It wasn’t quite the graduation ceremony Jarusha Weeks of South Euclid anticipated. Weeks, who earned an associate of arts degree from Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), is a spring 2020 graduate with plans on becoming a social worker. COVID-19 restrictions meant hundreds of caps thrown by other grads didn’t fly in the air around her. Celebrating with classmates will have to wait.
“But my parents were really sweet. They set up a lot of flowers and balloons for me at home. We had a nice dinner, and we partied together,” says Weeks, a Tri-C student ambassador for two years. “That’s who I needed to celebrate with anyway. They carried me on their shoulders through my whole journey.
“It was like blocking off the rest of the world and just celebrating with your family. It’s great to be with your friends, but sometimes you get lost with them. And this way, I had an intimate moment with my parents,” she says.
Although a graduation ceremony is a milestone, it is also a moment in time. The formal education and extracurricular leadership skills Weeks gained at Tri-C will last a lifetime. Being a Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Scholar was one of the reasons Weeks graduated sooner than she originally anticipated. The rigorous requirements meant she needed to take a full load of courses that pushed her to succeed.
The extra effort and support from her advisers helped Weeks, an alum of Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst, to navigate and complete her studies before any inconvenience or dire consequences from COVID-19 could affect her schedule. Weeks also created E4, a school-sponsored, student support group that continues at the Eastern Campus. The last meeting with her at the helm of the group was held as a Zoom conference in the spring.
Tri-C can boast of immediate and innovative responses to distance learning and keeping students engaged in opportunities (including E4) even as COVID-19 disrupts in-person campus activities. Many students are able to complete coursework and graduate on time.
“We had a good foundation already established,” says Dr. Alex Johnson, president of Tri-C since 2013. “About 14 percent of our offerings were online, and we have a faculty that is committed to online student support 24/7. Our faculty showed flexibility, but at the same time maintained the quality of our offerings. In addition to service to students, we have instructional designers who help further develop online courses. There was no erosion of instruction or service.”
When the pandemic wave washed over Cleveland this spring, Tri-C’s online classes increased from 2,500 to 5,000. Online student population went from 13,000 to 30,000. Johnson emphasizes that it isn’t enough to just have those two aspects of education — instruction and service — available. They must be delivered.
“We also already had a culture of giving and supporting individuals in need. Emergency dollars were used to help students get the technology they needed for remote learning. We distributed 1,000 PCs. With additional funding, we also helped offset other insecurities that students faced, including food, housing and transportation concerns, as well as offering emotional support,” says Johnson.
The Cuyahoga Community College Foundation partnered with donors and two nonprofit organizations, PCs for People and RET3 Job Corp, to supply the computers.
To Johnson, the COVID-19 crisis is a “misfortune, but also an opportunity to create an educational institution that serves as an economic engine for the community.”
“We must focus on neighborhoods that need our help in ways that we did not help before,” says Johnson, who was chancellor of Delgado Community College in New Orleans during the horrific days and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm caused $125 billion in damage and more than 1,200 deaths. So Johnson says he understands crisis firsthand.
Education is a key to giving Cleveland communities and individuals that assistance, and Johnson’s laser is pointed at making that happen. Tri-C is both a general education school and technical/career school. In-person, hands-on learning is particularly crucial to the second category of students. Those requirements present additional challenges to on-campus learning in these days of social distancing. The school’s goal is to safely “get back 40 to 50 percent of students on the ground this fall,” according to Johnson.
In order to do that, the president says Tri-C is strengthening its IT infrastructure, investing in instructional design elements and looking at expanding 24/7 operations “so students can get what they need to be successful.”
In addition, the school is making sure certain students have the funds to offset tuition and emergency needs.
“The biggest thing is that we are looking at our physical footprint to determine how we can modify the way we accommodate more people through social distancing,” explains Johnson, who indicated more hot spots and broadband opportunities may be created on campuses.
As for Weeks, if all goes according to plan, she may join other 2020 spring/summer Tri-C grads for a delayed, but well-earned, official graduation ceremony later this year. The event is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 16, at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University. Fall 2020 graduates will have their night on Thursday, Dec. 17.
“Going to Tri-C and creating the E4 group gave me confidence. Along with working and family responsibilities, I put together a whole new support group,” says Weeks. “I got students of all ages engaged and got them participating. Those experiences, especially during these times, told me I was destined to become a social worker.”