Fr Kevin O’Higgins SJ, Director of Jesuit University Support & Training (JUST) in Ballymun, Dublin, reports on moving support services online for students undergoing academic and personal challenges during the Covid-19 crisis. He tells a success story about an asylum seeker who has been awarded a lecturer position in Dublin.
Over the past two months of ‘lockdown’, the J.U.S.T. team and our students have adapted to the new reality. When we had our monthly team meeting in early March, Ireland was still in a ‘delay phase’, with relatively few confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection. Just days after that meeting, the first tragic death was reported. After that, the situation quickly deteriorated. By the time the ‘stay at home’ phase was initiated by the health authorities towards the end of the month, we had already begun the process of moving our student support services online.
Shortly before we closed our premises and suspended direct physical contact with students, it was very encouraging to hear that one of our PhD candidates had successfully defended his dissertation. Even better news followed. Almost immediately after completing his doctorate, he was awarded a teaching and research position at a Dublin university. What makes his achievement all the more satisfying is the fact that he came to Ireland from Africa with his wife and two young children, hoping to make a better life for his family. Hopefully, his dream has now taken a major step towards becoming reality.
That same dream is shared by all of our J.U.S.T. students. Whether taking their first steps with an undergraduate diploma or degree course or moving into a postgraduate programme, all of them see education as the key to a brighter future. They are the main protagonists of the J.U.S.T. project. Our task is to encourage and support them in fulfilling their aspirations.
The closure of colleges and universities meant that students suddenly found themselves without even the most basic academic supports. They lost direct access to lecturers and libraries. They also lost the encouragement and friendship offered by day to day contact with their classmates. For some of them, these difficulties were exacerbated by having to cope with complicated personal or family situations.
Since every J.U.S.T. student is assigned an individual tutor, it was relatively easy to ensure that help was no more than a phone call or email away. While remote support can never completely compensate for the loss of direct face to face contact, it is a lot better than nothing at all. In most cases, phone contact and the exchange of emails between tutors and students have been sufficient. For discussions about essays or course projects, tools like Skype and Zoom have been useful also. When one student needed more direct contact, meetings took place in the parking area in front of our premises, with the tutor in her car and the student safely seated several feet away, as mandated by government guidelines.
In a time of great uncertainty, adaptability, flexibility and creativity are the order of the day. Obviously, we are hoping that the worst of the crisis is now behind us, but we are aware that what happens over the coming months is largely beyond our control. A second wave of Covid-19 infection or failure to produce an effective vaccine would complicate an already difficult situation for our students. However, based on our experience of the past few months, we are confident that J.U.S.T. will be able to address each and every contingency. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!