Tia is a Student Navigator at Camosun. If you didn’t know it, there are two Student Navigators in the School of Access (as part of the Assessment Centre), and they do amazing work! Tia tells me that Student Navigators “help students who have difficulty working through Camosun’s processes or finding information. Sometimes they need help with admissions, registration, financial aid, accommodations, or counseling, myCamosun and our website. They could be a new student, a registered student, or somebody who has been here with us upgrading, or taking College level programs. We help students navigate to all the college resources and sort out myCamosun.” What is important to Tia is that “students don’t have to wait. We answer our phones and texts and get right back to students, where other service departments are often too busy or short-staffed to do this.” What I liked most was Tia’s description of how Student Navigators build strong and lasting relationships with the students they support. For example, “I’m working with students in their second or third year of a business degree, students who I might have helped get into Sheet Metal eight years ago, so we have a connection. They know they can text me and get a quick answer. They’ve got a connection to somebody at Camosun.”
I asked Tia what it was like for her back in March 2020 when we all suddenly moved to remote work. “When we were sent home, I grabbed a laptop from IT and picked up a second monitor. Then I asked for a cell phone because we spend a lot of time on the phone with students. Our amazing admin team in the school of access made all this happen almost seamlessly.” Tia also discovered an unanticipated benefit from moving support online: “for the first time in years, I felt safe. We work with a lot of people who aren’t necessarily ready to be at Camosun, and suddenly I felt I could deal with anybody because I was safe at home behind the screen.” She also echoed what I am sure resonates with many others: “I’ve worked at the college for 32 years and I have never been that busy.” But she told me the main source of the increased demand was for upgrading which “skyrocketed with people stuck at home, wanting to finally get their high school diploma.”
Unlike many faculty, Tia didn’t have to adapt to new online systems to communicate with students – she used email, phone, and texting, commenting on how much young people like to text. For Tia it was simply about communicating. Communicating with the student, with registration, with departments, and about being available and “confirming to the student that we are here. You can’t walk in and see us, but we’re here for you. And making sure, even if you didn’t have the answer, you always got back to a student, letting them know when they could expect to hear from you again.” Tia said that the average phone call with a student was around 45 minutes because they had so many questions, but it was easier to give each student complete attention “because I wasn’t trying to serve anybody else. I wasn’t having to get up and get a key for somebody or get somebody the stapler or load the photocopier with paper. My focus was totally on that student or their parent.”
Unfortunately, Tia notes that we did lose some students during that time online, “those students that looking for a day program, who might come into the Help Centre to spend the day working on the computer puttering away at some upgrading. We lost a lot of those students because they didn’t understand how to pick up a laptop or a WIFI hotspot, and then didn’t have anybody at home to help them with that laptop.” But Tia did say that those students are beginning to come back, although “we don’t have the same amount to face to face we used to – they’re coming back but it’s different.”
Tia mentioned a couple of challenges to me which speak to the complex world post-secondary institutions now find themselves: first, not enough services going back to previous in-person availability. For example, services like Financial Aid (currently only at Interurban) and Registration (currently only at Lansdowne) now have limited in-person hours for students because they have moved much of their service online, which is great for some students but can be challenging for others. “Now if students need Admissions and are at Lansdowne, they have to use an iPad to talk to Admissions at Interurban” which can be challenging if the student is having a financial conversation in a space where others can hear them. We have to remember those students taking courses in the evening, those with jobs that don’t allow them to take breaks during limited registration hours to talk to someone, students who find using technology challenging (for example scanning documents), or students who are new and unsure of how to navigate Camosun’s systems. That ability to walk in and talk to someone in person is something we probably don’t want to lose.
As for the second challenge, there seems to be a disconnect between what students are wanting and needing for online courses, and what some Schools are adding as options. Because of a reluctance to offer high-school equivalent math and science courses online, Tia has found herself having to send students to other institutions where they can take those courses in a mode that works with their busy lives. “We’re asking a student to come to Lansdowne five days a week, two hours a day to get a Math 12 course. And many of these are high achieving students – they know what they need and are just trying to get admission requirements out of the way so they can take our programs like Nursing, Sonography, Radiography, etc.” One thing we need to remember as a college now is that not only do many potential (and existing) students have jobs and families, and many don’t live in Victoria anymore and we will lose (and have likely already lost) those students if we can’t find ways to be more flexible.
One other challenge Tia mentioned was how assessment for entry to Camosun changed when we all moved online. “Students used to do their assessments in person, but we couldn’t do that anymore and we didn’t know when or if we could move back to in-person. The folks in Assessment worked really hard and brought in Examity (an American company) to support online assessments, but students suddenly had to pay $25 US to take a Math or English assessment.” In addition, at the beginning there were a lot of challenges with the system (for example how the booking system worked – students would book time to receive a voucher which they used on the Examity website to book the time for their assessment…confusing)! But again, the Assessment Centre group persevered to make the process clearer. “We fielded many, many calls and questions from panicked students, but now the system is smooth, and students have the choice to come to campus or complete their assessment online. The staff in the Assessment Center are brilliant.”
Through all the challenges, Tia has found some rewards. “For me, it’s the relationships we’ve built with Financial Aid, Admissions, and Registration – I really feel like we’re working as a team. While there was reluctance to have Student Navigators in the beginning, now we have a good relationship, we see real value in what everyone is doing, and we are working well for the betterment of the student. That is a huge win for me.” And associated with this is that by moving a lot of support away from in-person, we “got rid of a lot of paperwork. We used to ask a student to fill out a piece of paper and take it to their instructor to sign it so that they could get into a class after the add drop date. The students were running all over the place with this piece of paper, but they were intimidated to ask an instructor. So now I can just talk to the instructor and ask them to send Registration an e-mail giving permission and boom, it’s done. There’s no paperwork and the student hasn’t had all that stress.” Another win that is being kept moving forward.
Tia works hard to advocate for students, and one of the lessons learned from the past couple of years is that if you keep advocating you can make changes that better support students trying to get into Camosun. I would add that if you listen to students, you can find new ways of doing things – ways that might push you out of your comfort zone or challenge existing systems, but that address student needs. “If we’re going to survive as an institution, we need to listen to our customers. For example, an evening course shouldn’t start at 4:00PM – an evening class shouldn’t start until at least 6:00PM. Especially if you’re asking them to come to campus. If this is a student who leaves work at five o’clock in Langford and is supposed to be an evening class at 4:00pm, it won’t work for them. Don’t have a Biology class that has students on-campus two days a week at 9:30AM, and two days a week at 2:30PM. Who can fit that into their schedule? We need to work more at being student focussed.” To which I would reiterate Tia’s earlier points about services and online course offerings.
Tia’s advice for anyone finding themselves pivoting to online support services? “Just help each other. If someone asks you questions, do whatever you can to help them succeed in their job. I’m all about the sharing. If you learn how to use something, show somebody else. That’s my big takeaway, especially when we were working remotely without those coffee room chats. Just share information, attend workshops where you can, and hear other people’s perspectives. And be patient, be kind with each other, and have confidence that you will learn it, even if you might not get it today.”