Koret Scholars: Persisting in college through a pandemic

Koret Scholars: Persisting in college through a pandemic

Aug 2021 | Higher Education

Supporting institutions of higher learning has been a priority of the Koret Foundation since our founding. The Koret Scholars program, established in 2016, provides needs-based scholarships and other support to college students across the Bay Area who face the most barriers to college completion: low-income students, underrepresented minority students, and those who are the first generation in their families to attend college. 

The 2020–2021 school year was a year like no other. And for most Koret Scholars, the pivots and adaptations required during the COVID-19 pandemic only magnified the challenges they already faced in completing their degrees. Some Koret Scholars had relied on connectivity on-campus, and/or on hardware and software usually available in libraries and study centers. As the academic year drew to a close, we followed up with Koret Scholarship program administrators for their perspectives on the impacts of pandemic-induced remote learning.

Disruptions to students’ academic equilibrium rippled out: the suspension and elimination of on-campus jobs and work-study opportunities led to a decrease in income. Learning from home increased many family burdens that students bear, economic hardship increased food insecurity, and stresses to mental health were compounded for many students and their families. As a group, these students were more adversely affected than their more privileged fellow students by the academic and emotional isolation imposed by the pandemic. 

Across the country, college applications overall are up, but applications from first-gen and other minority students have taken a sizeable dip. Some students in this cohort took fewer units this year, in order to balance family and financial obligations; more students than usual requested leaves of absence for a quarter or semester, or even for a full academic year. For students who may not be able to complete their degrees in four years, a fifth year will be a costly hurdle. For those students who are unable to complete their education at all, the “learning loss” is compounded by a financial shortfall—some studies estimate up to $1 million in lost lifetime income for workers without a bachelor’s degree, as compared to students with one. 

More than ever, supportive programs like the Koret Scholarships are critical for these underserved students. For many of them, college success depends on so much more than what they learn in coursework, whether in person or via Zoom. The administrators we spoke with helped their schools respond quickly to expanded student needs in the near-term and devised ways to address the longer-term academic and social implications of the pandemic. 

Increasing access to technology

“My Zoom experience is much better now. Before upgrading, I had to turn off my video feeds in order to let professors and classmates hear my voice during class and discussions, but my classmates sometimes still said my voice had been cut off. Now I am able to keep my camera on and they can hear my voice crystal clear.”

— Lin Ma, Santa Clara University Class of 2021, received funding for an internet upgrade

Early in the pandemic, schools moved quickly to improve access to technology for students, including Koret Scholars, challenged by the shift to remote learning. Schools sought funding to institute loaner services with contactless pick-up and various other measures to bridge an even steeper than anticipated digital divide. 

At UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), the student support team in the Department of University Relations describes access to technology as essential not only for coursework and research but also for basically all aspects of student interaction and well-being. Technology is how students connect to each other, to staff and faculty, and to health services. On the last point, UCSC is building institutional capacity to improve mental health awareness, support and services to all students. The prolonged pandemic has been disruptive emotionally as well as academically, and UCSC has also created a pilot program to proactively engage students who plan to return after a leave of absence. 

The pandemic has been an exceptional hardship for students across the state and country. As we, and other universities, constantly revise, refine, and add to our approaches to supporting students in this difficult time, we are learning new ways of helping students learn and navigate their undergraduate career, many of which will continue as we return to a more normal world.

— UCSC interim report to the Koret Foundation


Bolstering support for student well-being

At Santa Clara University (SCU), the LEAD Scholars Program offers a comprehensive suite of academic, social, co-curricular, and career readiness support for 420 first-generation students—including transfer students—throughout their college experiences. Dedicated staff also supports first-generation student advocacy and manages peer mentor and peer educator programs for tutoring and guidance in navigating all aspects of college life.   

In the early weeks of  the pandemic, the LEAD team surveyed their students, including Koret Scholars and Fellows. Key findings included: 

  • 52% of students acknowledged feeling impacted in terms of their mental/emotional health.
  • 70% anticipated having difficulty staying motivated academically. 
  • 33% anticipated that family would make it challenging to study.
  • 31% indicated that they did not have adequate study space.

