For this episode, we spoke to Lisa Costa, Academic and Community Education Coordinator for the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Nursing, about how her team is addressing the challenges and adjusting to virtual operations to continue to meet the needs of students.
Episode - Preparing Students for a Complex and Changing World with Lisa Costa, UTexas
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What follows is a transcription of the podcast:
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JENELLE CONNER: Welcome to our first episode of Student Success Heroes presented by Engineerica Systems. I'm Jenelle Conner and I will be your host for this episode.
With the recent pandemic of COVID-19, many colleges and universities have had to close their campuses and move to a totally online operation. As this pandemic progressed and the closures of schools and businesses unfolded, we watched educators go to work, remotely, problem-solving, and putting things into place that continue to support students and their ultimate goals. Inspired, we too went to work. Our developers accelerated their work on features that would enable more virtual interaction between students and college professionals. We quickly released several new tools in Accudemia, like virtual appointments and remote sign-in options to help our student services in tutoring centers.
Through this experience, we have been greatly impressed by our Student Success Heroes and wanted to continue to share their stories. Educators have always looked to each other to learn and grow. We hope this podcast will continue in this same vein.
We reached out to Lisa Costa, Academic and Community Education Coordinator for the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing, to interview with us for this purpose.
What follows is a great conversation about how their team is addressing the challenges and adjusting their operations to continue to meet the needs of their students despite this pandemic.
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LISA COSTA: My name is Lisa Costa. I work at UT Austin School of Nursing. I am the Academic and Community Education Coordinator. So, I work with students in our Peer Tutoring Department and I also work with people who are already nurses helping them continue their continuing education credits that all of us have to get every year. I have worked there for about 2 and 1/2 years. Prior to that I worked in bedside nursing for about 28 years. So this has been a big change for me; a big learning curve.
CONNER: Wow! How does it compare to, I mean, what aspects of being at the college do you like?
COSTA: Well, I love working with his students. In my role, I do a lot more coordinating than actual teaching, but I do get to teach a few of our First Aid and CPR and things like that; and I really, really enjoy teaching and interacting with the students. And I get to see them when they first come into the school when their eyes are really big they’re a little bit nervous, and then I get to see them when they graduate and just see how much they've learned and how their confidence has grown. So, really, really enjoy that side of it.
CONNER: That's so rewarding!
CONNER: Tell me a little bit about your Center and the services that you offer and how they serve your mission.
COSTA: Okay. Interestingly enough, our mission and philosophy of the nursing school is literally to ‘prepare students for excellence in leadership in a complex and changing world’ ...and I didn't just come up with that last week; I promise. It sounds very pertinent to what's going on right now in our world.
COSTA: So in light of that, I have really encouraged our students through all of this that they are students and they are going through all these changes with their fellow students, but they're also in a leadership role. So, they've got to step up and be able to get beyond the moment and be able to reach out and help other people. And that's hard to do, but that's a great life lesson.
And what we do in our tutoring department is we use peer tutoring exclusively to help the students. We found that studies have shown that students working in groups with peers is actually very, very effective. So, because we are also a smaller nursing school, we don't have a lot of the resources that some of the bigger schools have, so instead of hiring from the outside or using individual tutoring we’ve decided to go with a group focus.
So that's been a little bit different in working with Accudemia, learning how to make group appointments and group assignments, and then (you know), when we need to, when we need to edit those or move them around, how to do that as a group instead of just individual appointments. It’s been a little bit challenging, but everybody there has been so helpful to work with us on that.
CONNER: Oh, great to hear. So, do you just do appointment-based- or do you also have drop-in tutoring services?
COSTA: We do only appointment based. I have looked at doing the drop-in services but we really haven't had the bandwidth to do that yet. And we have at UT, something called Sanger Learning Center over on the main campus and they do drop-in tutoring for courses that it's a little easier to drop in and out on, like math courses and basic science courses and things like that. But for the nursing courses that doesn't work quite as well.
CONNER: I can understand that. Have you had a lot of students participate? Is it a requirement or do you just see students when they need you?
COSTA: It is not a requirement. We kind of come from the viewpoint that ‘You are an adult now. You need to recognize when you need help, and you need to be able to reach out for that help.’ We do make ourselves very well-known. We make it as easy as possible for people to sign-up. But we really don't want to be babysitting them or forcing them to do something. We want them, as adults, to learn how to reach out for help and when-you know-how to recognize that they need that help.
