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  • Writer's pictureKaren Barnes Kaplan

What's Changed, What Hasn't, Through the Pandemic? A Conversation with Dominique Graham

Rutgers-Newark Mountainview Community Counselor Dominique (formerly Smart) Graham remembers well the early March day when the NJ-STEP leadership and counseling team had to address the sudden closure of on-campus learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Read her moving account, and her perspectives of ongoing needs, based on a recent conversation.

My official role is Mountainview Community Counselor and Senior Program Coordinator. I’m part of a team---called the Transitions Team--supporting incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated students pursuing higher education at Rutgers. I currently serve 30 to 40 men and women enrolled and/or planning to join next semester. It’s a mixed group: some of our students started their coursework inside, and some started after their release. The groups have some different needs--and a lot in common.

I remember that March day vividly, in 2020, when it became clear that the pandemic was about to change everything. We all (staff and students) were almost in a panic, because there was a lot of hearsay, rumors about things shutting down. Immediately, our transitions team thought about our halfway house students, who were most likely to have an interruption in their courses. It was in the middle of a semester, so we immediately went into crisis intervention mode. We reached out to our partners in the Department of Corrections (DOC), the halfway house facilities, and also the appropriate units on campus to make sure the students who would be negatively impacted by not having access to technology, would have some way to work around it.

We have a strong IT support team at Rutgers in terms of access to technology. So we were able to make sure most of our students had some kind of device to connect to classes remotely, if possible. But a disconnect persists in manpower for tutoring and support, so students can actually understand how to use the technology effectively. We have students who have been away for 5, 10, 20 years and so on. They are still learning to navigate the whole online world. Remote learning was a huge challenge for the Mountainview Community as a whole, and now is the time for technology expansion.

The learning environment also changed when we switched to remote learning; and one’s learning environment is so important to be an effective learner. Some of our Mountainview community students in Newark had on-campus housing through the Honors Living-Learning Community (HLLC), which helped mitigate some of the challenges they faced during the pandemic. However, for our halfway house students: when campus provides your primary access to all resources, and the campus is shut down--that makes it even more tough to be successful. The transitions team had to be very creative (with staffing and capacity limitations) while putting together all the pieces necessary to complete the semester--like setting up Wifi hotspots, connecting students with a device to access coursework and serving as a liaison to student faulty when personal or health challenges arose. Given all the challenges, some students had to withdraw from some of their classes; and for some, there was a negative impact on their academic performance and persistence with the switch to online learning.

We also had a number of students who came home in the middle of a semester, due to the policy S2519 early release in New Jersey. These students were tasked to figure out how to complete classes and coursework, at the same time they’re working through the whole re-entry process. Fortunately, we have a strong team within NJ-STEP that worked alongside faculty and part time lecturers who taught those students inside. So some students were given extensions to complete their work, or permissions to submit coursework before the semester ended. But those options are not always on the table and known to students who struggle with navigating these spaces.

In my work with NJ-STEP during this time, I encountered a lot of feelings of isolation, and secondary trauma. My job as a counselor is to help students navigate various social, emotional and psychological challenges; and often I noticed my style is being a nurturer – I want to make sure their basic needs are being met. So I ask, Are you eating? When was the last time you slept? Who’s your support system: what other supports--family, friends, mentors--do you have? We needed to be creative in making sure our students had resources beyond NJ-STEP. That was a big one.

Lots of students fell into depression. We have many students who have experienced some form of trauma in the past, and prison life itself is traumatic. So our population is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the disruption and isolation of the pandemic was layered on top of that. A lot of things surfaced and we know better, so how might we do better?

In a typical year, I meet with students weekly, especially when they start in the program at the beginning of a new semester. When they appear to have a good grasp of the landscape at Rutgers, that’s when I tend to step back a little, because I believe returning citizens need space to (re-learn) independence. I've learned one weakness many students have is not asking for help. So I have specific points during the semester when I check in often. Like mid-semester, when midterms are happening. Folks are getting grades, some don’t like the grade, yet they feel ashamed to ask for help. That’s when we need to jump in – but again, following the lead of the student.

Honestly, we are not directly meeting students’ needs in addressing trauma. Period. There are Rutgers-based programs and centers – The Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation center, for one – working with students to provide that support for racial healing, transformation and trauma recovery. It can help students recognize things that they may have been impacted by, and that maybe they don’t think about. But subconsciously, it did damage. Students also find community and belonging when they attend racial healing circles. We also provide access to support groups (group or 1:1) at Rutgers to help students process their emotions and find supportive care. And there are also community support groups, such as the Returning Citizens support group in Newark, which help students face the various re-entry challenges such as housing and building a social network.

Last January, on-campus life started to return. We saw more staff coming into their offices, more resources opening up. Now, most classes are in person--but there are still a handful offered either on campus or online. Students have more options. But there are still some barriers to completing the class successfully and understanding how to navigate the course online, for several folks.

With or without the COVID-19 pandemic, our students have unique challenges. For one, there’s the technology divide. I can’t emphasize enough the need for an intentional structure to prepare students--before they start at Rutgers--in the different technologies and platforms they’re going to be using as a student. As it stands right now, we are supporting students to finish their degree in a timely way. But “timely” dismisses the learning curve for students understanding new technology such as Navigating Canvas, Research via Library Systems, Google Drive, the Microsoft Suite and Email Systems. We need more involvement as well in DOC facilities to get students equipped, pre-release. Whether you’re a student or not: these are the technologies of the times, neCOVIDcessary to be successful in the 21st century workforce.

Our folks need help being able to navigate university systems more effectively. Those who started their coursework inside have a little bit of an advantage, because they understand the format of a bachelor’s level class, the rigors of it. But navigating the campus environment is a different matter. We provide an orientation for all new students before the semester starts, to provide some familiarity. It helps them work within the university system when coupled with tutoring, counseling and community.

And there’s always a need among our students for social interactions and connections, especially for those who came home after extended time away. They just want to come into the office and see someone and say hi. We’re here for that, too.

If we had the funding, there are so many things we would do, like expanding the technology and the instructional support to use it at half-way houses. We need to push for more science and math classes inside the prison education system; STEM is an area where justice-impacted individuals fall behind disproportionately. We need more support services for students who are recovering from trauma. And we’d like to be able to offer better housing pathways for those who want to live on campus.

I wish we had more donors to support our students, so they wouldn’t have to work and could focus on their education. When they come home, they’re often learning for the first time how to balance work and life, and they often prioritize making money to live. I truly wish each and every NJ-STEP student received a generous fellowship, so they would have the time to focus entirely on school--and their own transformation back into the community.

I think many people don’t realize the barriers our students face as they navigate school, re-entry, and living in society. There is enormous bias and stigma associated with being justice-impacted. What we need to do, as individuals and as a society, is change the narrative.

*Mountainview community serves formerly-incarcerated individuals beginning or completing their higher education journey; it is part of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) program.

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