In response, Erin Kimura-Walsh, director of the LEAD Scholars Program, and her staff collaborated with SCU’s administration to deploy over $250,000 in direct emergency financial support for impacted students. The program also quickly pivoted to help students improve internet connectivity and access to learning technology, and provided opportunities to participate in virtual co-curricular programs. LEAD offered 91 virtual events, attracting 920 students for weekly support groups in collaboration with the mental health office; check-ins for students to connect with each other and LEAD staff; and, social events, including game nights and talent shows, to build community.  

LEAD took the long view to expanding support for these students, offering stipends for unpaid internship opportunities, undergraduate research, summer school, and possible studies abroad in the 2021-22 academic year.  

“I graduated from Santa Clara University this year with a double major in English and Philosophy. I was involved in LEAD as a peer educator for LEAD-related courses and a participant in an  the wonderful social activities, including an annual LEAD pageant. As a low-income student, I am deeply grateful to Koret for its generous funding. I relied on it during times of emergency, like when I could not pay for textbooks during the pandemic.

I also relied on Koret to embark on incredible, life-changing college opportunities, which shaped my post-grad plans to be a Fulbright U.S. Student Program grantee as an English Teaching Assistant in Armenia. Because of my Koret funding, I was able to study abroad in Rome, participate in an immersion trip to New Orleans, and pursue two unpaid internships that taught me the importance of literature and learning.

I wholeheartedly thank Koret for their inseparable part in shaping my love for intercultural education, and for all they do to support students like me. I hope to practice this same spirit of care and generosity when I represent the United States in Armenia next year.”

— Ryan Nazari ’21, English and Philosophy Teaching Fulbright Finalist

Balancing virtual learning and family obligations

Remote learning, while convenient in theory, can be logistically and psychologically challenging. Students’ family responsibilities may literally overlap with their personal study time and space. Yesenia Cervantes-Tucker at UC Davis oversees advising, scholar awards, mentorship opportunities and extracurricular programming for Koret Scholars in the College of Engineering. Her program, known as AvenueE, seeks to nurture the success of transfer students who demonstrate potential to become leaders in engineering and computer science, and to reduce obstacles to the full participation of women and underrepresented minorities in these fields. Ms. Cervantes-Tucker shared with us some insights about ways that students’ physical separation from peers, faculty, and staff increased their sense of isolation and challenged their academic focus.  

Many students need to help siblings or children with homeschooling or homework, in addition to spending time on their own studies. Students often feel guilty when they are at home but not accessible to family members because they are online. Family obligations can also be financial: some students are struggling to find a job in their field, while others are having to work more (and study less) to support themselves or help out family. 

“It’s important to recognize that students are going through a lot right now. They may need us more today than they ever have. As educational leaders, we have to take a step back and reimagine how we support them through this.”

— Yesenia Cervantes-Tucker, MA, Director AvenueE, College of Engineering, UC Davis

Koret Scholarships helped students to offset the financial burden of pursuing a college degree and to balance other personal responsibilities. The AvenueE team stayed in frequent touch with students to support them in dealing constructively with pandemic-related issues. Weekly cohort meetings included time for students to connect with one another, to get updates about campus resources, to hear from professors and industry partners, to prepare for internship and career fairs, and to plan for the future. One-on-one advising sessions allowed the team to be thought partners with students in helping develop personalized plans of study 

The COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed what we already knew—Koret Scholars are a study in resilience and perseverance. Despite the challenges of pandemic learning, universities found ways to support and nurture at-risk students, and students found ways to learn from their experience and to emerge from the pandemic with a plan for the future. At CSUMB, for example, the 2020-21 academic year ended on a high note for all five Koret Scholars scheduled to graduate. They all completed their baccalaureate degrees as planned and applied to graduate school for fall 2021. At Sonoma State, two Koret Scholars applied their new research skills to publish a study on how the pandemic has affected various aspects of student life.  

Koret’s original goals for the Koret Scholars program remain unchanged. Despite the challenges that grantee schools and their students have faced since March of 2020, we are cautiously optimistic. Our grantees have shown not only commitment but also ingenuity in helping their students navigate the remote-learning landscape. No schools have modified the objectives of their respective scholarship programs—and Koret feels this adherence to identified priorities confirms the value of this type of support. We applaud our Koret Scholars for their resilience and persistence.