COSTA: Does that make sense?
CONNER: Yeah. No, it really does. And you’re empowering them to take their education seriously and move themselves forward.
COSTA: Right, exactly.
CONNER: My next question is, how do you communicate your services to the students? How do you engage with them and let them know that you exist? It sounded like you do a few things there.
COSTA: We have, like, media screens in the building and we usually put ads up on there. I usually try to go around at the beginning of every semester, and when the instructors have orientation sessions I try to be there and let them know what we do and how to get in touch with us. And then, I have access to the email list for each grade through our student services department and I will send out to each grade or each course specifically just a reminder: ‘Hey, we have (you know) adult Health tutoring available. I have a couple groups meeting right now on Tuesday at 4 p.m. You're welcome to come. Here’s how you sign-up.’
I’ve found that students are busy and if you tell them one time or only in one way, as you know, (you know), you've got to hit him at least two or three different ways; put it in front of them in different formats...
CONNER: Definitely. Definitely.
COSTA: ...more than once, in order for them to, ‘oh yeah, they’ve got this group tutoring.’
So, I try to just remember how busy they are and how quickly they're moving and just try to flash it in front of their eyes as many ways as I possibly can.
CONNER: Definitely. That is something that we (you know), we built that into Accudemia as well. We wanted to make sure that there's confirmation emails and reminder emails and texts and whatever needs to go out to the students to remind them to come to those appointments they're making. And do you find you get a lot of no-shows? I know some schools have trouble with that.
COSTA: We want it to feel like it's voluntary; want it to feel like ‘if you need us we’re here for you, but we're not going to punish you if you didn't need us that week.’
I usually tell the students, “You're not just here in this group because you need something; you're also here in this group to contribute.”
CONNER: Oh, I love that.
COSTA: “So, even if you, even if you totally understood the lesson for this week and you're totally ready for the exam, there may be somebody else in the group who’s not and they may need to hear something from you that will help them.”
COSTA: So, I encouraged them, “Don't just come when you need something.” But if they can't come that week or something happens or whatever I don't want him to feel like they're punished.
COSTA: If I know they're struggling and they didn't show up this week I will sometimes send them an email, because we're a small school I can kind-of keep track of that and say, “Hey, I know you've been having a hard time lately and I see that you didn't come to a group session, (you know). Is there anything I can do to help you get to the next one or do you need a different time or day?” Or (you know) just try to reach out to them.
CONNER: Yeah, so you're building that personal connection and engaging the student that way. That's excellent!
CONNER: All right, so tell me, what challenges have come from the current pandemic, and how have you and your team risen to these challenges?
COSTA: Okay, well, we’ve had several challenges. First of all, our peer academic coaching program is set up to be an academically supportive program but it's also kind of a mentorship opportunity. We set up the groups at the beginning of the semester and those groups are not fluid. We try to keep the same students with the same tutors for the whole semester because we want them to develop bonds and relationships. And we want the tutors to kind-of start understanding the learning needs and learning styles of the people in their groups. And so we don't want those bonds and those relationships break down during this time where everybody is/has been scattered. So that's been a challenge.
I think for this generation though, bonding on social platforms is a little bit easier than maybe for my generation.
CONNER: Definitely. Have you taken advantage of that then?
COSTA: Yes, they've actually done really well with that and Accudemia really has helped us because they helped us get that--we chose to use Zoom; I know not everybody is but they helped us get that Zoom cooperative effort going there so that was a big help for us. And the students have actually done really, really well with it after all this is over.
The other challenge for us has been as a small program within a larger University structure we have to provide data to those bigger departments within our school to show the success that we know we're already having. So, we were just starting out with Accudemia, just becoming familiar with what it can do for us.
CONNER: You mean in terms of the data you can get from it?
COSTA: Right, right. And so while we were having to transition from face-to-face to virtual coaching, we also were having to continue collecting our data to show who's coming and how often; so that was a big challenge for us technology-wise too as we’re becoming familiar still with the software, as we're making all these changes, to also keep capturing that data. And Accudemia has been/they have been fantastic about providing the zoom link that actually will sign the students into the software so we know that they're there for their sessions. That was just a brilliant idea and has made things so much easier for us so that's been great!
