At the onset of the pandemic, Harper College surveyed its students to get a better sense of the hardships they faced and the support they needed. Many expressed concerns about mental health and stress, including anxiety about the virus, isolation, distractions at home and uncertainty about the future of their education.
The results underscored what research has long shown: Community college students in particular often face challenges beyond their coursework that negatively impact their ability to succeed in college – from homelessness and financial insecurity to mental health concerns.
That’s why Harper, prior to the pandemic, embarked on a yearlong assessment of students’ basic needs (food, shelter, and physical, emotional and financial security). The study produced several recommendations, including the need to provide a supportive environment to help students deal with issues they face outside of the classroom and alleviate stress that interferes with schoolwork.
The goal: Create a culture of kindness and provide a holistic approach to caring for students’ well-being.
To help better support students, the college’s Board of Trustees recently approved the purchase of WellTrack, an interactive mental health app that gives students self-service access to online mental health strategies and tools and, if needed, a link to clinical support.
“The app puts mental health support in the palm of our students’ hands,” said Dr. Vicki Atkinson, dean of student development. “The service is confidential and provides different levels of support based on the student’s individual need. It complements our on-campus counseling services and offers an option for those who may not feel ready or comfortable with raising their hand to ask for support.”
The tool will also ensure Harper’s compliance with the Mental Health and Early Action on Campus Act, which calls on Illinois colleges and universities to address gaps in mental health services through training, peer support, community-campus partnerships and clinical-level mental health and crisis intervention services.
This increased focus on mental health fits within Harper’s broader approach to meeting students’ non-academic needs, which will be managed through a new resource on campus, the Hawks Care Resource Center. The center, also a recommendation from the basic needs study, will provide a single office for students-in-need to take advantage of the breadth of Harper’s non-academic support resources – including personal support and career counseling, connections to emergency food and personal hygiene supplies, technology loans, and emergency stop-gap funds – as well as access to community agencies and social service partners that offer healthcare, legal and financial assistance.
“A sizeable portion of our students experience financial struggles beyond the classroom,” said Dr. Claudia Mercado, interim vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, and co-chair of Harper’s Basic Needs Project. “The stress of going to college is compounded by the very real demands of trying to pay rent or buy the gas needed to get to class. This, in turn, impacts students’ mental health and their ability to focus on their studies. It is all intertwined.”
Harper is reviewing its campus master plan to identify the best space to house the Hawks Care Resource Center to accommodate an expanded food pantry, increased staffing and on-campus space for community partners.
The college will also provide employees with training on how to recognize, respond and refer students who may be experiencing mental distress as well as developing a wellness certificate for students to be able to provide peer-to-peer support.
“We are committed to being solution-oriented for this important work,” said Dr. Avis Proctor, Harper’s president. “We are building our capacity to support our students and removing barriers so they can be successful at college and in life.”