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In Pandemic, Vulnerable Students Turn to UML’s Support System

From Counseling and Disability Services to International and LGBTQ+ Support, Resources Available

International student Duy Photo by Courtesy
Duy "Jeremy" Cung says international students face unique challenges during the pandemic shutdown, but the university can offer support.

04/28/2020
By Katharine Webster

Duy “Jeremy” Cung is in limbo.

The senior mechanical engineering major is about to graduate – and he had planned to return home to Vietnam to interview for jobs.

But now he’s waiting, along with more than 1,000 other Vietnamese students in the U.S., for his country’s embassy to put him on a flight home. Once he gets there, he will have to stay in a quarantine center for two weeks – but right now, all of the centers are full, so the embassy is delaying departures. 

Meanwhile, Cung’s student visa is set to expire 60 days after Commencement, and there’s no clear process in place to extend it.

“The inability to plan anything far ahead is my No. 1 concern. I had plans for if I could find a job right away and plans for what to do if I couldn’t find a job right away. Now I don’t even know when I can sublet my apartment and ship some of my things home,” he says. 

“If I come home, I’ll be considered contagious – but I don’t care. If I have to shelter at home, I’d rather be with my parents and near my girlfriend.”

International students are among those facing additional difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic. Others include students with mental health diagnoses and concerns, students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students, staff and students say.

International Students

The top concerns for international students are whether they can return home this summer – and, if they can, whether they will be able to return to campus in the fall, says Cung, who serves as a student ambassador with the international student support program in the Office of Multicultural Affairs

Students from some countries must renew their student visas every year, and they usually do that when they’re home for the summer – but now, visa services at U.S. embassies and consulates have been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic, he says.

“International students almost always go home during the summer, and now they don’t know where they’re going to be,” Cung says. “Also, most have family who are small business owners, and they have been affected, so some of them are struggling to pay the international tuition fee.”

Although the international student ambassadors aren’t being paid right now, they’re still checking in voluntarily with the first-year international students they’re mentoring through the Pair-Up Program. They’re also helping to plan a virtual orientation for new international students, says Allyson Lynch, the assistant director of Multicultural Affairs who oversees support programs for international students.

The ambassadors also meet once a week virtually with Lynch to suggest topics for weekly webinars held jointly by Lynch and staff from the International Students & Scholars Office, which helps with visa, housing and employment questions.
“We care about our students passionately and deeply and ethically – and we do what needs to be done to make sure that they’re taken care of.” -Deborah Edelman-Blank

Students with Disabilities

For many students with cognitive disabilities like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder, the transition to online learning was especially challenging, says Disability Services Director Jody Goldstein

Students with autism spectrum disorder thrive on predictable routines – and suddenly, all of their syllabi changed as faculty adapted assignments, labs and midterms for online learning, she says.

Students with ADHD have trouble getting organized and getting started on tasks, so figuring out how to navigate the online learning platform Blackboard and how to manage their time was overwhelming for some, she says. And for those who have no dedicated study space at home, distractions abound.

“On average, it takes 23 minutes if you’re interrupted to get back to your task, so imagine if you have an executive function disorder,” she says. “In our weekly meetings, we’re working with them on planning, going through all of their syllabi and plotting out what they need to get done today, this week and this semester.”

Goldstein says that Disability Services is continuing its weekly, one-on-one meetings with students via telephone and videoconferencing. Staff are also serving new students seeking accommodations for their disabilities, such as more time to complete assignments and take tests. 

Nearly 100 students had asked for disability-based accommodations before the academic year began, but never submitted the required paperwork confirming their diagnoses, Goldstein says. Now those students, along with others referred to Disability Services by faculty and staff since the transition to online learning, are being offered provisional accommodations for the remainder of this semester without the paperwork, she says. 

Despite an increase in cases, Disability Services is moving forward with as much regular programming as possible, Goldstein says, including working with Career Services and a nonprofit, Campus to Careers, to help graduating students apply for job openings at companies including Raytheon, Boston Children’s Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation. 

“They’re all essential businesses that are doing virtual interviews and hiring right now,” Goldstein says. 

Students with Mental Health Concerns

Many students with anxiety and depression are also feeling overwhelmed right now, says Counseling Services Director Deborah Edelman-Blank. Counseling Services staff moved quickly to get trained in providing short-term therapy online via Skype for Business videoconferencing or phone calls. 

While COVID-19 itself isn’t leading to a flood of calls to Counseling Services, it’s “another thing on the pile” for students who are already struggling, she says. Having to return home mid-semester was upsetting for many of them because they come from backgrounds that include a history of trauma and other stressors. 

Still, she says, UMass Lowell students are resilient.

“I don’t have any doubts about UML students getting through this. We’re just glad to have another vehicle to help them, now that we can offer teletherapy,” Edelman-Blank says.

Teletherapy began on April 14. Students who were already getting counseling when in-person services were suspended were either referred to longer-term teletherapy at community agencies or offered self-help resources, depending upon their needs, Edelman-Blank says.

Counseling Services staff also continued to check in by phone with high-risk students, she says.

“One of our core values is that we do things the right way, and students come first, so we do not do anything to jeopardize our students’ safety,” she says. “We care about our students passionately and deeply and ethically – and we do what needs to be done to make sure that they’re taken care of.”

Similarly, Health Services staff will transition from phone consultations about COVID-19 and other health concerns to full telehealth visits, starting next week. No copays are required for students to use Wellness Center health or counseling services, says Paulette Renault-Caragianes, associate dean of student affairs for health and wellness.

Meantime, Melissa Wall, program director for student mental health and wellness, is working with Jessie Santer in Student Activities & Leadership to help prevent already anxious students from spiraling into crisis. 

Together, they are sharing research-based mental health strategies through UMatter2UML on Instagram, Twitter and the web. They’re also asking students, faculty and staff to make videos showing how they’re coping and to reinforce the message that “We’re all in this together.”
 
LGBTQ+ Students
 
LGBTQ+ students are another group that can feel isolated at home, says Amy Liss, senior associate director of Multicultural Affairs and head of the LGBTQ+ Center, which opened in January on the third floor of University Crossing.

Amy Liss heads up the new LGBTQ+ Resource Center at UMass Lowell Photo by K. Webster
Amy Liss, head of the new LGBTQ+ Resource Center, says support is available during the COVID-19 shutdown.
The center was due to celebrate its grand opening this month as a comfortable space where LGBTQ+ students and others can get information and support, find community and enjoy events. 

“Having a space to connect, where you can meet up with other people, you feel less alone,” says Gabriella Ferrantino, a first-year history major with a work-study job in the center. 

Unfortunately, students don’t always feel the same level of support at home, she says.

“For a lot of people, going home is like going back in the closet,” she says. “Sometimes they’re afraid their parents will kick them out of the house or won’t pay for their college anymore.”

While the grand opening celebration has been postponed, Liss and the center’s student staff are continuing to support LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff virtually. Liss is holding open office hours, online ally trainings for faculty and staff, and Zoom workshops on how to better support LGBTQ+ students.

Ferrantino and fellow work-study student Yonalis Rosario Perez, a psychology major, are offering advice via social media on self-care and how to feel more comfortable at home, too.

Rosario Perez says the Pride Alliance, a campus club, is hosting open meetings every Thursday on the online gaming platform Discord. Rosario Perez is trying to get the word out about the meetings to students who are feeling isolated.

“That was the Pride Alliance’s idea, but it was amazing,” she says. “It’s so great to help them. Even though I don’t personally know them, I know I’m helping somebody.”