By: Rachel Livingston, VP of Programs
The fall semester has begun, and the Fulfillment Fund Programs team has been hard at work to creatively innovate our service delivery model. Knowing that our students in high school and college were going to need extra support and resources as they transition back to in-person learning, we have approached this semester with the idea of embracing the transition and the challenges it brings.
The Re-Opening of Public Schools
On the high school side, public schools across Los Angeles are now entering the third month of in-person learning after the COVID-19 pandemic shut school campuses down for well over 15 months. While there is a definite sense of excitement with students and staff returning to campuses, educators are analyzing the impact that the last year and a half had on student performance and assessing how much the pandemic exacerbated inequities in student learning. Certainly, the pandemic introduced a great deal of hardship into many students’ lives. This is especially true for under-resourced communities that saw disproportionate rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths, unemployment, housing, and food insecurity, all of which made it difficult for students to learn over the course of the pandemic. Disruptions to students’ learning environments, mental health, and social support have raised awareness of the importance of student social and emotional well-being. At the same time, pandemic-related school disruptions have put a heightened focus on the need to understand student learning. The answer to how best to allocate resources to support students is multifaceted and complex. However, through the work to support students, Fulfillment Fund has identified areas where resources can be allocated to meaningfully support our school partners and the students they serve.
With Fulfillment Fund’s highly experienced college counselors back on campuses, the excitement from students is apparent to the staff, as they hear the laughter and peer socialization that typically fills school campuses. Students have expressed to counselors how much they enjoy and missed being around their peers. They shared that being back on campus has helped their ability to ask adults for help as compared to when classes were held online. Students have also shown their gratitude for the support they feel they get from Fulfillment Fund and other school personnel.
However, students have voiced that they are facing many challenges. The sense of being overwhelmed has led many students to struggle to stay motivated in school, and at times they’re struggling just trying to resume the routine of being a student. Questions surrounding what college will look like for them have been on the minds of many seniors, especially with the pandemic still looming in many communities. The fear of not being able to afford college combined with the stress of needing to help their families with financial obligations weighs heavily on students. They wonder if their journey to college is still possible, given what they have dealt with over the last 15 months and the seemingly huge challenges still in front of them. Our college counselors have met the challenge head-on, providing support for students’ mental health and fears about their future even as they are providing workshops and one-on-one sessions.
Two Sets of “First Years” and The Return to College Life
On the college side, going to college has never been an easy feat for our students, but has become so much more difficult now. The class of 2020 are essentially first-time freshmen trying to find their footing, along with the most recent Class of 2021. Even with returning college students, most had not stepped foot on their college campus for over a year and a half! Our returning students have missed seeing each other in person and are so excited that they finally have an opportunity to get back to their campuses. To them, having a sense of normalcy brings some much-needed stability in their life. Our incoming freshmen are dealing with the extra challenge of having experienced their entire senior year of high school virtually, and now are feeling unprepared to face the rigor and expectations of college-level classes.
Many of our students will continue to learn remotely until their campus transitions to in-person learning later in the year. Although our students were able to adjust to virtual learning, many found it difficult to access resources and support from their colleges. Whether it was connecting with financial aid counseling or academic advising, it was challenging finding a staff member available to meet the needs of our students. Many times, financial aid awards were delayed to students due to unresponsiveness on the university’s administrative side. Students have shared that sometimes they were left waiting for hours on the phone, hoping to speak to a representative. If they were fortunate enough to get someone on the line, they were left with unanswered questions and uncertainty on how to resolve their issues so they could focus on their learning.
Mental health has also been a recurring issue our students consistently bring up. In some cases, students are experiencing social anxiety whenever they are around a large group of their peers. Others are struggling to juggle their responsibilities at home with their responsibilities as a student. With all the added stress they are now enduring, our students are recognizing that they need additional resources to help them maintain their positive mental health. Many feel that their campus does not give them enough resources to cope with these challenges and many times our students have to seek out other resources for managing stress, including from their Fulfillment Fund advisor.
We are very much aware of our students’ mental health needs and our talented College Success team of college advisors has stepped in to provide resources to fill the void. We have organized webinars such as “How to Stay Motivated During a Pandemic” and “How to Manage Stress.” During these webinars, we bring in guest speakers that help our students equip themselves with the tools they need to maintain their mental health successfully. We also provide a virtual space where our students can come together and focus on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and building community. Our students informed us that they wanted more fun activities that weren’t necessarily academically related. We heard them loud and clear. Over the summer we had “Game Breaks” where we hosted different games such as Pictionary and Jackbox games. As our competitive juices got flowing, students were able to kick their feet up and unwind for a change. We even awarded gift cards to our winners. And, our students themselves are resourceful! Many have taken the initiative to create their own communities to help each other cope during these trying times. They’ve created group chats to help each other academically and socially. One way or another, our students find ways to be resilient and continue to persist with their college goals.
Now that the school year has started, we are continuing these SEL workshops, but in different forms. In our last SEL workshop, one of our team members led a vision boarding activity. During this time, students were able to construct and personalize visual representations of their short-term and long-term goals. Workshops like this provide a safe space for our students to talk about their goals and challenges in a relaxing and fun environment.
Students are also receiving support through our Peer Mentoring Program, which provides a Fulfilment Fund community across 10 of our most populated college campuses. Our Peer Mentors are upperclassmen who mentor underclassmen, first and second-year students. The mentors meet with their mentees at least twice a month and organize monthly group activities. These meetings and activities provide students another way of managing the challenges of virtual and in-person learning that students continue to endure.
The Road Ahead
For many first-generation college-bound students, the challenges, fears, and apprehension to pursue a college education are not new. What the pandemic has brought is an amplified sense of uncertainty and disconnection to the endless possibilities that lay ahead of students. The path to their dreams and goals seems cloudier than ever before, riddled with sandtraps, circuitous turns, and unexpected detours. Now more than ever students need adults, advocates, educators, and counselors to support them through these challenges, to listen and reassure them that their dreams are not deferred, but in fact waiting to be realized.
Roadblocks remain — that is for certain. But just like our students, Fulfillment Fund is resilient. We have adjusted our programs and staffing to meet the realities on the ground head-on and continue to provide meaningful strategic support and guidance to our amazing students and their families. Our commitment to them has never been stronger just as the need for our support has never been more urgent. We may be through the worst part of the pandemic, but this new fall chapter brings its own unique set of challenges that we are determined to successfully overcome. Our students are worth it!