Wesley College was a news item recently due to its recent acquisition by Delaware State University (DSU), a transition that will be completed in about a year. For the moment, though, Wesley is still Wesley, a small college serving a thousand-person student body that is majority minority and working class.
This summer, with funding provided by Delaware EPSCoR and Project WiCCED, a small group of Wesley students designed a series of surveys and virtual interviews to investigate the resilience of the students and faculty in the STEM department amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Technical.ly sat down (by phone) with Katie Fry, a spring 2020 graduate, and STEM undergraduate student Lyndsey Koyanagi who, along with another undergrad, Andrew Shepherd, designed and conducted the survey.
“Being that we are a smaller school, and the majority of our students are minority and first-generation college students, they wanted to see how our students were handling it as opposed to bigger universities,” said Fry. The Wesley STEM survey is one of the first U.S.-based surveys on COVID-19’s impact on college students, the team said.
Because the survey was STEM focused, all of the participating students were STEM-major students in the 2020 spring semester; just 7% of Wesley students are in these tight-knit programs, with 68 students surveyed. In addition, 19 STEM faculty members were surveyed.
Wesley, which has had zero COVID-19 cases on campus so far, will be reopening with in-person classes this month amid increased safety measures, including testing, daily self-assessments such as temperature checks, distancing and masks. (This is in contrast to University of Delaware, Wilmington University and Delaware Technical Community College, which have announced that they will conduct all but certain exception classes online).
The student survey covered six areas: technology, economic, sense of community, career interest, reopening and mental health. Here’s what it found.
- Ninety-five percent (95%) of those surveyed had a personal computer and Wi-Fi.
- Seventy-five percent (75%) had a printer or scanner; nearly all of the 25% who did not said they were at a disadvantage without one.
- Most students took a week to adjust to virtual classes after the college was closed due to the pandemic in March. Male students displayed significantly less adjustment time, while women said they took a week or more to adjust on average. “One of our main objectives was to see if there were any differences between the genders,” said Koyanagi.
Since the pandemic spanned less than a year at the time of the survey, they looked at monthly household income rather than yearly income, and compared the incomes from before the pandemic and after it began.
- Before the pandemic, 33% had a monthly household income of $5,000 to $7,000.
- Currently, 38% have a monthly household income below $2,000.
- Thirty-eight percent (38%) were employed on campus during the spring 2020 semester. Of those, 47% were still able to work at home due to Wesley’s online efforts, many as online tutors. Lab assistants were also able to work online.
Sense of community
Most Wesley College students are commuters, with 34% living on campus. Still, the survey found that campus life was important to students.
- Fifty-seven percent (57%) said they did not enjoy being off campus. “They did not like to be home, they felt cooped up, they felt isolated,” said Fry.
- Seventy percent (70%) of underclassmen said they missed out on mentorship due to COVID-19. “Going forward, we want to keep this data in mind with how we structure our mentorship,” Fry said.
- Ninety percent (90%) of the spring 2020 graduates felt negatively affected without in-person graduation and 60% were not happy with online graduation, with 70% saying they would rather have waited for an in-person ceremony.
- Ten percent (10%) are thinking of changing their major due to COVID-19.
- Ninety percent (90%_ feel confident in their next steps. “Those who were less confident were graduate students and students trying to go into graduate school, which was expected,” said Koyanagi.
- Thirty-seven percent (37%) are now more interested in a career in the health sciences than before the pandemic, and 29% are more interested in data sciences.
- Sixty percent (60%) would rather come back with mask requirements and social distancing than be off campus.
- Forty-six percent (46%) are now worried about paying for the upcoming academic year.
- Sixty-three percent (63%) were taking lab courses during spring 2020; 68% were using external videos, including DSU and University of Delaware online lab videos.
- Thirty-nine percent (39%) of students said at-home lab learning would be best with online labs and simulations, while 28% thought at-home lab kits (which were not available to Wesley STEM students in the spring) were best. “Wesley’s labs are small, we cannot social distance, though we are planning to do reduced lab sizes,” said Koyanagi.
“This is the part of the survey I’m most passionate about,” said Koyanagi about the mental health section — the longest and most extensive of the focus areas.
- Pre-COVID-19, 49% self identified as very motivated; during COVID-19, only 5% reported being very motivated.
- Sixty-six percent (66%) were happy with their academic performance.
- Fifty-two percent (52%) attributed struggles with virtual classes to distractions in their environment, with most saying they didn’t have a quiet place to learn.
- Fifty-four percent (54%) reported that mental health significantly went down after the COVID-19 lockdown; 72% of those said it had a negative effect on their performance. “They were anxious, depressed, didn’t know how to cope,” said Koyanagi. “One of our biggest problems is access to mental health resources, and Wesley College, quite frankly, does not do well with that. We were not told how to do an online session with a counselor. That definitely needs to change.”
- Seventy-one percent (71%) of women said their mental health significantly worsened, as opposed to only 20% of men. “What we were seeing was that females are still expected to take care of the home more,” Koyanagi said.
- Forty-nine percent (49%) were concerned about consistent access to food.
- Eighty-six percent (86%) said they were concerned about their health, but 93% were more concerned about the health of their friends and family than their own.
- Forty-four percent (44%) did not know where to go for help.
- Sixty-three percent (63%) are concerned about a lack of support from advisors.
- Forty-five percent (45%) had an increase of family responsibilities such as child care; of those, 81% said it affected their academic performance.
- Forty-eight percent (48%) found it hard to balance work and home life, with 56% of female students finding it difficult compared to 31% of males.
The 19 faculty members in the STEM departments are majority older males, the researchers noted.
- Forty-two percent (42%) lowered expectations about the quantity of work their students did after the COVID-19 lockdown; 37% lowered expectations for quality. This was part of a focus on showing students empathy during the crisis.
- Sixty-eight percent (68%) dropped assignments that were originally scheduled and many looked at different types of curriculum building.
- Twenty-four percent (24%) expressed that they didn’t have enough time to switch to remote classrooms, with only a couple of days notice. Some teachers canceled classes for the first week of the lockdown, and those teachers tended to have the most successful transitions.
- Most faculty were most concerned about mid-semester closures in the fall due to a rise in cases.
- Sixty-eight percent (68%) became more confident about online education following the spring semester.
- In contrast with the students, only 11% cited poor mental health due to COVID-19, with their jobs fairly secure; there was no notable gender difference in terms of mental health.
The research team is in the process of publishing the full study, anticipated to be printed in an international journal in the fall.