Merced College’s special programs excel while guiding vulnerable students through COVID-19 challenges

Everyone who works in the Disabled Students Program and Services (DSPS) group at Merced College subscribes to the same ethos.

Every student has potential. DSPS helps students with physical and developmental challenges to fulfill that promise.

But what happens when the world takes ill and stops? What happens when you are told, in the middle of a global health crisis, to continue building students up without the usual tools?

Joe Serena, Director of Disabled Students Program & Services (DSPS), the Veterans Resource Center (VRC) and Student Health Services at Merced College, chuckled and sighed when asked how he reacted to hearing that the campus would close to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“If you would have told me three months ago that we must now provide our services online, and we have to get it running in two weeks?” he said. “I would have said, ‘Impossible.’

“The fact that we are where we are now is amazing. There have been serious struggles, but we had to do it. And we are in a good place now.”

The work began after an emergency meeting on March 19 when the leadership decided to temporarily close campus. Merced College’s special programs then had 72 hours to provide information, how-to videos, fillable PDF forms, virtual meeting and classroom spaces, and classroom discussion boards over the internet.

“Special programs” include DSPS, Extended Opportunity Programs & Services (EOPS), the CARE program for single parents, NextUp for foster youth, CalWORKs for students on government assistance, and the VRC.

Faculty and staff had three days to get ready. Serena said most had already been thinking about online education since that goal is part of the Merced College master plan.

For example, at NextUp Student Support Coordinator Dondi Lawrence had—since the fall semester—students exchanging text messages using the office app Pronto and using a Canvas discussion board to chat about classes and schedule counseling appointments. Once campus closed, Lawrence was the obvious choice to train other program leaders.

Lacey Chavez was the traffic cop at the intersection where DSPS, VRC and Student Success Tutorial Center offices ramped up their usage on Canvas and Zoom. She is also now a conduit to the entire student body through a Canvas discussion board.

There she fields questions about everything from tutoring to transcripts, and registration to financial aid. The discussion board has answered over 100 public queries in its first three weeks alone.

“We’ve worked so many hours, but we’re gladly doing it,” Chavez said. “It has been energizing, maybe because we get instant gratification helping students as quickly as we do right now.”

But with so much going right during this transition, the Merced College staff had to give up the personal interaction that eases vulnerable students when they struggle.

Or did they? DSPS counselor Dr. Inga Maples said, with creative thinking and effort, they haven’t lost the personal touch.

Maples has given one-on-one technology training to her special needs students over Zoom. Most had never used Zoom. All were ready to go after training. In the college skills class she teaches, she created peer learning groups, allowing students to stay connected while helping each other. She set up Google Docs to reduce student frustration while submitting work.

“I have learned that too much information will overload students and they’ll quickly shut down,” Maples said. “We should tailor Information to the student … We should be invested in ourselves and our students, because they can tell when we aren’t.”

Having to pivot in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown everyone at Merced College that their campus is ready for a larger distance learning program. Right now, the DSPS and VRC staffs are busy calling, chatting with, or emailing all of their students to see what they need and how they’re dealing with stress. They might talk about choosing a major, or simply ask, “How is your family?”

Esprit de corps is the fellowship that develops in a group as they chase the same goal. That continues to grow at Merced College thanks to the pandemic.

“[This transition] is a mountain to climb, but we keep moving,” Serena said. “It’s the only way to stay afloat. Besides, our people signed up to work with these special students. They already have big hearts.

“I can’t say how appreciative I am of everyone. It’s been such an interesting process, but I’m really proud of all of them.”