Michigan Engineering News

Amidst COVID-19 chaos, student affairs connects with every engineering student

Victory Gardens program looks to meet the needs that range from the financial and logistical, to the emotional.

Our campus, like the global community, is contending with COVID-19 and working to adapt to a new normal. Many are rapidly working on solutions. See all COVID-19 developments from Michigan Engineering.

Camryn Graham did not have this in mind when the semester started in January. Not the arrival of COVID-19 in the U.S. The cancellation of on-campus classes. The separation from friends and family.

She certainly hadn’t anticipated her spring break plans—a Michigan Engineering international trip to Florence—being cancelled. In the second week of March, with Italy announcing its nationwide lockdown, the cancellation made sense, but it was still jarring and it put Graham in a tough spot.

The university had moved classes online and the campus was quickly emptying out. Graham, whose family lives in Atlanta, didn’t have the money for a ticket home. 

“As more and more of my friends started leaving, it began to get more serious,” Graham said. “But it would have been hard to get home because those tickets are expensive.”

Hoping for the best, she reached out to the Office of Student Affairs at the College of Engineering. Within hours, the College provided enough money for the Detroit-to-Atlanta flight. 

Graham is one of hundreds of U-M engineering students who have been helped by the College in the past two months. Since the arrival of COVID-19, student affairs staff and other College employees who have volunteered to help have contacted each of the roughly 11,000 students in the engineering community. They were able to provide some form of assistance to 700 of them.

“We’ve reached out to understand what we can do as a college to help,” said Jeanne Murabito, executive director of the Office of Student Affairs. To make that happen, the College put out a call for staff members currently working from home with time in their schedules to pitch in.

A team of 69 volunteers stepped up to help craft individual emails, and they are tasked with directing the students to the proper resource. Tonya Marion, senior team coordinator and administrator for the office of communications and marketing, was one of those, sending out emails to 100 students.

“If they had particular concerns, we would forward them to Student Affairs for more assistance,” Marion said. “But mostly, we just wanted to let them know they were not alone and we were there to help.”

The effort falls under the new umbrella of Michigan Engineering’s Victory Gardens program—a callback to the “Victory Gardens” of World War I and II, where citizens in countries around the world answered their governments’ call to grow food for the common good. 

Alondra Ortiz, a native of Puerto Rico, arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 2019 and set to work on her PhD in mechanical engineering. When COVID-19 began its spread through the U.S., she was spending a lot of time in the lab, mapping out the work she hoped to accomplish by the end of her four-year program.

But when labs shut down on North Campus, Ortiz was forced to do what work she could from home, via computer. And her own laptop was not up to the job.

“All of my experiments were in the lab, working with chemicals and synthesis…,” she said. “Right now, I’m trying to do something similar, but doing it with modeling.

“The computer I had wasn’t useful for modeling because of the software it needed to run, and it was giving me a lot of trouble when I was trying to connect to our lab remotely.”

An image of Michigan Engineering student Alondra Ortiz working at home with her provided laptop
Alondra Ortiz with her provided laptop

The College provided Ortiz with a laptop she can use during the lockdown.

In an effort to better understand the needs of the student community in the midst of the pandemic, the College sent out surveys and received more than 1,200 responses. When asked how things are going, roughly 57 percent responded in a positive way. But more than 11 percent answered “I’m barely getting by.” 

A second survey question asked students to assess online learning as compared to the classroom. More than 27 percent answered “It is difficult. I am doing my best but don’t seem to be making progress.” And another 10 percent responded with “It feels pointless.”

The survey results, Murabito said, are a good indication of all the work that remains to be done. And new challenges are on the way. 

So far, the expenditures to assist students total roughly $60,000, including from the new Engineering Student Emergency Fund created for the pandemic. But more demands are on the way.

“I think the issues for our students are going to get worse,” Murabito said. “The economic impact of COVID-19 will continue to grow. The students who are returning, and the incoming students, are going to continue to face financial and other issues.”

Media Contact

James Lynch

Research News & Feature Writer