Black University responds to civil unrest and pandemic caring for students online
By Lindsay Peyton
Safeguarding students during the coronavirus pandemic remains the top priority at Wiley College, a private university associated with the UMC, located in Marshall, Texas. President and CEO Dr. Herman J. Felton, Jr. announced plans to continue virtual instruction throughout the 2020 fall semester. The college is going the extra mile to ensure students are able to continue their studies remotely – as well as maintaining emotional counseling, Bible study and worship.
Felton explained that college students are not only navigating a new normal for education -- which comes with its own set of challenges – but also facing fears about the coronavirus, getting sick or having family members infected. At the same time as the pandemic, they are living in a period of civil unrest, Black Lives Matters protests, hurricanes in the Gulf, fires on the West Coast and a heated political election.
The emotional, social and spiritual health of students can become fragile right now, Dr. Felton said. In the past few months, the school has sought innovative ways to continue to stay connected with the student body and remain sensitive to student needs.
Wiley College was the first Black university west of the Mississippi River – and opened its doors in spite of segregation, racism and Jim Crows laws in the late 1800s.
“Our college is rooted in social justice – and the encouragement of students to be conscious and cognizant of what’s going on in the world so they can have a role in making it better,” Felton said. “It’s in the very fabric of Wiley College.”
In the beginning of 2020, before COVID-19 and George Floyd’s death, students were distraught to learn about the shooting of Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, an unarmed 25-year old African-American man, in Georgia.
Felton explained that students were in conversations about that, already facing emotional concerns, when the coronavirus hit.
As university president, Felton had to weigh the health and safety of students – against worries that could result from sending them home.
“College is really a safe space,” Felton said. “It’s more than just a place to come and get an education. For our kids, going back home isn’t always ideal.”
He added that students could face housing or food insecurity at their parents’ home. They might add to the burden, if parents are already struggling to provide for siblings. In addition, they might encounter the digital divide – where access to technology and the internet can become an issue.
“This is what happens with first generation, low-income students,” Felton said. “COVID exacerbated this situation.”
College students returning home were suddenly back to sharing space with siblings – and maybe babysitting a brother or sister, who are also going to school online. They might also have to find a job to help their families cover the cost.
Felton explained that the Wiley College administration began to meet in early March to discuss the virus and its potential impact on the school. The first decision was to move instruction online – and to give teachers an extra couple of weeks to adapt.
Students were also given extra time to move home, instead of being sent back overnight. They were able to stay in the dorms and start online education, while they explored a way to return.
“Simultaneously, our alumni stepped up,” Felton said.
With their generous donations, Wiley was able to help students get back home. “We drove students to bus stations and airports,” Felton said. “We gave kids gas money and per diems to get home. We helped find leases.”
Even though the campus was closed, the school wanted to ensure students had a place to live. In addition, they embarked on a mission to help students finish the academic year.
That meant using federal aid to purchase laptops and WIFI hot spots to give to students who did not have access to technology, Felton said. Hundreds of laptops were distributed to students.
Felton said continuing virtual education appears to be the best way to ensure the safety of students. While students, faculty, and staff members all wanted to return to campus, he explained that science, data, projections and counsel from state health officials prevent in-person education at this time.
“Our students understand that we are going to do what’s best for each of you,” he added. “They were disappointed – but they understand.”
Currently, Wiley is continuing to monitor health statistics and develop procedures for reopening its campus. Felton said that dorms will be able to accommodate one student per room, and the needed PPE for returning to campus are also being assessed.
“We’re exploring our options,” he added.
At the same time, the school’s Student Health, Counseling and Wellness office never missed a beat. In fact, Felton said staff schedules have only intensified since COVID-19.
The isolation of being away from the university community is also difficult for a number of students, he added. Students often find acceptance and like-minded social groups on campus – and can lose access to that when they are back home.
Zoom and Facetime have allowed students to continue to connect for counseling. The same technology made it possible to continue Bible study and worship, regardless of distance. “I’m really proud of our entire campus, the folks keeping the mental health and religious pieces remain in place,” Felton said. “They’re really doing some wonderful work.”
On Monday mornings, the campus still gathers for prayer – virtually, as well as for Bible study and worship throughout the week. Faith is key for the students – and the staff, Felton explained.
“Our relationship with the United Methodist Church is extremely important to us,” he said.
And the need to continue practicing the faith is even more pronounced, he added.
Felton said that a silver lining to responding to COVID-19 has been the call to rethink education, institutions and leadership – and to find new, innovative and optimal ways to reach others.
The pandemic of racism has also become a topic of conversation and concern. “There’s only one race of people,” Felton said. “At the end of the day, we must all remember to do no harm and to love our brothers and sisters as Christ loves us.”
For more information about Wiley College, visit wileyc.edu.