The Gator Network

​​​​​​​​​​The world as we knew it began spinning in an unfamiliar direction last March upon COVID-19's arrival, thus affecting every aspect of our lives. During these extraordinary times, the UHD Community knew that the first call to action was to develop opportunities for its students as they navigate their lives without losing sight of achieving their academic goals.

Computers Gator Support

While Texas began reopening and loosening public restrictions, college students across the state and nation continue to struggle with unforeseen costs incurred during this pandemic.

And UHD students were no different.

Launched last spring, eligible students were able to apply for UHD Emergency Funds, which included federal assistance from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) as authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). In addition, the generosity of private donors and the UHD community contributed to the Gator Emergency Fund (GEF), which was distributed to students for the 2020 spring, summer and fall semesters.

Since the onset of the pandemic, UHD has awarded nearly $3.5 million in financial assistance to qualified students to continue their academic journeys thanks to the UHD Emergency Funds. These funds provide need-based support for students who experience academic and personal disruptions as a result of the pandemic.

"Getting through these unprecedented times requires that we make sure every member of the Gator family has the support and encouragement they need," said Dr. Eric Carl Link, UHD Senior Vice President for Academic & Student Affairs and Provost.

These Funds complement other initiatives aimed at supporting students during this pandemic. These include the Information Technology Department providing computers to students in need; the Gator's COVID-19 Awareness Response Encouragement (C.A.R.E.) Initiative focused on establishing contact with every UHD student; and summer scholarships.

"It goes without saying that UHD students, like so many others across the city and nation, are facing many hardships right now," said Dr. Jimmy Jung, UHD Vice President of Enrollment Management. "Nearly 80 percent of our full-time students work while going to school, and this pandemic is likely affecting their earnings. These scholarships are just one of the ways our institution is helping them work through the challenges of this pandemic."

Gator's C.A.R.E.

Inundated with the new rules of engagement for the new normal since the pandemic, the UHD Community collaborated to bridge the gap of social distancing by opening and maintaining the lines of communication with its students.

Man at Computer

Members of Student Affairs, Student Government Association (SGA), University College and Enrollment Management collaborated to expand their efforts to connect with students through the Gator's COVID-19 Awareness, Response & Encouragement (C.A.R.E.) initiative.

"This was a very unique opportunity to work with the campus leadership to create a campaign that combined the strengths of these four areas," said Dr. Meritza Tamez, Dean of Students. "However, the success of this initiative was only possible by including faculty, staff and students from across nearly every college, department and student organization on campus. This was really our UHD campus community reaching out to our Gators. This truly was a team effort!"

It all began with a phone call to students based on data compiled from the University's Student Needs Assessment Survey, which collected information from UHD students regarding any barriers that might be preventing them from succeeding academically as a result of the pandemic and Stay at Home orders.

More than 8,700 students were contacted by 122 faculty, staff and students. C.A.R.E. was one of several ongoing initiatives that SGA, Student Affairs and Information Technology were concurrently running.

"This C.A.R.E. initiative demonstrates that students need support, and they don't always know who to call or where to go," said Dr. Scott Marzilli, Dean of University College. "The most important resource UHD can provide all of its students during this unprecedented time of uncertainty is a sense of normalcy, consistency and, most importantly, a clear message that we care about their academic and personal success."

According to Tamez, several students expressed their surprise that UHD officials called them directly to check in. Many expressed gratitude and appreciation. She also noted that students used the calls to express the challenges they were facing, which gave the caller an opportunity to direct the student to available campus and community resources.

"Keeping the lines of communication open with students provides consistency and comfort amid the disruptions caused by COVID-19," emphasized Tamez.

Loss of employment followed by loss of income were the greatest barriers identified. In response, the Main Career Center contacted students directly to refer students to their existing resources, such as Jobs4Gators, the Center's YouTube channel, and LinkedIn Learning. Additional resume/cover letter software was also purchased to allow for faster reviews in greater volume.

