The transition to online courses this spring for Western Washington University has created many challenges and obstacles for families, professors, and students to overcome. Compass 2 Campus (C2C), a mentoring program at Western that places WWU students in 33 Title I schools across Whatcom and Skagit counties, is no exception.
C2C is run through Western’s Woodring College of Education, but any student at Western or Whatcom Community College can register for a C2C course and become a mentor. C2C places its mentors in classrooms, community settings, and afterschool programs in regional Title I schools, which are part of a federal program that provides funding to support low-income students and ensure they meet the challenging state academic standards.
When Bridget Galati, the executive director for C2C, received the news that spring quarter would be online, she and others had to process the fact that their service-learning based programs in K-12 schools would not be able to meet in person. This meant the traditional mentoring services the program provides the schools was not possible.
“We had to think simultaneously about the kids in our schools and how the shift to online would be particularly challenging for underrepresented students, the kids we normally work with,” Galati said. “We wanted to ensure that the college students still had a meaningful experience because they are hoping to be future teachers and social workers.”
Galati and Juliet Holzknecht, the C2C program manager, refocused the program’s efforts to make sure the mentors were still getting meaningful experiences with underrepresented and first-generation students. They wanted to ensure students and staff still had meaningful assigned work that aligned with C2C’s mission.
The schools that participate in the program choose the format they feel best fits their needs. For some schools. this means online tutoring and live video sessions with college mentors; for others, like those in elementary schools where live video sessions are more difficult, email pen pals are set up to allow the students to be in contact with their mentors.
Skagit Success Story Faces Obstacles Due to Virus
One of the first C2C partnerships that were able to transition to online tutoring is with Burlington-Edison High School in Skagit County, and its “North 2 Western” (N2W) program designed to support students in math and science. N2W is a program funded by Gaining Early Access and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP. GEAR UP is a discretionary grant program from the U.S. Department of Education designed to increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to for postsecondary education.
Prior to the shift to online classes and coursework, N2W would bring a group of high school students once a week to Western’s campus. While there, the students would meet with Western professors, tour the buildings and campus, as well as work with college mentors on homework. They would also have a communal meal on campus prior to heading back to the high school.
Heather Paton, the Burlington-Edison School District GEAR UP coordinator, remembered when she was on campus with her high school students in 2018, she started to wonder why they were only coming to Western once a year over the summer. The goal of the program is to change the group’s sense of belonging on college campuses, especially for first-generation students, and she felt that this could be accomplished with more frequent visits to Western.
Before the coronavirus crisis, students from Burlington-Edison High School would sign up and come to Western once a week for seven weeks. At the end of that period, their families joined them for a hosted event on Western’s campus.
It has a profound impact on the students who choose to participate, and they love the program.
“It’s a way of connecting families to Western through bilingual celebration and recognition of the students,” Paton said. “It has a profound impact on the students who choose to participate, and they love the program. Now we have freshmen who go once a week, every week and have a meal together with their mentors.”
But the online transition has limited N2W’s ability to bring students to Western’s campus. It also has made an impact on how often the students are able to meet with the lead mentors that have followed them every year since seventh grade.
“It can’t be emphasized enough, the value of relationships.” Paton said. “Less than 1% of teachers are people of color. Our students are working with mentors that can relate to their experience. That human piece is important. I’m really blessed to be funded by a grant, because I can get more creative in how I meet the student’s needs.”
Online Tutoring Remains Vital
Now that the students are unable to come to Western’s campus and meet with their mentors in person, Paton has had to come up with a way that gives the students the human connection they need and a way to navigate their new way of receiving their education.
N2W opted to use online tutoring with campus mentors and held their first session on Tuesday, April 28 with three high school students. Paton said the first session was mainly a check-in for the students and mentors, some of whom have known the students for over a year.
These tutoring sessions are now hosted through Zoom. Paton switched over from Google Hangout because Zoom gives an option for breakout rooms which allows for more personalized tutoring under one session.
Each breakout room has one lead mentor from C2C, one GEAR UP staff, and one or two students who work through their homework. The sessions are not strictly used for tutoring. They give an opportunity for students to speak to someone they feel comfortable with about what they are experiencing and struggling with, whether it be time management or navigating the new educational environment. It is also a way to get human-to-human connection that is often missing with their school coursework online.
Beatriz Morales, a biology major from Brewster, is one of several lead mentors working with C2C, and she has been taking part in N2W’s online tutoring sessions.
Morales, who has been a lead mentor with C2C for two and a half years, said the beginning of the quarter was a transition period where they had to figure out how to set the foundations for C2C now that they are doing their mentoring online. She was unable to take part in the first tutoring session but was mentoring on N2W’s online sessions in early May.
“I usually do two-hour sessions through Zoom,” Morales said. “We talked about how to organize and be efficient. We also talked about how their family is doing and how they are feeling.”
The online tutoring sessions are not without problems, however. Once schools across the state transitioned online, issues of technology access and food security started popping up. As soon as they could, the GEAR UP program started reaching out to families and doing wellness checks as well as gauging the amount of technology they needed.
“Just this past Thursday, a student’s computer wasn’t working properly,” Morales said. “Ever since Tuesday, the student couldn’t turn in her homework. She had to order a Chromebook through the school.”
Morales said the schools are providing some Chromebooks to students who need them, as well as WIFI hotspots, as some students either have limited internet access or no access at all.
Ensuring access to their online classes through providing Chromebooks and hotspots does not solve all of the issues students and teachers are facing. Teachers also need to set up their class times online and learn how to teach in a whole new way.
“It’s one thing for teachers to deliver a class online and it’s another to figure out how to do tutoring online,” Paton said.
Beth Girma, a sophomore political science major at Western from North Seattle, has been mentoring for the N2W program for the last three quarters. She said the online mentoring sessions give a unique view of their student’s lives.
“You get to see what their home life is like and what makes them happy,” Girma said. “You start to see more of the challenges they are facing as well. We are trying to maintain some sense of normalcy for them. The need for mentoring is even higher now, even if it is more difficult to do.”
Girma does see a positive side of moving their mentoring online. The tutoring sessions are set around the student’s schedule, giving the mentors and mentees more flexibility on when they meet virtually. It also gives the mentors the opportunity to teach about online work and professionalism.
Paton and the mentors want to make these tutoring sessions as comfortable and similar to how they were before. Just like how the students would have a meal on campus when they visited, the students who participate in the online tutoring sessions are sent pizza to their home so they can have a meal and still interact with their mentors.
Everybody seeing each other’s faces on Tuesday felt really good. I think kids need to feel checked in on even if we don’t know if the program is working.
“Kids are really isolated when they are stuck at home, away from their friends,” Paton said. “Everybody seeing each other’s faces on Tuesday felt really good. I think kids need to feel checked in on even if we don’t know if the program is working.”
“The human component is very critical right now. We will continue to show up to make sure students feel seen and cared for,” she said.
Galati shares Paton’s belief in how important person-to-person connections are for high school students. She also sees all of the work the college students are doing to support the program and its mentees.
“One of the most encouraging things for me is how much the Western students still want to learn about, and support, our students,” Galati said. “They are taking what is a very difficult, often disappointing situation and are open to all of the opportunities that are available online to make it work.”