Ithaka S+R has long explored how students define their own success and how academic and student support services can most effectively advance that success—and our work on these issues has only ramped up during the pandemic. When it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay, students had to face dramatic shifts to their learning, a staggering amount of communication and newly-implemented policies from their institutions, and new expectations on what it means to be a student, all while dealing with increased personal and professional priorities outside of their academic responsibilities. While facing these challenges, many students felt that the pandemic affected their academic progress, ultimately impeding their road to success. Prior conceptualizations of student success may therefore not be as accurate in our “new normal,” and higher education institutions will need to account for these shifts as they plan for the years ahead.

Today, we are excited to share the last blog post of our three-part Q&A series on Centering Student Experiences during the pandemic and beyond, this time delving into how our student advisors currently define success, how this might have changed during the pandemic, and how their college can help them achieve that success. They highlight how being involved on campus and school resources like food pantries, student clinics, and financial services increased their stability and ultimately helped advance their long-term success. Their responses also demonstrate how important it is to have indicators of success that are not purely based on quantitative, outcome-based metrics like assignment or course grades.

What does success look like for you as a college student? Has this definition of success changed at all during the pandemic?

Jacob Bunch (he/him)
Success to me was finishing my AA at Hillsborough Community College. I decided to go back to school after my military service mainly to show my children that it’s never too late to get an education and better yourself. The pandemic made staying motivated extremely difficult, but looking back now I’m glad I didn’t give up like a lot of other people I know did.

Christina Lehua Hummel-Colla (‘o ia/she/they)
I would not say that my definition of success has changed much, except perhaps that I am more understanding and accepting of myself when I do not perform as “well” (in terms of quantitative metrics) as I would like. For me as a college student, success is curiosity and exploration. It is remaining open to new experiences and ideas. It is a lifelong voyage through the multiverse of knowledge. I think that we are most “successful” in life when we define our own win conditions, rather than internalizing the win conditions placed upon us by external forces. This way of thinking encourages self-reflection and adaptation. I have always aspired to be a lifelong learner, and I have no plans to alter that aspiration—regardless of what form it manifests as now or in the future. I am intrinsically curious about the world around me, and I think that this as a definition of success serves me far better than any other that has been suggested in the past. Sometimes we get caught up in measuring success through quantitative data—it is, in many ways, quicker and easier to see and comprehend than qualitative data. However, that qualitative or rich data, has so much to teach us and I would hate to see us ignore the lessons it offers. I appreciate that this research project has attended to both types of data.

Mitchell Fountain (he/him)
As a college student at Stephen F. Austin State University, I would define success as learning the necessary skills and information needed to do well in my future career. As an engineering physics major, it is very important that I learn the many technical skills and acquire the appropriate knowledge required to do my job properly. Without it, it is very likely that I wouldn’t be hired in the first place! With hundreds of thousands of engineering students graduating each year, it’s crucial that I’m able to stand apart from the crowd by proving my abilities and knowledge. For me personally, I would say that my definition of success hasn’t changed much even during the course of the pandemic. Although life seemed to be on hold for the first few months of COVID-19, I was still able to continue forward and do well in my coursework and other school projects. I’m sure that for many this isn’t the same case as some have lost loved ones, jobs, and have had to take on new or more responsibilities, but I’m very thankful to say that I have been able to continue forward without too many issues thus far.

What support services has your college recently highlighted to help students achieve success and how did you hear about them? How did these services help you achieve success?

Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC) highlighted financial aid, and this is the support service from them I have been most aware of throughout the pandemic. I believe, however, that LAVC has offered support services in the form of mental health services and of course advising as well—I simply have not sought those services from the college. The college was very communicative about financial aid resources, and those are the services I sought out during the pandemic. The primary form of communication around these resources was email. Unfortunately, I did not realize for some time that aid was available because the pertinent emails were only going to my student address. Thankfully, the college sent me numerous messages about it, and eventually I did check and see that I qualified for some financial aid as a community college student at part-time enrollment. Since then, I have been more aware of and able to seek out such resources when they are available. Despite being employed throughout the pandemic, my financial life was and has been a major challenge. I experienced extreme hardship in 2019 and 2020 that resulted in financial instability and uncertainty, which I am still working to recover from. The financial aid support services offered by LAVC helped to ease the burden during the pandemic and create some breathing room.

I stayed involved in student government which made all the difference to me. Since we were generally the ones pushing out information to the student body on services available to them, that’s how I found out about most services that were being offered.

