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St. Petersburg College program aims to keep women engaged during the time of Covid-19

Jaymi Butler

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Education
St. Petersburg College's Women on the Way program is finding new ways to virtually connect with students.

As the coordinator for St. Petersburg College’s Women on the Way program, Shirley Crumbley is used to dealing with challenges as she helps her students navigate their academic journeys. 

Covid-19 might be her biggest one yet. 

“It’s been a tough time for our students,” said Crumbley, who has coordinated the program since 2009. “This is the new normal we have to adjust to. We don’t know when it’s going to get better.”

Women on the Way was launched in 1981 as a support center for women entering college. The goal of the program remains the same today – to provide women, many of them first-generation college students, with the skills and resources they need to be successful in an academic setting. 

That support is needed now more than ever. In a recent survey of more than 100 WOW students, Crumbley found that the majority had been financially impacted in some way by Covid-19. Some were furloughed, while others were laid off or had their hours at work reduced. More than half of those women were minorities.

Shirley CrumbleyCrumbley is also seeing the impact of Covid on enrollment numbers. Typically, WOW has more than 600 women enrolled each semester. With fall classes less than a week away, fewer than 500 students are enrolled, though Crumbley is hopeful the numbers will rise one classes start. She is concerned that some students may choose to sit out the fall semester because most of the classes are online and “many of the students don’t like online classes.”

For those who opt to continue at school, Crumbley said that WOW is going to do its best to support them in all areas of their life, not just the ones related to academics. In the survey, many respondents said they were concerned about being able to pay rent or put food on the table. For single mothers, which comprise more than half of WOW’s enrollment, there are worries about child care. And a number of students expressed their desire to remain connected, even though much of the fall semester will be virtual.

“This is a high-touch program,” Crumbley said of WOW. “A lot of our students don’t have a support system. They come to us for everything.”

That’s why Crumbley and the team of advisors who work with her are doing everything they can to keep their students focused on their goals. They’ve reached out to community donors to see if any grants are available. They’re sharing contact information for mental health and employment resources. They’re giving out masks. And they recently held a contactless textbook drive-through so students could pick up what they need for fall classes. 

But a lot of what WOW provides its students isn’t necessarily about money – it’s about the emotional support that comes from being part of a community of other women. Crumbley and her advisors have been calling each one of their students to see how they’re doing. They’re also trying to do fun things to keep their minds off what’s going on in the world, like hosting online scavenger hunts where participants can win gas cards and gift certificates. Sometimes, they hold workshops where students can simply log in for a little girl talk. Crumbley hopes to hold an outdoor event in the fall where students can gather – six feet apart – to reconnect with one another. 

“Anything we can do to keep them engaged, encouraged and enrolled,” Crumbley said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

While doing things virtually isn’t ideal, Crumbley is the type of person to look at the glass half full, and she’s not about to give up on finding new ways to reach out to her students. 

“Opportunities arise out of crisis,” she said. “You can cry and complain, but then you dust yourself off and figure out what you need to do to get back on track.”

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