Additional needs identified included lack of regular access to food; difficulty paying rent/mortgage and/or utilities; parents lost jobs (reduction of household income); inability to pay for medications; difficulty with caring for dependents (including purchasing diapers, formula, etc.); lack of transportation; exacerbated anxiety/stress/depression/ADHD; COVID diagnosis and/or death of a family member; increased work hours due to essential worker status; household too distracting/loud to study and complete assignments; and numerous technological needs.

"C.A.R.E. has demonstrated that students need a way to contact 'someone' that will assist them with what they need now," reiterated Marzilli. "We have learned a great deal contacting our Gators and will continue to provide them with the support they need, especially, when they need it!"

Thanks to UHD's Information Technology, student's specific technological needs were met, including PCs, Internet and webcams for interactive online instruction. The University Administration also reopened UHD's Food Market offering contactless pickup for students.

Gator Aid

In addition to faculty members sharing expertise, UHD Community members helped Houstonians in many ways during 2020. Here are just some of the initiatives aimed at promoting wellness and support during the age of COVID:

Lending a Hand ... or Glove ... to First Responders  UHD's College of Sciences & Technology responded to the call for medical supplies for first responders by donating 4,500 pairs of disposable gloves and 390 disposable lab coats to Houston Methodist Hospital.

A Perfect Circle  UHD's Social Work Program immediately saw an opportunity to help Houstonians through Solidarity Circles, online support groups. These ongoing groups (led by Social Work students from the College of Public Service) continue to provide guidance for those troubled by the challenges posed by the pandemic.

Senior Support  Heeding the call from one of the city's most prominent community service leaders, Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale, UHD's Student Government Association volunteered to assemble and deliver care packages with groceries and cleaning supplies to area seniors.

Tech For Gators

UHD's Information Technology reacted confidently and quickly to ensure the University community — students as well as faculty and staff — have the proper equipment to get the job done.

According to Said Fattouh, UHD Executive Director of Information Technology & Deputy Chief Information Officer, more than 790 students have been provided with over 920 devices for their learning needs. Students requesting technology were encouraged to complete a Technology Needs Survey hosted by UHD Office of Student Affairs. Once approved, these students received curbside distribution for various devices, including computers, webcams, and Internet access devices.

"In anticipation of moving online, we actually started working on this project and preparing equipment to checkout to students, faculty and staff before the University went fully online in March," said Fattouh. "Our plan went into effect very quickly when classes were moved online, and we started issuing computers and other devices to users immediately."

Man at Computer

PNC Bank made a gift of $20,000 to the Gator Emergency Fund to be earmarked for students who have an educational technology need and agreed this gift could be used to provide students with internet connectivity.

"COVID-19 has impacted so many across the Greater Houston area and once we learned about the impact it was having on UHD students, we knew this was our opportunity to finally partner together. We are so proud to be supporting the Gator Emergency Technology fund, as it provides critical resources – like hardware or software – to students who need it most," said Julie Sudduth, PNC Regional President for Houston.

According to Fattouh, the feedback has been extremely positive. Just ask Violet Shockley.

"I was overjoyed when I learned that I would receive a computer and get to keep it permanently," said the 34-year-old graduate student in nonprofit management. "I am so grateful to UHD for this gift a​nd it has already made such an impact in our home and improved my ability to be successful in my studies!"

As the world continues to navigate the challenges brought by the pandemic, UHD remains steadfast in communicating, engaging and empowering its students to achieve their academic goals. In doing so, the University efforts continue to evolve to meet students' needs.

"Our students continue to face significant financial challenges that are creating barriers with meeting basic needs and affecting their ability to remain enrolled or focused on their studies to be successful," said Tamez. "What is incredibly humbling is that these obstacles, any one of which could keep a student from attending a university, were no match for our Gators who exemplify their GATOR GRIT through persistence to fulfill their dream of earning their college degree!"​​