Colleges resume with students facing new financial, psychological needs
As floodwaters rose around the city, Robert Pennington evacuated his third-floor room in the University of Houston’s Bayou Oaks dorm, grabbing food, water, his laptop, contact lenses and school supplies as he left. He recalled stepping away from the building, one of few at UH that saw flooding, into a knee-high current as he hoisted his duffel bag and backpack to a bus.
But the evacuation was just the beginning of Harvey’s impact on Pennington - and potentially on hundreds of thousands of other Texas college students starting the semester.
Pennington, a 21-year-old UH senior studying computer information systems, said he couldn’t drive to his information technology internship in the Energy Corridor last week, forcing him to dip into his savings to make a tuition payment.
“A hurricane’s going to hurt financially, and it’s going to set people back,” he said, adding that his peers at UH are resilient. “I just have to play it conservative until winter break, when I can work full time again.”
Addressing new needs
College classes have resumed on many campuses, but universities around the area now must grapple with murkier challenges, including how to manage and support a student body with new financial and psychological needs.
Around the city, new grants will support students whose families may be burdened by home repair or other unexpected costs. Some campuses are offering free meals and child care to employees’ kids. And staff are preparing for other unforeseen challenges stemming from the storm, like an anticipated greater demand for counseling.
Still, Harvey’s impact on higher education stretches far beyond Harris County to the broader state and nation. The state’s coordinating board estimates 500,000 students are enrolled in Texas schools from counties affected by the hurricane. That figure doesn’t include students from affected counties who enroll out of state.
Harvey touched down in Texas as the state’s campuses are under pressure to improve their graduation rates, and officials say they want to do whatever possible to support students and keep them on track.
“This is an unprecedented event,” said Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Commissioner Raymund Paredes, adding that he hopes students resist temptation to drop out to work. “We expect some impact (to graduation rates), but exactly what it will be, we don’t know.”
The University of St. Thomas, the University of Houston-Downtown, Rice University, Texas Southern University and UH opened emergency relief funds for students, some of whom already struggle to pay tuition.
Rice, UH respond
Rice surveyed faculty, staff and off-campus students to understand the scope of damage to homes, cars and other property. Thousands responded in a matter of days. UH Chancellor and President Renu Khator said faculty have changed exam schedules and have in some cases shifted to online learning in an effort to be flexible.
“Right now, I am concerned about keeping students enrolled,” she said, adding that she was not personally aware of any student withdrawing from the semester. “Everybody comes here with the same goal, to earn their college degree. … We want students not to feel overwhelmed, to make sure they have resources available.”
UH-Downtown President Juan Sanchez Munoz said more than a dozen students have asked to withdraw. Counselors responded by trying to make accommodations, like swapping online for in-person classes. At the end of fall, Munoz said, counselors will reach out to these students to encourage them to reregister for spring.
“Our students are very diverse, and many of them come from modest financial circumstances,” he said. “That may have an impact on their ability to finance their education.”
TSU President Austin Lane said the university had set aside $350,000 to help community members get back on their feet. The university, he said, is trying to raise more money to add to that pool.
Administrators on Tuesday gave rides to students on the first day of classes. Counselors are available from the university and the American Red Cross, Lane said, and in a freshmen seminar, groups will discuss the storm’s impact.
Leaders of UH’s College of Education met Monday to discuss Harvey’s impact on academics. Education department professor Ezemenari Obasi, who studies stress physiology, said one challenge is that it may be difficult to fit a full semester course into fewer weeks.
Obasi said many students may find comfort in returning to a regular daily routine. Still, he said, some may require professional help or must earn money, leading to a need to take time off.
“I can’t imagine coming from homes where your family just has nothing anymore,” he said. “To be able to think about focusing on school when there are a lot of home basic needs that are unmet, for some of those students … they may need a break.”
Physically, universities and colleges in and around Houston were largely spared severe damage.
By Monday afternoon, most of UH’s buildings were fully or partially operational, a statement echoed by presidents of UH-Downtown and TSU.
During the canceled week of classes, however, the storm left an eerie quiet at UH and TSU in the Third Ward, a pause from the hubbub that overtakes campuses at the beginning of each fall semester.
Gone were the throngs of students, spilling out from the student center in Cougar Red or chatting as they traveled the Tiger Walk. Some new-student events - like the Labor Day Classic football game between Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M - were canceled.
Meanwhile, scores of student volunteers engulfed the city, gathering pet supplies, cleaning homes and making hot meals for shelters. Faculty across the city offered one another rides, cars and places to stay. Graduate students started online surveys to check in on each other’s needs.
On Tuesday, classes resumed. Faculty and students said they appreciated edging toward regular operations and pledged to help one another and the city.
“It’s a much more subdued place today,” said Cathy Horn, the president of UH’s faculty senate. “There are many students and faculty and staff. But it’s another moment of reflection in the healing process. It’s very humbling.”