Sometimes a simple phone call is all it takes to let someone know they are not alone.
A month ago, Sumaiya Akter, a graduate student living at Feild Hall on Memorial’s St. John’s campus, was told she had to vacate her residence within days due to health and safety concerns related to COVID-19.
It was a time of confusion and chaos, but a phone call from Andrew Kim at the School of Graduate Studies calmed her nerves.
“It was so moving,” says the master’s student in the Department of Economics, who is originally from Bangladesh. “We talked about the emergency funding, the university’s response, even the weather. And I felt so relaxed after that.”
Students are the priority
Ms. Akter’s experience is not unique.
The School of Graduate Studies has prioritized the needs of students like Ms. Akter over the past number of weeks to ensure their education and research can continue despite the challenges arising from the global pandemic.
Among the funding and employment initiatives are the following:
- Baseline funding extended for research students for one semester;
- Increased funding for student employment programs;
- Hiring 15 interns through the Graduate Student Work Placement Program;
- Hiring five graduate assistants and leveraging funds from the Social Studies and Humanities Research Council for students to work on various projects;
- And more than $60,000 raised through the Undergraduate Student Emergency Fund and the SGS Graduate Student Emergency Fund to provide financial relief for undergraduate and graduate students.
Recognizing the importance of direct contact at a time of physical distancing, the School of Graduate Studies contact line currently has a 1-2 hour response time and is operational seven days a week, from 7 a.m.-7 p.m.
Staff follow up immediately on urgent issues for graduate students, from food/housing insecurity to academic progress. A family advisor and career advisor are also on call to assist graduate students and their partners to find part-time employment.
And when it comes to financial issues, graduate studies staff work directly with students to find solutions so that academic progress is not hindered.
Ms. Akter shares an anecdote of mistakenly signing up for an undergraduate rather than graduate research course.
“Thanks to Carol Sullivan in the School of Graduate Studies and Dr. Roberto Martinez-Espineira of the Department of Economics, I was able to get that course included in my graduate program so I did not have to pay the $1,100 tuition fee,” she said.
On Friday, May 8, the school held its first virtual town hall. The event was designed for graduate students to ask and answer questions and provide feedback on the situation to date.
“Our students are ready to be full partners in our plan for a better future.”
The school hopes to make it a weekly event. More than 100 students attended and posed questions about funding, fees, research, exams, deadlines, academic continuity and how faculty and staff are coping. A needs assessment survey was launched on May 11.
Dr. Aimée Surprenant, dean, School of Graduate Studies, says graduate students at Memorial inspire her “every day” with their kindness, compassion and optimism for the future.
“We have been working with them to find out what they need to succeed and we’re doing our best to communicate clearly and quickly as we understand their need for reassurance and information in this uncertain time,” she said. “Our students are ready to be full partners in our plan for a better future. And we are ready to join them.”
Students who attended the May 8 event also inquired about how faculty and staff have been doing.
“I haven’t felt alone during the emergency thanks to the combined support of the Memorial community.”
This simple acknowledgement by students that faculty and staff are also experiencing feelings of uncertainty and fear is reflected in the acts of generosity and support towards students.
“The support I have received from the faculty and staff of Memorial University during the COVID-19 outbreak is beyond my imagination,” said Ms. Akter, mentioning that Dr. Tony Fang, Department of Economics, shared his supply of masks with her and Dr. Erin Oldford, Faculty of Business Administration, offered a room in her house.
These stories are no doubt the tip of a much larger iceberg.
“I never thought faculty and staff would contact me just to check on my well-being,” she said. “Even without any close family members in Canada, I haven’t felt alone during the emergency thanks to the combined support of the Memorial community and I will treasure these memories for the rest of my life.
“Ultimately, I feel that the pandemic has made my bond with Memorial University stronger, which will act as a catalyst in giving back more to the school and the community. Thank you, Drs. Robert Martínez-Espiñeira, Tony Fang, Scott Lynch, Arn Keeling, Erin Oldford and Andrew Kim, Carol Sullivan, Arif Abu, Dayna Vey, to name just a few.”