How COVID forced change — and created more challenges — for educating people of color

Leaders at Kean, Rutgers-Camden and Camden County College give insights into post-pandemic world

The impact of the pandemic on community of colors in higher education has been even greater than many are aware, three leaders of New Jersey schools said during a recent panel at the Business Leadership Conference sponsored by the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.

It wasn’t just a loss of students — whose priorities changed following the impact COVID-19 had on their families and their community — it was a transformation of the interaction between schools and students. It wasn’t just helping students adjust to college life, it was helping them adjust to a return to the classroom.

It led to a realization that colleges and universities needed to have more empathy for mental health challenges — and more understanding of the new issues students were facing, said Nyeema Watson, the senior vice chancellor for strategy, diversity and community engagement at Rutgers University – Camden, and Lovell Pugh-Bassett, the president of Camden County College.

“We are no longer an institution that can simply teach, we have to address the whole student,” Pugh-Bassett said.

It also led to an opportunity for change.

Sancha Gray, the senior vice president for entrepreneurial education initiatives at Kean University and the former superintendent of schools in Asbury Park, said the pandemic has offered a chance for the education sector to make significant changes — something it traditionally has been slow to do.

“We talked about change a lot, but we were never about change,” she said. “We pontificated, we had a lot of theory, we dipped our toe in the water and said, ‘We want to change,’ but we didn’t. COVID forced that change. And what I hope is that we start to reframe our conversations around what we learned, what we did, what worked and the continuance of some of those things.”

Gray said these changes played perfectly into Kean’s two-generation strategies approach — one where the school aims to work with the students’ families and caregivers to provide additional support, which was welcomed.

“One of the things that we learned very clearly is that it’s not that parents in communities of color or communities of poverty are not concerned with their children — it’s that their engagement looks different,” she said.

“For example, we were able to utilize our technology to ensure that we were actively Zooming with parents to get them involved in the conversation. That’s where we began to really see and delve deeply in terms of what strategies: What support do we need to put to wrap around the entire family so that we could see them through the pandemic — and then post-pandemic.”

The all-day event had five panels and a keynote speaker. Most in attendance agreed the education panel had the most energy and passion. Here’s more of it, presented in a modified question-and-answer format where answers have been slightly edited to provide readability.

Q. Discuss some of the lingering effects of the pandemic on students.

Lovell Pugh-Bassett: So much of what we’ve done is to build supports and services embedded in their navigation through their college experience. We provide them with a host of mental health support resources, making connections for issues around food insecurity and housing.

We also had to look at the landscape of our campus and address student spaces — because students were isolated and not used to socializing like they were before. So, we had to change our student spaces to create places where they could congregate and socialize.

Most of all, our students are in need of grace — a level of compassion for how we serve our students to ensure that students weren’t going to be kicked out or asked to depart from their educational center because they were struggling.

Q. Discuss some of the lingering effects of the pandemic on staff.

Nyeema Watson: The same issues with the students also impacted our staff. Some of our staff, especially our part-time lecturers, also were housing-insecure and food-insecure. One of the questions we did not expect was, ‘Can the staff access the food pantry on campus?’

We’re dealing with issues around technology, too. So, certainly the students are easy to get online, but how do you train a faculty member who never had to teach through those types of mechanisms? How do you help the faculty member understand why a student wasn’t present — or why they did not want to show their face?

And how are we helping the part-time lecturer who’s cobbling together a couple of classes to make ends meet (but) you don’t need them anymore and … there’s no other jobs on the market?

We’re still coming back from all this. We’re open for business, but we have older faculty that is immunocompromised, and they were anxious about coming back — even though Rutgers University was the first that have requirements that you have to be vaccinated in order to come back. That wasn’t enough. For some people, there was still this fear.

Q. How has the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action impacted your school?

Sancha Gray: Some of the very actionable things that we’ve done at Keane University actually started a couple years ago, with the equity and action fellows, where we were very intentional about diversifying the faculty at Kean university so that it mirrors and reflects more of the students that are being served.

We’re very pleased that we are at the precipice now of having a very diverse faculty as well as individuals that sit on the panels to interview our faculty to ensure that everyone has a voice. We have a race-neutral admissions policy. And we’ve modified the rubrics to ensure that same kind of race neutrality is present in our graduate programs. We offer scholarships that are race-neutral and we encourage the adoption of this criteria to promote diversity across the campus.

LP-B: We are fortunate that we are an open-enrollment campus. We don’t have selected applications criteria, so we’re not necessarily impacted by way of application to the college.

However, one of the things I was clear with my executive team is to make sure there was no hesitation to create programs that were specifically targeted to our students of color because they were worried about the backlash from the affirmative action decision.

Q. How are you attracting and retaining Black males?

LP-B: The number of African Americans males graduating (13%) and Latinos (14%) was woefully lacking compared to our white students (31%). But our focus is not necessarily specifically to Black males as much as it is to the population altogether. We are really trying to incubate efforts to develop a support system, including mentoring activities, to ensure that our programming is attractive to various populations.

It starts with our classes. We know that our audio production program is really attractive for our students of color, so we’re marketing that. We’re embellishing the partnerships with our K-12 partners to offer enrollment for that so that the students are graduating with college credit, before they come to us.

We also noticed that our male students of color were disproportionately justice-impacted. So, we have been developing partnerships with the courts so our students will be able to check in with probation on campus — so, they don’t have to leave the campus or walk away from classes.

But the key thing we can offer our students is that they can start at Camden County College and finish at another university. We have a direct pipeline to reference so that our students are able to see themselves at a four-year college, even when they start at community college.

We’ve beefed up our partnership with Rutgers-Camden, because there is a need and a desire to be close to home. And we’re also looking to partner with more HBCUs because we found that our students of color, particularly Black males, are very interested in transferring to HBCUs.

Q. The value of college is under fire — address cost concerns.

NW: The state of New Jersey has amazing programs to be able to support young people. First-generation students and students of color can go to almost any institution in the state of New Jersey that is public, and a majority of their education is going to be paid for. So, why go out of state?

Families need to think about what costs they can bear. A lot of students want to go to an HBCU. It may not be popular, but I counsel students every day that an HBCU may not be able to financially provide for you what you need right now. So, do you want to start with a two-year degree and then transfer to one of these places? How much loans are you going to have to take out?

These are the things we need to start thinking about. Maybe it gets uncomfortable getting into your finances, but, the earlier you know, the earlier you’re going to be able to make some decisions.

SG: We’re amplifying the fact that Kean is an affordable university. We have $1 million in new housing scholarships, which represents an increase of 540% from what we have previously offered. So, we’re always trying to make sure that we are at the forefront of explaining and demonstrating how it is accessible for all students to be there. And then we’re sharing that with some of our industry partners. In my specific division, I’m very fortunate to be managing $2.7 million in grants.

Q. Connect college to community.

NW: More than a decade ago, our university president wanted us to change the relationship with the city of Camden. So, we spoke to Camden residents about what they wanted — and they said they wanted opportunities for high-quality educational experiences for their young people, and to get them to college.

We’ve done a number of pre-college initiatives for our young people from grades 3 and up. We have a saying, ‘Once a scholar, always a scholar.’ We try to get families — the cousins, the neighbors — to help move them all through this system. We need to get them to start asking questions about the types of careers they want, but, more so, about the value of education.

My primary question every day is: How do we connect the university to the city? And how are we doing this in ways that are equitable and mutually beneficial for residents and leaders in the city of Camden but also our faculty, staff and students at Rutgers-Camden?