To say it’s been a busy Fall semester for staff within the Division of Student Affairs would be a gross understatement.

Clemson's campus in Fall 2020 with falling leaves and changing colors

Fall semester featured significantly less activity among students, faculty and staff because of the impact of COVID-19.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

To say it’s been challenging would be apropos, given the current COVID-19 crisis sweeping the globe.

Thursday morning, members of the Student Affairs team came together in a virtual session entitled Experience: IMPACT to discuss and break down some of those challenges departments within the division have faced over the course of the semester.

“Typically, we do two of these sessions in the fall and two in the spring,” said Kristin Walker-Donnelly, director of assessment for Student Affairs. “But, October was a little busy with everything our team was doing to support students. We didn’t want the opportunity to get together and talk about this important work to pass us by. We wanted to discuss some of the pivots and adjustments that were made.

Experience: IMPACT gives us a platform to share the good work being done and inspires conversations around some of our core themes within Student Affairs. We share great lessons that are often interchangeable within the various areas we serve. Thursday was just a sample of the innovative work that’s taken place this semester because of the heightened sense of urgency with COVID-19.” 

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In the most recent academic year prior to the onset of COVID, Campus Recreation’s numbers were flourishing. More than 5,300 unique students participated in Intramural Sports, the highest number among the various areas supported by Campus Rec programming (including group fitness, club sports and outdoor recreation).

When March 2020 rolled around, the impact of COVID-19 was substantial — as one might imagine.

“Everything — like it was for most of us at the university — was turned upside down,” said Kelly Bardusk, who handles external relations for Campus Rec. “The connection we make and relationships we build with students is critical. We want Campus Rec to be a second home for people, for stress relief and for them to be well in many different capacities.”

As the university worked to regain its footing and plan for a Fall semester, Campus Rec staff had to reimagine recreational offerings. While a desire to provide some level of in-person interaction was still there — especially for students — the staff was highly motivated to develop virtual programming.

Campus Rec introduced a new virtual resource portal for students after collaborating with Tigervision. Pre-recorded workouts, Zoom fitness classes and live social media interactions became a new normal.

Campus Recreation adjusted cycling and group fitness classes to socially distanced in-person experiences for students in Fall 2020.

Students adjusted to socially distanced cycling and group fitness classes to enjoy in-person Campus Recreation experiences in Fall 2020.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

“We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited about it,” Bardusk said. “We want to keep the engagement and activity going.”

That’s exactly what Robert Taylor — Campus Rec’s director of programs — has done. He and the staff spent a lot of time researching and equipping facilities to adhere to the various guidelines that were put in place, from the university to the state level to national recreation governing bodies. Campus Rec oversees and advises 33 different club sports, and each has its own governing body and guidelines as well.

When in-person instruction and campus operations resumed, the department saw a decline in participation. Just under 1,000 students accessed group fitness each week. Intramural sports participation was only a small percentage of its pre-COVID numbers. Club sports suddenly had just 11 teams practicing on campus and outdoor recreation was relegated mostly to individual equipment rentals rather than group trips.

“Even though the numbers are lower, we maxed out what we were able to offer,” Taylor said. “There is still a demand and it’s a big part of the students’ experience.”

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The newest department in Student Affairs ­— Community Achievement and Student Empowerment — is better known by its acronym, CASE. Assistant Dean of Students DeOnte Brown and Graduate Assistant Simone Richardson combined to present on Thursday about one of its successful initiatives this semester known as CASE In Point.

CASE In Point was designed as a virtual speaker series that aimed to share the experiences of leaders from underrepresented identities. Five different sessions were held altogether, including an inaugural one with Executive Vice President and Chief of Staff Max Allen, who shared his journey from the United States Navy, the rewarding places he has been and his role within the executive leadership team at Clemson.

CASE In Point series graphic for Fall 2020“We know Zoom fatigue is very real, but we wanted these experiences to be very real for our students and be something that added to their day,” Richardson said. “The CASE In Point series allowed these leaders to share their stories among students who have similar identities and interests.”

Brown said the series is intricately connected to CASE’s values, strategies and assessment metrics. He also said the biggest benefit for students is hearing first-hand from individuals whose stories can be applied to their own experiences. CASE was able to leverage the online space to bring professionals to Clemson students, something that would have proven to be a challenge with in-person operations and coordinating schedules.

