Mind the Brain: Chancellor Michelle Marks on the Inequitable Impact of COVID-19 on Low-Income and Underrepresented College StudentsApr 27, 2021
Dr. Michelle Marks has been the Chancellor of CU Denver since July 2020. A longtime leader in education, Marks has quickly established herself as a leader of action, launching a strategic planning process and undertaking significant initiatives in diversity, equity and inclusion as well as economic development, community partnerships, and digital learning, among other areas.
On this premiere episode of Mind the Brain season two, Chancellor Marks talks with Dr. Neill Epperson about what makes CU Denver’s student body unique—and uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19—and how faculty and staff can support their students through extreme crisis while still taking care of their own stress.
Being a college student was already stressful before COVID-19
Marks and Epperson open the conversation by acknowledging the mental health challenges that college students nationwide were facing even before the pandemic hit. As Marks points out, American college students are prone to feeling lonely and tend to show higher rates of anxiety and depression than the general population.
COVID-19—and the stressors that come with it: social isolation, uncertainty, abrupt transitions, disjointed social support systems, disconnection from their community, fears about their own health and the health of their loved ones—has only compounded the high levels of stress and challenges to mental health that college students were already facing.
Prolonged stress, Epperson points out, is unhealthy. But uncontrollable stress—like that brought on by COVID—particularly noxious, taking a toll on mental and physical health.
Who are the students at CU Denver, and how have they been impacted?
“CU Denver has a student body of about 15,000 students, and it’s different from the typical residential student body. Our students tend to be either adult learners, working learners, or both. Many of our older students are juggling school with job responsibilities and family care during the pandemic. They’re juggling being a student with job responsibilities and families. About half of the students are first generation in their family to go to college, many don’t have much support at home for doing college work – especially remotely. Many are low income: 47% of students are Pell-eligible, and 35% of our student’s households earn less than $33,000 a year,” explains Marks, “And, they’re ethnically diverse. Half of our undergraduates are students of color—we’re really proud of that, by the way—36% are underrepresented minorities, 26% are Latino.”
“We’ve seen that students of color and low-income students have born a disproportionate brunt of the impact of the pandemic.”
On top of the chronic stress that low-income students and students of color face, Marks makes it clear that these populations of students and their families have faced an incredible amount of compounded stress from the pandemic, including work and wage loss, health impacts, disruptions to their education, the crisis of racial justice, and barriers to access for undocumented students.
Marks tells Epperson that a survey given to students at the beginning of the semester identified 2,000 students who lacked the resources or environment (laptops, software, access to internet, access to private or undisturbed space) to complete their course work virtually.
“One of the things that is paining me most about this pandemic for me […] both at CU Denver and nationwide, we’ve seen students stop out and drop out of their education because they can’t afford it anymore due to job loss.”
What about the DREAMers?
In America there are 241,000 DREAMers – undocumented students who entered the US as minors – who are in college today. A subset of those DREAMers qualify for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DACA). Although CU Denver doesn’t require students to disclose their citizenship status, there is a sizeable population of DREAMer students, and they face their own set of stressors and barriers to access.
Marks tells Epperson that DREAMers tend to face the same stressors as other students, but don’t qualify for federal/financial aid and affordable government-subsidized healthcare. They’re ineligible for certain types of degrees and professional licenses (i.e. teaching and nursing), are unable to study abroad, and don’t qualify for internships connected to or provided by federal or state governments. They live with a constant, underlying fear of deportation. Additionally, many DREAMers have to work in addition to attending classes in order to support themselves and their families.
COVID-19 stress is real for everyone, and should be managed for everyone
Epperson notes that compared to the crisis-level stress of so many students at CU Denver—and nationwide—faculty members and staff might be tempted to compare and subsequently discredit their own levels of stress.
She tells Marks, “I can see at least in my clinical practice that when people try to minimize their own stress as being insignificant compared to someone else’s, it never helps them. It really doesn’t. It doesn’t help them to feel better; and a lot of times it leads to shame and guilt, which compounds the situation.”
Marks agrees and explains that she always makes a point in meetings—both large and intimate—to acknowledge and name stressors and challenges. She points out that faculty and staff members who are also parents seem to be having a particularly difficult time managing the level of demand and pressure to perform in different areas at once.
“No matter what your social or professional situation, whether you’re a student or an academic or a leader; stress is happening to all of us, and to validate that [is incredibly important],” says Epperson.
The challenges students are facing are real – but there is help, and there is hope
Chancellor Marks and the leadership team at CU Denver have taken the inequitable impact of COVID-19 on certain population segments of students seriously since the onset of the pandemic. Here’s an overview of the kind of support they’ve offered—and some things that you can do to help.
| SUPPORT FOR DREAMERS:
- The Asset Program: ASSET is a state program that allows for eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. CU Denver currently has about 100 Asset students.
- UndocuAlly Support Training: If you’re a CU employee, you can sign up for mental health support training and sign up for UndocuAlly support training which specifically helps our Dreamer students.
- The CU Denver Student Relief Fund: The CU Denver Student Relief fund helps support students who might not be eligible for federal or state financial aid, including undocumented students. This scholarship was started by CU Denver faculty and staff and then CU President Bruce Benson extended to all four CU campuses.
| SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS LACKING MATERIAL/FINANCIAL RESOURCES
- Thanks to the CARES Act passed in July of 2020, CU Denver was able to provide over 1,600 students with money (between $200-$1400) to purchase the necessary equipment and materials to continue their course work. Marks acknowledges that while some students will unavoidably need to “stop-out,” or take a break from their education, CU Denver intends to do what it takes to keep as many students from dropping out as possible.
- You may contribute to the Loving Lynx Fund, an emergency funding resource to support students who encounter unexpected hardships and financial emergencies while pursuing degrees at CU Denver,
| SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS STRUGGLING WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
- Extended Counseling Hours: Counseling services through CU Denver are now available both virtually and in-person, and have been extended evening hours.
- Mental Health First Aid Training: Chancellor Marks and CU Denver have invested in campus-wide community training, which helps students, faculty and staff to identify people who are struggling with mental health. In the words of Marks, “Not everybody who needs help is going to seek for help.” Over 70 students, faculty, and staff have participated in Mental Health First Aid Training so far.
| SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS FACING ADDICTION SUBSTANCE USE DISORDERS OR INTERPERSONAL VIOLENCE
- The Phoenix Center: The Phoenix Center at Auraria (PCA) serves students, staff, and faculty associated with University of Colorado Denver, Community College of Denver, and Metropolitan State University Denver. The PCA provides free and confidential resources and assistance to survivors of interpersonal violence (relationship violence, sexual violence, and stalking), as well as their friends, families, and concerned others. The PCA support services include academic advocacy, assistance reporting to the school and/or law enforcement at the survivor’s request, safety planning, court accompaniment, emotional support, and more. The PCA also provides campus education and training, awareness raising events, and campus policy guidance.
Marks ends her conversation with Epperson with a message of optimism and a light visible at the end of the tunnel. She tells Epperson: “There is reason for hope. Science has come through with vaccinations. We here in Colorado and in other parts of the country are starting to see our case numbers go down and hopefully soon we’ll start seeing our death numbers go down; I’m hoping to see our economy rebound with that as well. So, I’m trying to talk both about the real hardships – acknowledge the challenge, and also see the possibility for hope in the future.”
For additional support, explore all of our mental health resources.
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