This year is fast becoming a historic one for student centers across the nation, and the world, as they face so many issues related to COVID-19: campus closures, remote work, disinfecting and cleaning, reduced hours, and constantly changing dynamics. In an effort to support and continue to serve students, faculty, staff, and visitors throughout this chaos, Lowman Student Center at Sam Houston State University has been implementing visible measures of assistance through an increased continuity of operations, combined COVID-19 avoidance techniques that include social distancing, all while constituents from throughout the community have continued to gather in the facility in a limited format. From the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis in March, the student center, which originally opened in 1963 and then expanded three times since, has been consistently open, serving campus needs in a variety of manners and staffing models.
As the crisis developed, it was decided that the campus would first extend spring break an additional week, resulting in a decision to modify building hours to a Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. schedule for the remainder of the spring semester. Meetings and events transitioned from a maximum capacity of 50 people to all events being cancelled. Full-time staff who had either traveled or had family traveling over spring break went on self-quarantine for 14 days. At one point in the beginning of the crisis there were only two full-time professional staff present to navigate the department. Typically the building has 10 professional staffers working, with as many as 50 student employees.
But James Vanroekel, director of student affairs technology at Lowman, said student staff through the summer was down to eight since all major events were canceled, including weekly new student orientations that typically drew over 700 students each event. There was rarely a time when as many as five or six professionals were on the ground. He also said a state of perpetual near-chaos can have unintended and unexpected, sometimes positive consequences.
“It pushed us to develop new strategies on how to provide services to the campus, and to be better community builders. The crisis motivated us to move to an online format for programming and to an increased social media presence to ensure that we kept our students, guests, and visitors actively engaged,” he said.
Zoom meetings became a crucial component for staff every day, enabling everyone to connect multiple times with both on-site personnel and those working remotely. Zoom also connected staff with colleagues across the state on a weekly basis, and that interaction continues, allowing different student centers to compare notes, share insights, and build a sense of a shared experience and community.
“On a personal level, we have been actively reaching out to colleagues across the country to chat about their operations and how they are dealing with life amidst this backdrop,” said Jeff Dunbar, associate director at Lowman Student Center. “With the cancellation of all on-site events, the student center’s technology allowed us a venue to offer student organizations and departments as a way to organize and host zoom meetings and events. With ever changing conditions, it inspired staff at the LSC to develop a much more robust online training presence for the student employees working on site and for those who elected to go home during the crisis.”
The concept was to keep Sam Houston students and staff connected and engaged in order to retain a well-trained fully functioning student crew that would be ready for whatever the coming fall semester would bring. Dunbar coordinated an ongoing student center-focused Zoom discussion group to share ideas, support one another, and to compare concerns and challenges. The new online format, coupled with in-person training, is here to stay for the foreseeable future at Lowman Student Center, and staff believe that provides opportunities for much more effective, diverse, and efficient procedures for on-boarding, staff development, and student experiences.
In the words of Sam Houston Vice President of Student Affairs Frank Parker: “Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate.” The crisis has led to the development of opportunities for the student center to move to new levels of collaboration, not only within the division, but throughout the campus and with vendors who support operations daily. The crisis required that the student center staff embrace and enhance partnerships, and develop new ones. Staff are now working more closely with the recreation sports center on campus, in turn creating unified operational procedures in reducing COVID-19 contamination. Weekly operational meetings are being conducted via Zoom with information sharing, coordination of assistance with projects, and general support between divisions.
As Texas continues to be in the forefront of re-opening, student center staff have been coordinating weekly Zoom meetings with other student centers across the state and the group now has a shared cloud storage link being used to distribute and share re-opening plans, cleaning and disinfecting information, and marketing materials that can be used to help customers navigate through facilities once operations gear back up. It’s also led to the student center developing a much more comprehensive partnership with Sam Houston’s marketing and communication department.
“By working together, new opportunities were created that allowed for the student center student graphic design staff to take advantage of an opportunity to design a wider variety of materials while working in conjunction with the communications division, giving those students real world experiences in a fast paced, ever changing environment,” Dunbar said. “This is happening while marketing and communications provides production support for the students’ work.”
The work with marketing then became an influencing factor with other departments across campus that are now using the students’ design as a template. So it was the need for updated operational procedures to promote COVID-19 mitigation strategies that provided the information for the graphic design student staff which then went on to create a comprehensive awareness campaign that included posting distancing displays in elevators and public gathering areas, and placed vinyl on furniture to aid the community with social distancing within the union.
It’s become a process, Vanroekel said, that continues to redefine best practices through forward thinking and collaboration with others. By continuing to support events and to offer services during this crisis, the Lowman center “is always reaching out to learn new ways to provide advanced services, facilities, and technologies that foster the development of our community,” he said. “As such, we are proactively seeking out ways to continue our mission as we move forward together.”