UFS expanding virtual student support services

6th July 2020 By: Schalk Burger - Creamer Media Senior Contributing Editor

The University of the Free State (UFS) on July 6 announced that it was adding tutoring and mentoring services to its student support initiatives. These would be funded by the youth education nonprofit organisation Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

The projects the university will implement are aimed at helping tackle students' new realities. The new initiatives include extended one-on-one tutoring via the university’s A_STEP call centre, which will enable the upscaling of tutorial support for the most vulnerable students who are experiencing challenges with learning owing to a lack of resources.

It is also scaling up its e-mentoring to provide socio-emotional support to the broader student population, as well as create additional capacity for more accurate tracking of students’ support needs. This will help to provide the required socio-emotional support for students affected by the circumstantial changes brought about by Covid-19, the university said in a statement.

It introduced the Keep calm, #UFSLearnOn campaign for students and the #UFSTeachOn campaign for staff during April.

“The UFS has adopted an online learning approach and, although indications are that students have adapted to this mode of learning and teaching, the additional services will assist tremendously in ensuring that the university succeeds in completing the academic year. These projects are funded by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and we are grateful to have a committed and like-minded partner embarking on this journey with us,” said UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Francis Petersen.

Other projects that will benefit from the funding include a dedicated toll-free 24-hour student mental-health helpline to better equip the university’s psychological support services to assist students who are experiencing mental-health crises; scaling graduate employability opportunities to expand the offering and reach of the UFS Career Services office and improve the efficiency of current initiatives; and additional support for Health Sciences students in the delivery of emotional support to students who are experiencing great uncertainty about the future owing to the adapted online teaching and learning methodology.

"In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, most students and educators have faced new challenges. Many are overwhelmed by online teaching styles and students with previous access to academic support on campus are now forced to go at it alone at home. These challenges result in more than potential long-term academic setbacks; they trigger emotional reactions which many students may not be equipped to solve while meeting academic and social demands.

"The UFS will be providing students with additional, holistic support to ensure no student is left behind during the Covid-19 pandemic. UFS aims to go beyond meeting the academic needs of students by bolstering initiatives aimed at providing mental health support, tending to future career anxiety, and upscaling mentorship," the statement said.

“Providing a supportive, encouraging environment is imperative for students to achieve academic success. This is truer now than ever before, as online learning has tasked students with taking their academic careers into their own hands, often with limited opportunities to receive personalised advice and support,” says Michael & Susan Dell Foundation South Africa program director Dr Thashlin Govender.

"Our hope is that the initiatives brought to life by UFS will serve as a catalyst for both short- and long-term benefits for the students most in need."