By Matthew Hibdon
Jennifer Rice began her job as secretary in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) advising center on January 5, 2020. It was the start of a new year and a new opportunity. With only a few weeks left until the start of the spring semester, Rice hit the ground running to help students get connected with their academic advisors. As priority registration for spring 2021 wraps up, she looks back at how she and the CLA advisors continue to answer the call to serve students in the midst of a pandemic.
“Jennifer has been a great fit from the start. As the parent of a current student, she understands the opportunities and challenges that students face – both in typical semesters and during extenuating circumstances. She’s been a great addition to the team,” said Dr. Brad Baumgardner, CLA Advising Manager.
As part of MTSU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in March, Rice had to start working remotely after just two months on the job. With priority registration for summer and fall only weeks away, Rice and the advisors quickly transitioned upcoming in-person meetings to phone and Zoom appointments. Between March 11 and May 4, the CLA advising team meticulously created individualized registration plans, including specific course recommendations for each of their 320 freshmen students, and held 1,625 distinct advising sessions.
While still busy with priority registration, it became evident that MTSU’s new student orientation program, CUSTOMS, needed to be virtual. Rice was an integral part of CLA’s plan to continue offering one-on-one advising appointments to our new students at orientation. She participated in CUSTOMS with her daughter in 2019 and brought a great perspective to the discussions. Rice provided insight into her experience as a parent at orientation and created ways that still involved students’ families in the virtual CUSTOMS.
Rice recalls, “When I arrived for CUSTOMS with my daughter in summer 2019, I did not really know what to expect. But I left feeling very confident we made the right decision. Everyone genuinely cared about the success of the students, not just academic success, but holistically. They acknowledged the realities of life meant that problems would arise, but they would be there to offer help and guidance. Everyone had a clear understanding that college was not just about learning in the classroom but also about learning to become an independent adult. My daughter left knowing there were people other than me that she could ask for help, and I knew that she was well supported as learned to navigate college and her future.”
With her first-hand knowledge about what new students and families need, Rice went to work on making the sessions meaningful. She worked with CLA faculty and staff to prepare virtual packets for new freshmen and transfer students to help them feel more prepared with context for their advising sessions and links to helpful campus services. In addition to creating these handy virtual resources, Rice quickly became the resident expert on Zoom meetings and breakout rooms.
“I have always enjoyed learning new skills, so I was happy to support the team by learning Zoom. Our goal was to make it possible for students to still meet one-on-one with their advisors. With Peggy (Slater) and Ella (Weaver) taking on hosting duties, I was free to work on the logistical side of things and make sure the tech ran smoothly which is more my strong suit,” said Rice.
Her leadership in learning to use those tools made it easy to replicate the in-person experience the best they could. When it was time for their advising session, students virtually visited the CLA advising center’s lobby via Zoom. They were greeted by Rice and her colleagues Peggy Slater, CLA graduation analyst, and Ella Weaver, CLA internship coordinator. While Slater and Weaver gave the students an overview of what to expect during their appointments, Rice started the tedious process of checking students in and manually assigning them to their individual breakout room sessions for advising and registration. Rice provided logistical and technical support that was needed to make each session run smoothly.
“I hoped to give other parents that same reassurance I received during CUSTOMS. I know that starting college is a big transition for parents and students, so embarking on this experience during uncertain times might make it harder to feel connected. We all worked together to figure out how to best serve the students and welcome them to MTSU,” said Rice.
More change came in August when the CLA advising center relocated to its new home on the first floor of Peck Hall—in the building’s “Earn a Living” branded section. Rice’s perspective of a “normal day at work” is only based on her experience during the first two months on the job, and the evolving response to pandemic has been full of pivots in her everyday processes. However, there is one thing of which she is certain. Rice stated, “We are all invested in the success of our students, and we will be here to help them to overcome whatever challenges life may bring.”
— Matthew Hibdon (Matthew.Hibdon@mtsu.edu)