9 tips for assisting vulnerable student groups

ACHA CEO: "It's incumbent on the higher education community to protect and support those of us who need it most and remove the barriers they face in completing their education."

The American College Health Association (ACHA) released further guidance to higher education institutions in its Supporting Vulnerable Campus Populations During the COVID-19 Pandemic study, which offers strategies to provide more equity and assistance to affected student populations.

Many of those students continue to face significant challenges, according to the ACHA. As schools have reopened or are reopening, young adults are not only facing heightened anxiety and stress but also big hurdles when it comes to academic opportunities and health care options.

“We know from history that our most vulnerable citizens — marginalized, low income, underserved, and people of color — are the same people who suffer the most during a global health crisis. That holds true on college campuses as well,” says Devin Jopp, chief executive officer of ACHA. “It’s incumbent on the higher education community to protect and support those of us who need it most and remove the barriers they face in completing their education. ACHA created these guidelines because we want to provide institutions with a roadmap for achieving educational and health equity despite the challenges brought on by this pandemic.”

In the latest report, the ACHA offered several recommendations to colleges and universities, including providing more access to telehealth services, offering more inclusive care options, fostering an environment free from discrimination and hate and creating more robust remote access for students who are working remotely.

More specifically, the ACHA took aim at nine vulnerable student populations, how they’ve been adversely affected and some ideas that colleges and universities can consider to keep those students safe and thriving:

  • African American students: Highlighting historically black colleges and universities, the ACHA notes that providing health care options and proper messaging are paramount to the African American student population. It says many HBCU students lack insurance and many schools have limited budgets. In addition, students continue to face racism and discrimination. When doing any outreach or messaging, it is vital for schools to be inclusive and be culturally relevant. Higher ed institutions should strive to provide equal access to internet and campus services, as well as promote and deliver care options such as telehealth. They should also educate staff on delivering strong messages that encourage mask wearing and vaccination.
  • Asian and Asian American students: The ACHA highlights the importance of condemning any rhetoric or behavior that discriminates or might be construed as xenophobic, particularly when it comes to trying to link Covid-19 and its origins. Asians and Asian Americans have been the victims of both physical assault and verbal harassment during the pandemic, and the ACHA said colleges and universities should take the lead in “including them when crafting plans to support communities that are heavily affected by COVID-19.” and in making staff aware of both “preconceptions” and “microagressions”.
  • First generation/low-income students: Many FGLI students have been affected either financially or have lacked access to internet and other opportunities during the pandemic. Colleges should ensure those students are given a level playing field and look at a number of measures to bridge potential gaps, including: setting up a central hub for resources, offering employment and/or training opportunities; providing mentors; expanding internet access; and setting up a reserve funds and offering additional mental health help where necessary.
  • International students: Scores of students were displaced by the pandemic and will face extreme challenges in trying to replicate the college experience from abroad. The ACHA says many of these students may not be able to or may be unwilling to reach out for help, so it is incumbent upon colleges to meet their needs. To ensure equity through learning, offer asynchronous options, especially for those challenges by time differences. The ACHA suggests providing “culturally based holistic education and training … as well as culturally competent medical and mental health services optimally with bilingual providers and staff.”
  • Latinx students: The ACHA recommends several strategies to help provide assistance to these students, whose families have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Colleges should not only help offer increased financial support for first-year and low-income students but also be strong in their messaging on the risks of coronavirus. Any outreach efforts should be bilingual. Institutions can also look at telehealth options as well as “opportunities for health screenings of co-morbidities including obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure and provide culturally competent care and services, including nutrition services,” the ACHA says.
  • LGBTQ+ students: In its guidelines, the ACHA notes the importance of offering mental health services, particularly telehealth to the LGBTQ+ population and says to “provide links and information to the Trevor Project site, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services.” The ACHA says many students have endured less-than-ideal conditions upon returning to unsupportive homes during the pandemic. Colleges and universities should offer peer support channels and celebrate the community at large, which will give students a sense of belonging. Any messaging should come from those who represent the community.
  • Native American students: These communities have been particularly hard hit by coronavirus and some students have not only experienced deep loss but also a disconnection from the outside world. The ACHA notes the harsh reality facing many tribal colleges, which cannot offer additional tuition assistance because of new health and safety expenditures. The ACHA recommends schools not only provide mental health care help where needed to these students but also to meet with tribal officials to understand the issues facing their communities. Of utmost importance is keeping those students connected and offering remote access, similar to what many high schools have done in providing equipment and hot spots. Beyond that, the ACHA says to offer more “cultural programming” and offer financial assistance where possible.
  • Undocumented students: This student population is perhaps the most vulnerable given its lack of access to many federal assistance programs (including CARES Act funding) and given the risk of potential deportation. Campuses that have reopened and can continue to serve the population offer some solace, the ACHA says. One of the most important steps college and universities can take with the community is building trust and offering peer support and mentors. On the health side, institutions should promote contract tracing and “identify medical and mental health resources with sensitivity to undocumented status, health insurance status, and cultural and language needs,” the ACHA says.
  • Students with disabilities: Institutions should be working closely with their campus disability resource center through the pandemic, especially on health care considerations such as mask wearing, physical distancing, cleaning of vehicles and medication supplies. These students might have additional barriers to learning. Some may not be able to return to campus if they are in a high-risk category. Some may require better technology or access to operate remotely. Some may need added time for assignments to be completed. Do your best to accommodate those needs, says the ACHA.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at [email protected]

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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