Student affairs team rallies to support campus operations

Student affairs team rallies to support campus operations

Design: Lorena Lopez/University of Miami
By Brittney Bomnin and Lorena Lopez

Design: Lorena Lopez/University of Miami

Student affairs team rallies to support campus operations

By Brittney Bomnin and Lorena Lopez
For students living on campus and attending classes, the team at the Division of Student Affairs plays a key role in providing a safe environment and supportive services in a changing climate.

Student life on the Coral Gables Campus looks quite different this fall, but the support and services offered by the Division of Student Affairs remains unparalleled. Whether it’s providing a safe home-away-from-home environment, accommodating students requests, developing engaging programming, or managing the operation of quarantine/isolation housing, the team steps up to the challenge day after day.

Even during a pandemic, which led to revamping almost every system and process used by the division, the student affairs team found ways to create a better student experience, streamline requests, and solve problems. Maintaining office operations remotely, the team helped to reopen the Coral Gables Campus by working with groups across the Universityincluding dining services, facilities, and teams within the Division of Business and Finance. 

“Together with our valued campus partners, I am proud of all the members of our student affairs team who rallied together to prepare for reopening and to respond to the many challenges our community faces daily,” said Patricia A. Whitely, vice president for student affairs.

Learning and working together through change.

With a constant focus on the student experience, the team at Housing and Residential Life (HRL) continues to support students who live on campus, though it might look a little different, admitted Tiffani Idol, assistant director for HRL. “Everything we do now is changed in some way by COVID-19,” said Idol. “What keeps us going is our passion for serving students that brought us all here to begin with.” 

Among the biggest changes, Idol cited the quarantine and isolation housing process, which has required creativity, flexibility, and teamwork. A vital component of on-campus housing, the operation launched this fall—working with Student Health Service—to care for students who may be exposed or infected. Nevertheless, the HRL team continues overseeing residential responsibilities under a new normal, ready to meet students’ needs as best and safely as possible. “We have learned and embraced that our roles are ever-changing to support our students,” said Sarah Frese, assistant director for HRL. “We are still learning as we continue to work through this as a team.”

With fewer in-person interactions, team building, trust, and information sharing among teams—whether in the residential halls or across the university—has required ingenuity and resilience from staff members, according to Idol. For Frese, the shared challenges in working to support students has brought the team closer together. Technology—including newsletters, QR Codes, GroupMe, Zoom, and social media—has become a crucial component for facilitating communication among teams and with residential students to keep everyone informed and engaged. 

“One of the greatest strengths of our team members throughout this time has been their ability to adapt and adjust quickly to all the changes—in policies and procedures, day-to-day operations, lack of in-person meetings—we have had to make because of the pandemic,” said Jessica Stinnett, case manager for HRL.

Continued passion for serving students.

Throughout this time of remote work and learning, the Dean of Students Office case management team has continued to advocate and support students, though not without some adjustments. By taking advantage of the technology available to them, the team continues to conduct outreach and support by linking students to University resources remotely. While telephone contact, email, and text messaging have always been a part of their outreach efforts, they have become their primary means of communication. Collaboration among campus partners—including Student Conduct, HRL, and Student Health Service—has aided in the team’s ability to support students. Case managers have daily virtual meetings with campus partners to ensure the care and needs of students who are in vulnerable situations are being met.

The importance of ongoing connection is what Sompa Adhya-Taylor, associate dean of students and social worker, says is a priority for the case managers. “This is especially true with those students who have difficulties with social skills and interactions,” said Adhya-Taylor. “They need to feel an ongoing sense of belonging and connection to their home at the University, despite being in quarantine/isolation, or as a remote learner.”

Since March, the team at Student Health Service, led by Dr. Howard Anapol, has relied primarily on telehealth services. Students who require in-person care are instructed about necessary protocols to follow prior to their visit, enforcing and supporting policies and protocols set in place by UHealth/Lennar Foundation Medical Center. The team is intensely involved in the University’s testing efforts, including personal phone calls and text messages to students who are asked to get a COVID-19 test as a result of contact tracing and symptom monitoring.

Adapting to changing work and life demands.

To manage incoming requests from students who are required to quarantine or isolate, the Student Affairs team works tirelessly to provide a smooth experience. To start, a volunteer team—consisting of University staff members from almost every unit within Student Affairs as well as staff members from other areas of campus—was formed to monitor a student helpline. The helpline team works together with UM Dining, Facilities and Operations, and other campus partners to provide students with meal delivery, laundry service, and other necessary support.

Each day the helpline connects with students in isolation/quarantine to check in and provide support. The helpline staff take a holistic approach—focusing on physical and mental well-being, as well as academic standing—to ensure students have access to all of the resources available, including the Counseling Center and overnight support.

“The students seem appreciative to have the added interaction,” said Mery Poynter, manager of business operations in HRL. “The beauty of the helpline is that it easily adapts to each student’s individual needs.” She explained that those students who already have a strong support network of family and friends may find the single check-in call each day sufficient. For students who may need additional help, there is a dedicated line available 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Students can connect with knowledgeable University staff volunteers who can answer questions, resolve issues, or simply provide an ear throughout their isolation or quarantine period.

“Our new helpline to support students is another example of how our entire division works together across departmental lines to do the work that needs to be done,” said Whitely.

The ability to adapt to the new climate is also something Heather Stevens, assistant director of divisional affairs for student affairs, noted as a point of pride. “The University staff volunteers have excelled at becoming knowledgeable about policies or procedures that are new or outside their own department,” said Stevens. “Over the first three days of operating, we are averaging about 35 calls per day from students and families. The success of the helpline relies on our team’s ability to not only listen, but also think critically about some underlying concerns that may be present with those questions asked.” 

Stay connected:

Students can stay in touch with the Division of Student Affairs, fellow ’Canes, and campus partners at miami.edu/stayconnected.