Campus News

Supporting students during a time of crisis

The Well asked Carolina faculty members for their thoughts and advice on helping students during a challenging period. Here’s some of what they suggested.

Woman in mask offers a box of donuts to two women in masks beside a hand-painted sign that reads
On Oct. 13, 2021, the Hussman School's Erin Siegal McIntyre invited passersby to have a donut and conversation if they felt like it. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In the run-up to Monday’s daylong Mental Health Summit, The Well asked students for the names of faculty who are doing a good job supporting their students through a time of crisis. We then asked some of those faculty for their thoughts and helpful tips.

As Dana Riger, clinical assistant professor in the School of Education, notes below, not every instructor has the training to facilitate dialogues about mental health in class. Riger has a clinical background, with a master’s degree and doctorate in marriage and family therapy, which equips her to facilitate these discussions. But she says professors should still strive to be flexible and express genuine care for their students.

Show students it’s OK to struggle

Dana Riger said she has supported her students in a number of ways. In the first five minutes of large classes, she administers an anonymous Q&A using the digital tool Poll Everywhere, through which students can ask questions or share concerns or struggles.

“It creates a dialogue, and I think it makes them feel more connected when they see others have a shared experience,” Riger said.

She also tries to model vulnerability by sharing challenges she and other faculty members are facing.

“We’re all human and we struggle, and that’s OK,” she said.

Riger said she has also been flexible with deadlines and always tries to inquire about students’ well-being first when she notices they haven’t turned in their work.

Riger stressed that not every instructor has the training to hold space for students in this way — and that’s OK.

Tune in to how they’re feeling

At the Kenan-Flagler Business School, associate professor Shimul Melwani worked with the school’s wellness coach and student engagement team to organize drop-in spaces for students to talk, grieve “or simply ‘be’” on the Monday and Tuesday following the tragic events in mid-October.

She also extended deadlines, sent emails of support to students and opened classes — which were held outdoors that week — with vulnerable conversations.

“Being attuned with how students are feeling and what they need is probably the most critical aspect of my role as a professor, and it’s something I try to put into action,” Melwani said.

Address the crisis in class

Michelle Sheran-Andrews is a teaching associate professor in the economics department of the College of Arts & Sciences. In her Intermediate Microeconomics course, the second exam was scheduled for the Wednesday after the Oct. 12 wellness day. Instead, Sheran-Andrews delayed the exam and gave students the option to skip it for mental health reasons and have its weight transferred to the final exam.

“I think what made the most impact, however, was simply addressing the crisis in class, acknowledging that many are struggling with mental health as we transition back to in-person classes and sharing my feelings about it,” she said. “The outpouring of support I received after doing so reminded me of what I love so much about this university and its student body.”

Build a sense of community

Gidi Shemer, a teaching associate professor in the College’s biology department, said that the first and most important step “is to be aware and empathetic to the fact that students can struggle.”

He said he has various ways he tries to support his students. For one thing, he offers a Google form where students can anonymously contact him. He also offers asynchronous options for classes and reaches out to students first when they show signs of struggling instead of waiting for them to contact him. And he tries to create a sense of community by having an optional class Facebook page, sharing personal as well as professional stories and even cooking together on Zoom.

“We have terrific students who need to learn that it is perfectly fine to struggle at times, and we need to help them pass through those times of crisis,” Shemer said. “This can be done even without compromising our academic standards.”

Make space for “extra” conversations

At the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, assistant professor Erin Siegal McIntyre has done everything from taking a “Wellness Week” during this semester’s eighth week of classes, in which she reduced the out-of-class workload, assigned a self-assessment piece for students to reflect on how they were doing midway through the semester and provided readings on how to prevent burnout as a journalist, to passing out two dozen donuts on the front steps of the school.

Woman in mask offers a box of donuts to two women in masks beside a hand-painted sign that reads "Eat a donut with a professor."

“I think approaching my students with humility and a collaborative spirit has empowered me to better support them,” said the Hussman School’s Erin Siegal McIntyre. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

She said she has intentionally made space in her class schedules for “extra” conversations — about college pressure, work-life balance or just a space to vent. She has also assigned written self-assessment, where students have time for reflection without a hard structure.

“Those free-flowing narratives brim with honesty,” she said. “It’s beautiful, and at times painful, to read about the myriad issues affecting our community.”

When something traumatic or significant happens, the class will discuss it “openly and without judgment.”

She also emphasized her willingness to abandon a schedule or syllabus item and pivot.

“Demonstrating flexibility, kindness and compassion helps students focus on actual learning and getting inspired to go forth and commit good in the world, instead of getting hung up on their GPA. If that’s not a win, what is?”

Show students how valuable they are

In the College’s department of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, associate professor Claudia Yaghoobi said she led a few empowering exercises with her students in addition to changing deadlines and holding space in class for students to discuss their struggles.

One such exercise had students write thoughtful and affirmative sentences about their classmates on sticky notes.

“My classes are discussion-based, so by that time of the semester, we all know each other by first name and personally,” she said.

After everyone was finished, she read all the sentences aloud. Every student got at least one statement affirming their presence in class.

“Even I got some validating statements,” Yaghoobi said.

She told students to hold on to the notes and come back to them when they feel down.

“They will see the miracles these do,” she said. “It is always wonderful to see how others perceive us and how our existence is worthwhile. I view this exercise as a powerful way of showing my students that they are seen and heard and that they are valuable to the class environment.”

Illustration of four people in a circle of chairs with blank word bubbles above their heads suggesting conversation.

(Illustration by Leighann Vinesett/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Model authenticity

Laurie Selz-Campbell, a clinical associate professor in the School of Social Work, said she supports her students during a time of crisis in three main ways.

First, she begins class with a check-in. This can include many things — telling her students how she appreciates them, acknowledging significant events going on around them, allowing 10 minutes for students to check in with each other informally or scheduling a few minutes to move around.

She is also working to change the narrative that says: “If you’re feeling upset or triggered by something that we’re talking about in class, you’re free to leave the room,” she said.

“This is often how we manage emotions in academic and professional settings. As I’ve reflected on this over the years, I’ve come to realize that, while leaving the space may be exactly the right thing in the moment for an individual student, we run the risk of communicating the message that strong emotions are unwelcome at best, and something to be ashamed of at worst.”

Instead, she tries to name — and, therefore, validate — the strong emotions that students may be feeling, inviting sharing for a few minutes as the student feels comfortable, encouraging communal support and validation, linking back to the broader themes of class discussion as appropriate and following up with the student after class as needed.

“Of course, the point here is offering choice, as well as having faith in my own facilitation skills,” she said.

Finally, she tries to be “responsibly transparent” about her own challenges and struggles.

“I believe that this models authenticity, has the potential to offer hope and allows us to consider how we live with the struggles of being human while at the same time continuing to show up for our work and for each other,” she said.