Next up for CASE is identifying speakers for the spring term to be able to continue offering the series, providing save-the-dates to stakeholders and links to recordings on the department’s website.

“We’ve found that students and attendees — we also welcomed some faculty and staff — see the value of learning from others,” he said. “It’s relevant to their experience and contributes to their growth as individuals.”

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Another of the areas hit hardest by COVID-19 has been career services. Programs that had seen a steady climb in recent years — such as Career Fair participation, cooperative education assignments and internships — suddenly found themselves on the sharp end of a decline because of the move to virtual operations.

Fortunately at Clemson, the University Professional Internship and Co-Op (UPIC) program has been able to stem the tide.

“Most departments have actually kept the same number of interns,” said Lisa Robinson, who presented Thursday. “While some students may have felt like other opportunities have gone away, UPIC was still able to go strong.”

Sydney Tindall, a Clemson student, studies in Douthit Hills

The UPIC program successfully managed the conversion to remote internships for students during the Fall semester.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

It hasn’t been easy, though. Robinson noted “everything changed” when the Center for Career and Professional Development went remote and internships were no longer able to be held on campus.

“We had to ask ourselves, ’How could we continue to provide learning opportunities in a new environment and ensure our mentors would be able to pivot to a new normal?’” she said.

She said the UPIC staff took time to go through its policies and procedures in the month of March, when at the time most of the talk was about maintaining business continuity. Students were able to move forward with internships in the summer with the help of digital assets such as video chat, email and platforms such as Box and Microsoft Teams.

Over the summer, UPIC surveyed students who took part in remote internships and found that 91 percent said they would recommend the experience to other students.

“We recognized this was new for everyone,” Robinson said. “When it came to meeting reasonable expectations, we understood there would be difficulties and made sure we were kind to ourselves, our mentors and interns.”

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Without question, Clemson’s ability to deliver a rich residential experience for students looked and felt quite different this fall. Although the numbers dipped only slightly — about 6,800 students lived in campus housing, compared to about 7,600 in the most recent academic year — both Residential Living and Residential Learning areas found themselves stretched thin.

Complicating the process was, of course, required isolation or quarantine time when a student either tested positive or was exposed to someone with COVID-19. At one point shortly after students moved in, more than 600 students were in campus isolation and quarantine housing — forcing a scramble among staff members to provide ample resources to best support their stay.

“We originally imagined using a portion of a staff member’s job for isolation and quarantine,” said Leasa Evinger, director of Residential Living. “We found that to be woefully inadequate because of what was required. We discovered and created an operation within an operation to provide response to our students.”

Students move in to their respective residences in September 2020

Campus residents were impacted by COVID-19 this Fall more than any other group of Clemson students.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Response included reallocating residential space on campus, leasing off-campus apartments, creating a relationship with the Best Western and managing a full team of case management volunteers.

A portion of the Emergency Operations Center was reactivated in October to address critical needs, such as navigating workflow, providing for different dietary options, transporting students and managing inbound and outbound call volume.

“I’m so grateful for rich partnerships we have created across the university,” Evinger said. “At one point, we changed something within our process every single day for a few weeks. We needed resources from across the institution to tap into needs that we hadn’t imagined to the scale required for us to appropriately provide for student needs.”

Eric Pernotto and his colleagues in Residential Learning also experienced a significant modification of services. Knowing full well the first 6 to 8 weeks of a student’s experience are often most critical to developing a sense of belonging, his team rolled out an initiative known as Clemson Home in the Cloud.

During the interim period, resident assistants were not on campus and Pernotto’s team was busy strategizing the ways through which an appropriate sense of welcome could be conveyed to students — with a smaller staff.

Clemson Home in the Cloud utilized Canvas — the school’s learning management system — as well as social media to better connect with and provide content to residents.

“We had to modify a lot of things, in ways we should have done years ago,” Pernotto said. “It wasn’t perfect; we found some Canvas fatigue. But we wanted to meet students in the spaces they already occupied. But I can honestly say our digital engagement is now better and more coordinated than it’s ever been in the past.”