Even at home, counselors still are serving students

Student Services manager Tim Jones (left) visits with Student Services counselor Samy Carlon Leyva in March, just before the department transitioned to working from home.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Pomp and circumstance. Tears of joy. Pride. Celebration. For students, Commencement embodies all those things.

But those same emotions fill the hearts of Grand Canyon University’s Student Services counselors, too, who continue to serve students during a global pandemic.

They haven’t missed a beat, even while working from home.

Whenever it’s Commencement time, those SSCs leave their desks for a bit and step away from all the phone calls, e-mails and personal visits with students to head to GCU Arena and cheer on graduates they have counseled and mentored for four years on academics and finances.

It’s something they couldn’t do this year: COVID-19 disrupted everything.

Tori Sommerfeld is one of more than 50 SSCs who have been working from home.

Still ...

“It was nice to have a lot of students kind of reach out and say, ‘Hey, since I didn’t get to see you in person, I just want to make sure that I took care of everything I need,’” said Tori Sommerfeld, who has been a ground Student Services counselor for four years. It was nice to hear them say, “‘Thanks so much for all your help throughout all these years. It’s a scary time, but I’m still super grateful.’

“I got A LOT of positive feedback from graduates,” she said.

The coronavirus hasn’t broken the connection between students and their SSCs, who have been helping just as many of them as before, except they're doing it from their living rooms, kitchens and home offices. They have been answering just as many emails, phone calls and Zoom calls from students about what classes they should take, what they should do if they want to change majors or how to fill out their Federal Student Aid application.

SSCs also continue to reach out to students via phone proactively, more than ever before, each of them averaging in excess of 30 outbound calls a day.

Sommerfeld said she fields about five to 10 phone calls a day from home but answers about 50 emails in addition to reaching out to students.

“And that’s on a slow day,” she said.

SSCs such as Sommerfeld are students’ first connection to the University and continue to be that steady rock for them. An SSC is assigned to a student for their entire four years here, and they are that voice of reassurance for those who feel uncertain about what’s to come -- especially during such a tumultuous year. 

It’s business as usual, yet in the current pandemic reality, somehow not.

After the Centers for Disease Control regulations started to emerge, that the SSCs transitioned to working from home on March 30. It's something they had done part time for a couple of years because they could remotely access their work files.

“We’ll take days here and there to work from home. But it has definitely taken some getting used to as far as full-time working from home,” said Stephen Johnson, Student Services manager.

The transition hasn’t been without its stresses.

A student in March stops by the reception desk and asks to see a Student Services counselor.

“I think one of the biggest challenges," Johnson said, "has been kind of just getting all the information to students, because when it first started, when all this first came into being, the amount of information coming out to us was just staggering, to the point where I felt bad sending my team reports or updates. There was NO WAY anyone’s brain can hold this much information.” 

But the SSCs, who Johnson said are masters of change, were able to process all that information, continue to do their jobs and do it well.

“Over time, we were able to just kind of marinate on it and absorb all of it,” he said, and that helped them instill a sense of calm in students who were unsure about what the ensuing days would hold: “Will there be a Commencement?” “Will the grades be pass-fail or do I still get an ‘A?’” “How do I get my belongings out of my dorm?” “What will happen to my senior capstone project that I won’t be able to complete?”

SSCs such as Marissa Canez had to process staggering amounts of information during COVID-19 to continue to help students.

Marissa Canez, who has been a ground Student Services counselor for two years, said, “Even though we don’t have the answers all the time, now I feel like we do,” she said.

Every-other-day meetings with Executive Vice President of Operations Sarah Boeder’s team have kept the SSCs updated so they could digest all the new information they were receiving as the pandemic – and as answers to students’ questions – continued to evolve.

“It (the meetings) helped streamline all the information of what we think students are going to be asking us in the future,” Canez said. “But it also comes down to putting myself in the students’ situation … knowing that maybe they want a listening ear just to vent. Even in my own personal life, I just want somebody to vent to, whether they have the answer or not. It’s taking that kind of approach.”

Her approach was a tremendous help to Jacob Anderson, a sophomore entrepreneurship major who felt stressed out as a freshman going into college, with a lot of the unknowns.

Canez quelled those stresses. Anderson said he's in contact with her a lot, even through the pandemic. In the last weeks of the semester, he sent several emails to her, and she helped him with scholarship and FAFSA forms.

"Before the end of the school year, she helped me with questions about my class schedule and all of that stuff," he said. "She's been a HUGE blessing to me. I don't know what I'd do without her."

Johnson said SSCs are a key touchstone for students, particularly in times of stress.

Student Services Manager Stephen Johnson said resources for students still exist, just in a more virtual environment.

“They’re college students. They have stressful lives. They’re working and have multiple things going on,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, they come in and they want to talk about these issues with the SSCs and the counselors – and the counselors are very well trained to do a very good job, being like, ‘Hey, we’re here for you. There are resources for you.’ Even with all this COVID stuff going on and us working from home, those resources still exist. They just exist in a more virtual environment.

“I think we’ve already been preconditioned and pretrained with that. Now it just happens over the phone and in Zoom meetings.”

For Sommerfeld, once she did digest all that new information, once she had some of the answers to what students were likely to ask, her job as an SSC looked much as it did before, even if she was working from her living room.

“It basically seems almost the same, we’re just not meeting students face-to-face anymore," Sommerfeld said. "Fortunately, because it (the move from ground to distance learning) happened so late in the year, we had the opportunity to kind of build our relationships with these students the entire time they were on campus. That way, when we made the transition, everyone felt really comfortable just coming to us via email and phone.”

Lisa Pearson, a Phoenix resident who is finishing up her psychology degree this summer, said that despite moving to a virtual world, she was in contact with Sommerfeld as much as ever during stay-at-home mandates.

"Being it was graduation, I talked to her. But I also contacted her to make sure she was doing well, and the Friday before Memorial Day, I contacted her and told her I got accepted to medical school," said Pearson, who switched her major from pre-med to psychology earlier in the academic year. After taking a break, she plans to start her studies at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe in 2021.

"She's amazing! I now consider her to be my family," Pearson said of Sommerfeld.

SSCs advise students on academics and finances and continue to do that from their homes during COVID-19.

Besides suddenly not getting to see the students they’ve come to know over four years, Johnson said it’s been difficult not to be able to see his team except virtually over Zoom calls.

“We have a pretty tight-knit team and a tight-knit department,” he said. “Not having the office camaraderie just makes it a little more difficult. We definitely all enjoy being around each other. We toss around ideas and ask each other questions. We get a lot of energy from each other.”

It’s an energy that hasn’t seemed to wane. With the academic year wrapped up, the team has let out a collective sigh. One more year done. Check. One more class of students sent successfully off into the world. Check.

Now it’s on to summertime administrative work, reaching out to students about the next semester, focusing on preparing for next year and looking forward to fall, when the spring 2020 graduating class will have a re-do on a rescheduled Commencement. With even more unknowns, more change and more questions to prepare for, the SSCs will continue not to miss a beat, whether from home or back at the Student Advising Services Building on the Promenade.

“We’ve seen some crazy stuff happen with change and have been through a lot,” Johnson said. “We’ve switched buildings a lot of times, and we’ve had directives come out quite a bit.

“But more than anything, they (the SSCs) care for their students and are very flexible individuals. I think that’s what makes them so successful. They’re going to buckle down, work and take care of their students, no matter what.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: SAS Building creates new arc for student services

GCU Today: Student Services is welcoming space for students

GCU Magazine: GCU builder has blueprint for success: teamwork


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