CONNER: Yeah, when this pandemic hit and everyone was moving to online services, our developers just jumped right on it and created a way to keep tracking those student services and yet use the online platforms like Zoom, like the one you're doing. So, yeah, we're really excited that we were able to bring that and help people out in this time ‘cuz we know there's plenty of other challenges to overcome.
COSTA: Yes. Yes. We’re facing the challenge also of the students who are/who were already struggling a little bit. And then during all this time of upheaval, of moving out of dorms, of finding a place to live, (you know), maybe losing their jobs; all this stuff going on and we're still trying to keep in contact with them and help them to still be able to meet with their coach who they've developed a relationship with, keep on track academically, refocus themselves. So, we're actually very, very fortunate that we had Accudemia involved already because before the systems we were using were not going to be able to track these students as well as what we've got now, so it's been a big help.
CONNER: Well, we're glad to help. Are you seeing different needs from your student because of the pandemic and are you able to meet those needs?
COSTA: I think the main difference that I have seen really, is that their schedules have all changed. They/Maybe the days and times that they were meeting before are not really (you know), the best times for them now, like their groups were meeting on Thursdays at 6 p.m. While now that just doesn't seem (you know), when you're at home in your living room that may not be the best time for you.
CONNER: Yeah, sure, the family’s trying to do dinner or something. Right?
COSTA: Exactly. So what we have seen is a lot of the groups are changing the times they meet or half of the group can meet still on Thursday at 6, but the other half needs a different time, or students needing maybe to pull out and meet individually because they’re just feeling like they’re falling apart and they need some one-on-one time with their coach. Academically they're just really struggling. So, there's a lot of distractions going on right now.
COSTA: So we’ve had to become a lot more flexible; and our coaches are students too.
COSTA: And so they're in the middle of all this too. So we’re trying to make it as easy on them as possible. So Accudemia is new for them this semester as well, so they were just figuring out how to change an appointment for a student and what that looks like. And so we're trying to come alongside them and help them with those processes. I probably have a lot more free time than they do right now so we're just having them contact us directly and say, “Hey I need to move my whole group to Thursday at 6 p.m. now instead of Tuesday at 4 p.m.”
And so we're helping them move those appointments around, so that’s probably the biggest change for the students and for us right now.
CONNER: And has that process been fairly straightforward with Accudemia?
COSTA: It's, it's been a little bit difficult for us because we are set up with groups…
COSTA: ...and because we set our appointments at the beginning of the semester we have the student make a recurring appointment for the whole semester. So sometimes they’ll have 15 appointments.
COSTA: So, it's a little bit more complicated but I have been on the phone with Nick and Jorge and having meetings with them and they have been helping us with this process. In fact, they were just emailing me a couple days ago and showing me how I can more easily change those (you know), when I've got a group of five people and I need to move their appointment to a different day, how to do that.
CONNER: So you've been getting the support you need then?
COSTA: Absolutely! Yes, they’re very patient. I've been in bedside nursing you know for many many years and haven't been doing things like this so they've been…
CONNER: Do we compare well, in terms of care?
COSTA: Yes! Absolutely! It’s been great. I feel like apologizing to them sometimes because we'll meet one day and then I think I understood what they said but then I have to call them back the next day and say, “wait a second, I didn’t / I thought I knew how to do this but…”
And they're so patient so it's been really good. (You know), any time you start with a new software you have that period, that ‘making it your own’ time period where the interaction is pretty intense between you and the company. And that's critical to successfully adapting the software to your needs is having that communication and piled on top of that we've had the pandemic to deal with. So they've been fantastic. I’ve really, really appreciated it.
CONNER: Awesome. I'm so glad to hear that. Tell me what are some of the lessons that you've learned in this experience and how will you apply them moving forward?
COSTA: I've learned first of all that nothing substitutes completely for sitting across from a person and interacting with them face-to-face; however, virtual tutoring can be very successful and it can be very satisfying. That connection can still be made. Sometimes it's easier to hide or become a little bit lost or talked over in a virtual group, so (you know), tutors, coordinators, instructors, people need to step up their game as far as tracking student progress, keeping up with individual communication, making sure that the tutors have easy access to us to report any issues right away, ...but those are all things that can be dealt with, we just have to shift our focus just a little bit.
