While Tillman Hall stands tall, the jovial energy once felt on Bowman field is eerily missing. Students search for a voice as their school spirit remains, but the reflection pond glistens in silence. The campus is empty, but the desire to learn and the concern for education remains strong for Clemson students during this global pandemic. Clemson’s community leaders have shown amazing guidance, care and resilience during these unprecedented times.

One such leader is the president of Clemson’s Graduate Student Government (GSG), Kaitlyn Samons, of Plantation, Florida. She has tirelessly worked with faculty and GSG members over the last month to ensure students feel protected and heard by the university amid COVID-19. As an undergrad at Clemson, Samons was involved in Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, the Asian Student Association, Clemson Democrats and the Honors College.

Kaitlyn Samons, left, with Senior Associate Dean of Student Kimberly Poole at the 2020 Student Affairs Gala. Samons is president of Graduate Student Government.

Kaitlyn Samons, left, with Senior Associate Dean of Students Kimberly Poole at the 2020 Division of Student Affairs Gala. Samons is president of Graduate Student Government.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

After completing her undergraduate degree in May 2018, Samons began pursuing a master’s degree in English and history. Her master’s research has focused on studying groups in literature related to systems of oppression within the United States, specifically honing in on race-related violence. She is on track to graduate in May.

Following graduation, she will start her Ph.D. in the Rhetorics, Communication and Information Design (RCID) program. A relatively new program, RCID looks at cross-cultural and transdisciplinary curriculums, emphasizing concepts such as theoretical and practical approaches to knowledge.

“The RCID program will help me understand the conceptualization behind pedagogy and what it means to teach, as I’m looking to go into the field of academia,” Samons said of her upcoming Ph.D. pursuit.

Changing role within Graduate Student Government

Samons initially joined GSG as a senator on the Diversity and Inclusion committee, stepping into the role of vice president shortly after to better learn about the internal workings of GSG. When the former president stepped down this semester, Samons was sworn in as president on Jan. 9, 2020, and has been busy ever since.

“The past three months have focused on getting people to come on board to understand what our graduate student needs are,” she said.

COVID-19 has created challenges for not only students in general, but also members of GSG.

“When COVID hit, it put a strain on how we handled day-to-day operations,” Samons explained. “It’s been a transition to the Zoom platform, but we now have virtual meetings regularly backed by our rules and procedures, making sure that our top priority is taking care of graduate campus life.”

GSG is currently working with faculty members within the Graduate School to write legislation that allows flexibility for future improvements, such as commencement planning.

“We have a lot of international students in particular whose families save up for years to try and afford to come down to the United States to see them at commencement,” she said. “COVID-19 has shown that we need legislation for future flexibility to assist families in ensuring they see their children walk across the stage.”

Navigating the complexity of online instruction

Especially in the midst of online instruction, GSG wants to help students who are struggling.

“I’m trying to get in contact with and hear from as many students as possible to best help them,” Samons said. “If someone brings anything up to my attention, I have a desire to dive deeper. I’ll help in any way I can.”

GSG has been crucial in assisting student-first policies to ease the challenges of online instruction.

“A group of us on the Academic Council reviewed proposals and gave feedback on the final exemption policy, which I personally am a huge advocate for because of my studies in English and history,” she said. “We have students who are impacted in a big way by going online, so the university extended the final day to drop a class. For that reason, we’re trying to figure out how we can best help students help themselves, and also how we can help faculty.”

An image of Cooper Library bridge and the reflection pond on Clemson's campus

Clemson’s campus has been quiet since Spring Break following the implementation of online learning.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Many students in the arts and humanities have cumulative projects as opposed to exams for their finals, making the online platform more challenging.

“It’s difficult to think about how some of these classes can be moved to an online platform, but still get the experience that students were hoping for,” Samons acknowledged. “That was the first piece of legislation we ended up passing that I use in my own classrooms because I think the option to be exempt is really important for our students.”

After the exemption policy, the pass-fail grading option was implemented by the university after much student conversation. A petition signed by 6,355 students advocated for the option.

Ensuring graduate and undergraduate students are positively affected by the current changes has been a goal for Samons, who is teaching English 1030 this semester. As an instructor of a predominantly freshman course, she has worked to understand how the move online has affected the community.

“One of my biggest fears is a student dropping my class because they think that they’re not going to have the leniency or flexibility from me,” she said. “I would hate for a student to go through 60 percent of my course and then realize everything’s changing and not be able to handle it.”

Samons wants her students to have the flexibility to write about their feelings, especially the ones impacted mentally by COIVD-19. Mental health is an issue that GSG has been tackling before the pandemic began and officials from Redfern Health Center have worked hard to implement telehealth options for students during the period of online instruction.

Another concern amid the global pandemic for many graduating students is the question of, “What next?” Many businesses are under a hiring freeze, international students are struggling to find visa options and insurance seems like a luxury.

“Our students are going to be negatively impacted by these circumstances and need our support,” Samons reinforced. “We are currently trying to ensure graduate students will have insurance coverage extended through August because if they can’t get a job, they can’t go under employment insurance policies.”

Seeing faculty, students and leaders like Samons advocate for and implement the best solutions for everyone in the community reflects the Clemson family commitment as all await a return to campus and resumption of activities and traditions.