One service that really stands out in my mind is my college’s food pantry called Feed the Need. Started in 2019, Feed the Need was created to help students facing food insecurity or in need of basic personal hygiene products. By providing these to students, Feed the Need hoped to alleviate students’ stress of providing for themselves the basic necessities so that they could better focus on their classes and college activities. With a pandemic affecting many students’ abilities to provide these basic necessities, Feed the Need’s mission became even more paramount. Another service my college began to institute was a sort of small-scale financial aid program, in which students needing money for gas or other similar needs could receive a Visa gift card of some set amount. They also opened a new health clinic just across the street from the campus to better provide access to basic health care needs for all students. To get the word out about all of these services, the college sent emails to all students through their school-provided emails, but also utilized social media platforms to better reach them.

Looking toward the upcoming academic year, what services could be expanded and/or continue to be provided at your college that would further help you and/or other students achieve success?

Expanding and continuing to provide financial aid is possibly the single best thing that colleges can do to support students as we move toward a new “normal” this fall. Student loan debt is, indeed, a national crisis with the cost of education being what it is. Community colleges as institutions seem the most responsive and sensitive to this issue, offering affordable education in a broad variety of areas. Continuing to be responsive to the challenges and financial hardships college students face will help ease the hardship. At the end of the day, no matter how much data we collect, financial hardship and poverty manifest differently for everyone and each person’s circumstances are unique in some way. Offering resources directly to students, who are the experts on the challenges they are facing, will increase their capacity to resolve challenges and focus more fully on their educational goals.

In California, I would love to see colleges advocate for increased access to CalFresh and food stamp resources. Colleges should maintain food pantries and other food security resources on campus. Unfortunately, there is an odd myth in American culture that college students are financially secure kids living free and easy off their parents during a transitional life period. This is so far from the truth as to be laughable. When I experienced financial hardship as a student and sought access to CalFresh, I encountered numerous barriers to a vital resource that would have granted greater food security, eased a major source of stress, and allowed me to focus more fully on my education. The need to eat is one of our most basic shared biological needs. Ensuring that all students have ample access to food is vital. Let us do away with the starving student trope once and for all.

Ensure that all students have ample resources to fulfill basic human needs, and they will be far more likely to thrive. It is impossible to do your best when you are hungry.

I believe that two crucial services my college should continue to provide and expand upon are both the Feed the Need food pantry and our new student clinic. Some people may still be facing food and hygiene insecurities, and with a return of students to campus, the need for these items will likely increase. As long as the college continues to build upon this program and promote its vital importance to the student community, Feed the Need will be able to meet the needs of any and all students in need of their services. Also, by promoting and expanding our student clinic, the college can help provide the basic health care needs of the many returning to campus. Over the course of the pandemic, some students have likely had to neglect checkups or receiving other health related services, which potentially could cause problems for the student and their peers. By further promoting and encouraging students to take advantage of the college’s health clinic, the college can help stem problems that could arise as students begin a return to campus.

I think just being able to be physically present on campus will make a huge difference to the majority of students. I look forward to seeing what the fall will bring, but I am sure that students will appreciate being back to normal more than ever post pandemic.

Throughout this series, our student advisors have shed light on how their institutions fostered community during the pandemic, supported their technological needs, and in today’s Q&A how they personally define success and how their colleges can best support them to achieve their goals. As we end this series and the fall semester begins during this “new normal,” one thing that is clear from these conversations is that colleges should continue to remain flexible to manage the unexpected and to create opportunities that support students holistically both inside and outside of the classroom. As Christina summarizes:

“The solution is not to “return to normal,” but to re-invent “normal” in a manner that makes life safer, healthier, and happier for everyone involved. For example, working toward smaller classroom sizes (something our schools desperately needed before the pandemic) would also decrease the vectors present in a classroom. Building infrastructure that supports teachers and students in hybrid and virtual classroom environments also decreases risk while increasing flexibility. Moving toward new workplace norms, such as 30-35 hour work weeks, while simultaneously maintaining and increasing existing pay/salary rates as is the norm in Sweden, and increasing maternal and paternal leave, would grant parents more flexibility in terms of work/life balance and keep themselves and their children safe, healthy, and happy. We cannot return to the past, but we can adapt with change and leverage change to work together toward our shared future. By centering people and humanity, rather than quantitative measures of success and ‘efficiency,’ we will be better equipped to serve ourselves and each other.”

Please note responses were voluntary and have been lightly edited for clarity. For more information on all of our student advisors, click here to read about their personal and institutional backgrounds.