And going forward specifically related to the pandemic, I would say, we're all going to be able to use the knowledge we've gained during this time to improve what we do; and for me specifically, I will be able to offer more variety in my coaching experiences now because we've been kind of forced to reach out into this new virtual reality, I guess you would say.
Every semester during orientation I tell my students, “You have the option, if you're not feeling well, if you have a cold and you don't want to expose everyone, or if you have a flat tire, or if you're just super busy and you can’t all meet in one place you can do a virtual session.”
And they all just kind of look at me with this blank look, like ‘why would we do that,’ and they don't usually take me up on it; but now they've got this whole toolbox of resources that they can use when they need it.
They may enjoy going back to face-to-face--I think we all will to a certain extent when this is all over--but it will be so much easier for them to transition back to the virtual session if they need to... and I know how to set them up in Accudemia now.
CONNER: Awesome! So there are positives that have come out of this then.
COSTA: Oh, definitely! definitely. And I think we all have to be looking for those right now.
CONNER: Yeah, no and I think team members are really stepping up, like you said earlier, they're doing what they need to do and still moving forward.
COSTA: Yes, I think we’ve all shown our flexibility and our strengths during all of this. I mean, everything has a silver lining; it's been good to develop some new skills and sharpen some that maybe we hadn't used in a while, so it's been good.
CONNER: Great. So, one last a short question for you: Lisa, tell me, how did you end up in nursing and education, also, did you have a specific person that inspired you or something that just made you want to do it?
COSTA: I think my mom was my main inspiration. She was always a caregiver. She was a nurturer; she wanted to take care of people, but back in the day and time and the atmosphere she grew up in, her parents did not want her to become a nurse. They felt like that was very (you know), unseemly for a young lady to go into nursing. They were very, very strict and they just told her that was inappropriate, so she became a teacher which she didn't end up really liking, but she had always told me as I was growing up how much she had always wanted to be a nurse and she did have some opportunities later in life to care for some people. And I saw that side of her come out and it just kind of inspired me. That, I think I had some of that in my genes. I've always been the nurturing personality, so that's kind of what brought me into it. I found that it was, on a practical level, a very, very good career for someone who needs flexibility. My husband has always worked retail; we had three children and we were both able to be home with them; didn't have to use daycare because I could work weekends, or evenings, or whatever. So it has worked out very well for us as a family.
And now I have this cool opportunity at UT… I never, ever thought I would be in an academic environment and I am just really, really loving it. And I love being able to combine what I've learned over my years of experience in the hospital with my nurturing personality to help get these students through nursing school and out into our communities.
CONNER: Well, I'm sure your students appreciate it and appreciate your experience and being able to teach them and help them in their journey to become a caregiver just like you.
COSTA: It’s exciting to see them step out, especially during this time. They're stepping out into a very intense time for nurses, so it'll be great to watch them jump out of the nest.
CONNER: Well, thanks so much for speaking with me today. And I really think that what you’ve said will be of great help to others and, I mean, there's plenty of us going through the situation so hearing from each other, learning from each other's challenges and ideas and solutions really, really will make a difference I believe.
COSTA: Thank you so much for having me.
CONNER: Okay. Thanks Lisa, and have a wonderful rest of your day.
COSTA: You too.
CONNER: We enjoyed talking to Lisa Costa, Academic and Community Education Coordinator for the School of Nursing. We want to thank her and the University of Texas at Austin for allowing us to share their successes. And we want to thank you, our listeners, for tuning in to the very first episode of Student Success Heroes, a podcast by Engineerica Systems.
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For over 25 years, Engineerica has partnered with colleges and universities to bring them helpful tools and technology to aid them in their mission. Currently, Engineerica offers attendance tracking and student service center management systems, such as Accudemia, student retention and success applications like AccuCampus, as well as professional development and continuing education training and conferencing software.
We sure love our higher ed heroes and hope that we can all learn from them and their inspiring stories. We invite you to share your stories and ideas with us as well. If you are interested in learning more about our solutions and systems, like Accudemia, please visit engineerica.com. I’ll leave a link in the show notes. We look forward to helping you.
And in the meantime, please subscribe, share, and review this podcast to help us keep it going. To all our educators, we want to wish you thanks for all you do and wish you safety at this time. Until next time, take care!
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