March 11, 2020. Bill Short, director of the St. Lawrence’s Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP), began the same 15-minute drive from his home in Madrid, New York, to the Canton campus. As he pulled in behind the Java Barn, he was surrounded by ubiquitous expressions of shock and confusion.
COVID-19 was no longer a faraway threat, no longer a meme, no longer the punchline of a nervous joke made at a Dana Dining Hall table. Not only would St. Lawrence students be forced to go home due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, but the crucial weeks of HEOP’s intensive summer program were now in jeopardy as well.
Authorized by the New York State Legislature in 1969, HEOP began its mission to provide under-represented, low-income students the academic and financial support needed to push past systemic barriers in their pursuit of higher education. A critical aspect of any HEOP student succeeding in their transitions to St. Lawrence University is an intense academic boot camp in the summer before their first year, when students complete two rigorous courses, alongside philanthropic community service hours and informal “meet and greets” with faculty and staff from every corner of campus. The new reality of COVID-19, however, put all of that in flux.
“I remember my phone calls with directors of other HEOP programs across the state,” Short recalls. “Almost no one was thinking about how this would impact what we do before our students arrive for the fall.”
St. Lawrence’s Assistant Director of HEOP Erin Colvin agrees. “From that moment, we knew there was no chance we could safely move forward with a summer program in the way we have in years past,” she says. “We knew we had to build things up again from scratch. If we’re going to bring these students to campus, then we needed to make sure we do everything we can to prepare them for what’s ahead.”
The pandemic was just the first of many challenges Short and Colvin would face in getting students prepared for fall 2020. The transition to remote learning only widened existing educational inequities between underserved students, like many in HEOP, and the services and tools needed to promote a successful learning experience.
The first challenge: technology.
“An early survey sent out to the 17 incoming HEOP students found that 15 of them did not own technology able to handle a virtual summer session and had little to no access to a stable internet connection,” Colvin says. “Ten of them had no working technology at all, and so right off the bat we were forced to get creative.” HEOP was able to purchase laptops and internet hot spots for all who needed one, doing its best under a budget already strained following years of funding disputes in Albany.
The challenges did not stop there. As the plans for what a virtual HEOP summer would look like began to come to fruition, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd sent shock waves throughout communities and college campuses across the country, and around the world. Many incoming HEOP students became active and vocal participants in peaceful protests, frustrated by the social injustices that were commonplace in their communities. With conversations surrounding the oppressive nature of racial disparities in America manifested in household discussions, and with HEOP’s history correlating closely with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, it became evident that the summer program must also address issues at the core of many HEOP students’ lives.
This program was transformational for HEOP student Fatema Khanum ’24. Waking up in her family’s New York City apartment, she opened her brand-new laptop, shipped from HEOP alongside a copy of John Lewis’s memoir, Walking with the Wind. The book follows Lewis throughout his involvement as a college student in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights Movement, emphasizing a commitment to “walking with the winds” of justice in the face of violent racial discrimination.
“Our purpose with the common read was to make sure we extended beyond burdens and traumas,” Short says. “At some point we had to realize our students are living with racism every day of their lives, so why are we teaching or lecturing them about it?”
For Khanum, reading Lewis’s memoir did more than provide a case study for successful, non-violent forms of protest in a period resembling her experiences today. The book also allowed her to ease into a new kind of learning in an environment while navigating her own deeply traumatic and emotional realities.
“I was mentally and physically scared,” Khanum confesses. “College is hard already when you don’t know anyone, I mean someone died from COVID-19 in my building, and just trying to focus on anything was difficult for sure.”
Short and Colvin understood the urgency needed to address the stressors affecting the mental health of future Laurentians like Khanum, particularly in the midst of the transition from high school to college. Many students’ families lost loved ones, employment, or housing—the pandemic exponentially increased the pressures many students were facing as they were preparing to leave home.
Students were scheduled for weekly virtual group discussions with a counselor from the Health Center, focusing on mental wellness and handling crisis. Simultaneously, each student had individual meetings to talk through not only the stressors of HEOP’s virtual summer, but also their own worries and anxieties at the cusp of a new beginning.
“We knew the key to destigmatizing mental health support was to normalize conversations between students and mental health professionals. We did that by making the counselor a regular part of the team offering proactive wellness sessions,” Short says. By embedding these conversations into the HEOP summer, students are able to formulate positive relationships and experiences by taking care of their mental beings, increasing the likelihood that they’ll continue to do so throughout their St. Lawrence career.
Despite the enormous challenges, Short knows that once the HEOP students find their footing, their potential as Laurentians is limitless. “These students have already faced significant challenges in their young lives,” says Short.
“HEOP students are tough. They’re a special group who know not only what it means to fail, but, more importantly, how to view setbacks as an opportunity.
“We don’t have to show them problem-solving skills. They know how to navigate life with a sick family member, or deal with food insecurity, or homelessness, or cross-cultural communication. We just have to give them the opportunity to do something with that.”