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Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2021 Cover Story

A System-Wide Approach to an Accessible Education

By Sue McMurray • Photo by WSU Photo Services

Over the past year while COVID-19 challenged the way colleges and universities around the globe deliver programs, WSU remained focused on providing opportunity through education and power of community.

As the virus raged, the University quickly shut down in-person classes and converted to distance learning—something the Carson College has been doing successfully for over 60 years.

In addition to distance learning, WSU launched many other resources in 2020—from financial assistance to food pantries to equity training—to help students, faculty, and staff across campuses achieve success.

A Network of Resources Helps Students Succeed

Newly developed Wi-Fi hotspot and computer loan programs facilitated the transition to distance learning for students who didn’t have adequate equipment to stream classes, obtain course materials, and interact online.

The University also helped set up hundreds of these Wi-Fi access points at tribal extension centers, as well as schools, libraries, and community centers across the state.

Student Financial Services (SFS) established a student emergency fund to support students with fundamental needs such as food, housing, health care, or other COVID- 19 related expenses. Additionally, the Dean of Students office worked collaboratively with SFS to support students who didn’t qualify for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) government aid with funds from the Undocumented Student Emergency Relief Grant.

“The Office of the Dean of Students supported the WSU Pullman food pantry all through the pandemic in partnership with the Office for Access and Opportunity, Women*s Center, and Center for Civic Engagement,” says Kim Holapa, Division of Student Affairs associate vice president for external engagement and strategic initiatives. WSU offers food pantries across its locations and implemented contactless pickup and delivery of pantry bags containing a variety of protein, grains, vegetables, fruit, snacks, and limited hygiene items during the pandemic.

Philanthropic relief funding also became available for WSU students experiencing financial emergencies related to the pandemic. Made possible through the generosity of WSU donors, the relief funding resolved a variety of expenses, including housing, food, health care, and materials required for participating in online instruction.

“Cougars on every one of our campuses experienced sudden unemployment, causing many to make unimaginable choices including whether or not they could continue at WSU,” says Mary Jo Gonzales, Division of Student Affairs vice president. “These funds provided a critical lifeline for students across our WSU system at a time when they need it most.”

Additionally, each WSU location has a designated care team comprised of professionals who recommend appropriate resources and services to help students in need. The Student Care Network allows students to request support for themselves online or refer a fellow student.

Enhanced Commitment to Diversity and Equity

The challenges over the last year heightened WSU’s commitment to building equity, social justice, and cultural competency across the system, not just in students, but also in faculty and staff. Working toward that aspiration, the Division of Student Affairs implemented a new Community and Equity Certificate program to establish a foundation of equity mindfulness.

Equity leaders across WSU developed a certificate workshop series that would give participants a toolkit for engaging more effectively with students, colleagues, and community partners.

“After folks participated in the Equity series, they were like, ‘What else is there?’” says Merrianneeta Nesbitt, assistant director of the Office of Outreach and Education and a key member of the leadership collective. “So we created additional areas of allyship, skill development, and community building in an effort to build a continuum of practice.”

Participants must complete seven workshops across four areas to earn the certificate. The first area, building a foundation, offers an overview of equity at a land-grant institution. In the second area, allyship, participants gain tangible tools for being an ally to various marginalized communities. Skill building focuses on skills for creating more equitable workplaces. In the final area, building community together, participants discuss issues of equity.

The workshops not only create more constructive relationships between staff and students—they also demonstrate to students the importance of equity education at WSU.