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VAI Voice

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
1 Jul 2020

How Van Andel Institute Graduate School supported students managing the difficulties of COVID-19

By John Vasquez, Ph.D., MHSA, Director of Assessment & Professional Development

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically reshaped so many areas of our lives. For graduate students pursuing careers in science, it also meant major disruptions to research required to complete their dissertation and earn their Ph.D.

As a doctoral program, we believe it’s not just saying what you will do for students that matters, but what you actually do that counts. Van Andel Institute Graduate School has been, and remains, deeply committed to the success of our students even in the most turbulent times. That’s why, when the pandemic struck and we were required to shelter at home, we moved all courses to a virtual environment and engaged in a series of activities to make sure our students were heard and supported. At the same time, we kept in mind that each student faces a different set of circumstances, as outlined in this Inside Higher Ed piece authored by Emery Haley, one of our students.

Here’s a quick snapshot:

Staying connected: The past few months have been a crash course in adaptation and maintaining connectivity in difficult times. To ensure we were meeting students’ needs as we transitioned into an online learning environment, we held a Virtual Townhall on March 25 to give students a forum to discuss how they were doing as well as share tools and resources for coping during the pandemic. To date, we also have sent three surveys to assess student experiences, identify stressors and pinpoint where we could help. As VAI began allowing some scientists back in the building, in accordance with State of Michigan guidelines, we also asked questions to evaluate how students were dealing with the transition back to the lab.

Guaranteeing funding: Our graduate students have continued to receive their funding and stipends, regardless of the pandemic.

Opening online office hours: One of the benefits of our smaller program is the ability to stop by the Graduate School’s office at any time with questions and concerns. We wanted to preserve that throughout our time away from the building so each week, Graduate School Dean Dr. Steve Triezenberg reserves an hour as “open time” on Zoom for students to drop in with individual or general questions. Relevant questions (and responses) are also shared online so that other students can benefit from the information.

Sharing resources: Throughout Michigan’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order, we provided weekly email updates to students about Graduate School activities as well as links to mental health resources (VAI also continues to send daily email updates). Staying in touch with our students and helping them through these challenging times were paramount to the Graduate School team. 

Hosting a Virtual Stress Management Week: This annual event was delivered virtually this year. Throughout the week, students received resources and were invited to participate in activities to assist them in managing their stress. Resources covered topics such as a self-care wheel, self-care bingo, meditation, journaling and grief.

Teaming up to help out: We partnered with iBiology, the Graduate Career Consortium and the National Postdoctoral Association to develop and relay resources (including webinars) for faculty and trainees on ways to continue professional development in a crisis.