer to be a mentor," she says. "This is very different than a hurricane. This is global, impacting everyone. We’re all in this together."