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November 1, 2022

Student Success

Institutions Must Help Students Overcome Disaster

A hurricane seen from low earth orbit

Byline: Linda Battles, WGU Texas Chancellor and Regional Vice President, South Region and Michelle Jungbauer, Senior Manager of Specialized Student Services at Western Governors University

Published in the Beaumont Enterprise, November 1, 2022

As Hurricane Ian washed away parts of Florida’s coastline, students in and from Southwest Florida suffered yet another catastrophe.

This was the latest in a stream of difficult events for students all over the country, including those in Texas.

These disasters affect students in so many different ways: permanent or temporary displacement from their homes, financial burdens caused by evacuations and losses to personal property, time away from work, food insecurity, a lack of childcare and a need for crisis counseling.

It’s up to higher education institutions to help minimize the impacts today’s disasters have on tomorrow’s leaders. And there are simple ways colleges and universities can make a difference during these times.

Studies show that letting students know they are cared for and that there is help available can improve their ability to continue their academic journey successfully. Students enrolled in online degree programs, like WGU Texas, are no different. We’ve learned the importance of supporting our students when disaster strikes by studying the results of our Environmental Barriers (EVB) program. The EVB care team proactively supports students facing barriers to their academic success due to natural disasters or other major events.

The EVB started as a pilot in 2017, when Hurricane Harvey ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast, flooding giant swaths of the state and leaving many without a home – some temporarily and others permanently. At that time, WGU Texas worked to identify individual student challenges related to the hurricane and offered direct support.

WGU expanded the EVB program in the five years since, as Texans experienced dozens of tornadoes, floods, wildfires, a pandemic, a catastrophic winter storm, and mass shootings. These events devastated communities across the state, impacting thousands of college students amid their studies, especially underrepresented and rural students – often those who are economically challenged. Sometimes all it takes is one life event to throw a student’s entire education trajectory off track.

By tracking the results of the EVB over the last five years, we know that our outreach made a tremendous difference in keeping students engaged and on track.

Since 2017, our care teams have conducted EVB outreach to more than 20,000 Texas students. Of these students, more than 260 experienced home loss, nearly 730 were temporarily displaced from their homes, and more than 8,200 experienced other various types of impact.

Care teams connected students with financial support, academic accommodations, around-the-clock crisis counseling and resources to help them find housing, food and childcare. Of the more than 20,000 students at WGU Texas potentially impacted by significant disasters over these last five years, nearly 6,745 have graduated and an additional 6,490 remained enrolled.

Hurricane Ian was the latest disaster to strike our student population. WGU care teams contacted 1255 students identified as living in high-impact areas in Florida. So far, twenty have confirmed the loss of their home, with hundreds more still assessing damages.

We know students from several other colleges and universities are also struggling after finding themselves or their family members in this storm’s massive path of destruction. And we believe other higher education institutions should also institute programs that ensure their students have the opportunity to achieve their academic goals, despite the burdens they may face.   

Whether students are enrolled online or in person, the importance of extending personalized support during the most vulnerable times cannot be understated. After all, helping students overcome difficulties proactively and compassionately creates a more unified community of care and contributes to student persistence and success. If we’ve learned anything from the heartbreak of each of these tragedies, it’s that we are all stronger when we can lean on each other and heal together. 

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