Student Affairs shows its Compassion during Pandemic

Irlanda Gonzalez-Price, Associate Vice-President, Student Affairs

Irlanda Gonzalez-Price is the Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs.

February 26, 2021 - 2:30am

It would be an understatement to suggest that the pandemic has presented unique challenges for Student Affairs. Characterized by providing high-touch services to students with a variety of needs, the department has seen the worst of what the pandemic has had to offered, and in many cases, brought out the best of what VIU aspires to be – kind, considerate, adaptable, committed to our students.

The pandemic created a huge spike in need for the services Student Affairs offers – counselling, financial aid, access to accessibility technologies, support with co-op and internship opportunities and health clinic services to name a few.  

“When I think back to those early days, I am in awe of what the Student Affairs team was able to achieve,” says Irlanda Gonzalez-Price, Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs. “While I was in meetings trying to plan and understand and react to all the changes that were coming in so fast, our team was doing whatever it took to help our students deal with a variety of crises.”

Calls and emails were coming in from students who were facing homelessness because all their roommates moved back home and they couldn’t afford their place; their summer job had been cancelled and they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from; they were experiencing mental health crises relating to the stress of moving so quickly into an online learning environment and were worried that their high GPA was going to plummet. The team heard stories about partners or parents being laid off and student loans now feeding the whole family, and from parents who were trying to look after their children and attend online classes at the same time.

“Our students were going through, and continue to go through, really difficult things. The Student Affairs team was inventing new ways, on the fly, to help them. In addition, as the team was dealing with these requests that needed immediate attention, they also had to learn how to do their own jobs differently.”

An example of this is the counselling team moving into an online and phone-based confidential practice, which required them expanding their knowledge and training to include providing safe and high-quality counselling in a distanced format. 

Student Affairs team members stepped up to the plate and came forward to assist VIU's Financial Aid and Awards Office with the high volume of student financial need requests due to COVID-19. In reaction to the generous support of donors like Vancouver Island University Students’ Union, community members and BC Government COVID-19 funding, VIU was able to disburse more than $340,000 dollars to over 1,360 student emergency need requests in a few days.

Now the “new” has developed into a sense of normalcy, although much of what makes work fun is still missing.

“It’s the creativity and collaboration that takes place when you run into colleagues in the hall or the cafeteria. Those interactions also make work fun and help build relationships,” Gonzalez-Price says. “I joined VIU only six months before the pandemic started so I was still learning a lot about VIU culture and working on building trusting relationships within my team and across VIU."

Gonzalez-Price explains how humbled she has been by her team’s willingness to trust her leadership.

“I am trying my hardest to honour the leap of faith they took in me,” she says.

Doing what she can to mitigate the mental and emotional toll the last 11 months has taken leads Gonzalez-Price’s own work for both students and employees.

“We’ve heard President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Saucier talk about how we have been sprinting a marathon and acknowledging the losses of the last year. Keeping this in mind with our decisions I think is critical right now. We need to be gentle with each other and remember that everyone is dealing with and facing a unique set of circumstances. Over the course of this year, I hope to be able to address the underlying stress it has caused,” she says, acknowledging that much is still uncertain and beyond our control.

That said, she strongly believes there are things we can do and good things from the last year that we can build on to provide an enriching student life and fulfilling work environment.

“The team in the Office of Co-Curricular Engagement and Learning created some really fun, innovative virtual events that saw more than 200 students in attendance. The students said they truly did have fun. The Centre for Experiential Learning was able to secure some remote work-integrated learning opportunities for both domestic and international students, and Athletics and Recreation figured out how to provide virtual programming and how to safely operate CampVIU during the summer. The possibilities are truly endless for a post-COVID look at what Student Affairs could evolve into.

“The students will know we are here for them, and that’s important in keeping them engaged, continuing in their studies, and experiencing success,” she says.

Similar principles extend to employees. At the end of 2020, Gonzalez-Price had one-on-one check-ins with her whole team and efforts were made to reach beyond the department.

“It’s important to me to know how people are doing and if there is anything I can do to improve things.  I also just wanted to say thank you to my team,” she says.

Looking to the future, she has truckloads of ideas for a post-pandemic world. Asked what she is looking forward to the most, the answer is simple.

“Sitting in the stands at a Mariners game,” she says. “Being surrounded by excited, cheering students, staff and faculty watching our Mariner athletes do what they are so great at. Then I will know we are back.”

Tags: In the Community