It is often said that how a person reacts in times of crisis reveals who they really are. That adage also applies to institutions.
Benedict College’s response to the worldwide Coronavirus outbreak revealed that the phrase “Benedict Family” is more than just a saying. It is the core of what the institution is all about.
To stop the spread of the Coronavirus, colleges and universities all over America decided to extend Spring Break, initially giving students an extra week away from campuses. With the rapid rise in the number of people affected by the outbreak, institutions of higher learning decided to empty their campuses and require students to complete their studies online.
But at Benedict College, this was a problem. Over 400 students remained on campus during the Spring Break. Many, including a few foreign students, had no way to get home. This presented a major challenge for Benedict College President Dr. Roslyn Clark-Artis, who has led the college for only 30 months.
“Benedict College observed Spring Break from March 8th through the 13th,” said President Artis. “During that period, we began to experience the spread of the virus throughout the United States. We therefore extended our Spring Break through March 23rd. We added an extra week to the Spring Break to afford our faculty the opportunity to come back to campus and to develop comprehensive learning plans to move instruction into an online or virtual format.”
Although some courses at Benedict were available online, many were not. Benedict’s faculty launched a massive effort to make every course available for remote learning within a week’s time.
“We offer a number of online courses at Benedict, but did not have complete programs online,” Dr. Artis recalled. “Some of our faculty did and some of our faculty didn't. So it was critically important that they get back and engage in some in-service training and establish a comfort level with the technology to be able to effectively deploy fully online classes beginning on March 23rd.”
While the faculty worked overtime to prepare their courses for remote learning, the administration had to figure out how to help the 400-plus students still on campus – including foreign students who faced severe obstacles in international travel.
“We were in an untenable position of having slightly more than 400 students on campus during Spring Break, students who perhaps were international or who had an internship,” Dr. Artis recalled. “I had one student who was a page at the State House. Some had opted to stay behind during Spring Break to pursue those and other interests or just take a break -- a staycation here on campus.”
“So when we extended the Spring Break, we began to contemplate plans for the complete evacuation of the campus, recognizing that we were headed toward a complete closure,” she continued. “At that point, we also understood very quickly that many of our students would not be financially capable of moving in short order. Benedict students are overwhelmingly (about 84%) Pell Grant dependent -- not eligible, dependent. These are students who could not go to school but for the Pell Grant. We knew that these students were not in a position to move quickly to purchase plane tickets and things of that sort.”
Dr. Artis turned to the Benedict family to help, starting with its board of trustees.
“On Sunday (March 15), I reached out to my board of trustees and tried to sensitize them to the unique issues that our students were facing,” Dr. Artis said. “We discussed the number of students we currently had on campus, the likelihood that the campus would need to remain closed, and difficulties associated with staffing. I had to be concerned with our staff and faculty and their safety as well. Do you allow students to stay? Do you ensure that all students go? Those decisions for me were really driven by a couple of things. If you have students, here you have to have staff here. You have to have food service providers here. If we think about how to contain a pandemic, food service in a cafeteria full of students isn't the best way to do that. And so, considering all of those factors, we made the decision to effectively clear the campus. To do that, we needed help from our board and our community to provide financial subsidies for students who could not otherwise afford to travel quickly.”
The call went out, and the Benedict family responded.
“I will tell you, the response was absolutely overwhelming,” Dr. Artis recalled. “My board immediately stepped in and stepped up. My chairman overnighted a check for $10,000. One board member personally booked 45 plane tickets for students. In fact, we're dangerously close to being 100% for participation in terms of either donation of frequent flyer miles, cash or other income assistance that the board members provided.”
Other members of the community stepped up.
“We continued our fundraising efforts, beginning with our board, expanding into our community and then ultimately to our alumni and all of our constituents to support our students,” said Dr. Artis. “The Columbia Chapter of the Links, of which I'm a member, was very gracious. They dropped off a check for $4,000 on Monday morning to help."
“We were overwhelmed by the generosity and the commitment of the constituents of Benedict College,” she continued. “We were able to purchase over 90 plane tickets for students. All told, we assisted 124 students with travel subsidies or assistance. That could have been plane ticket, bus ticket, or train ticket. We ran 24-hour shuttle service to the Columbia, Charleston and Charlotte airports, as well as to Amtrak and the bus stations for our students. Whether we bought the ticket or whether they bought the ticket, we provided transportation and travel assistance. We had students who did not have appropriate luggage to board a flight. We provided luggage. Some students simply didn't have a bag that could be checked at the airport. So we purchased bags for students that could be checked. We had one particularly generous trustee who brought over envelopes full of cash to be distributed to students. For our neediest students, who needed gas money or who needed food while they were traveling, we were able to offer them a cash subsidy. Some who have chosen to remain in the Columbia community but did not have access to food, we offered a cash subsidy to those students.”
After Dr. Artis’ initial call was issued on that Sunday, the campus was completely cleared out by Wednesday.
“As of 6:42 p.m. on Wednesday, we had no students left on campus,” Dr. Artis said.
The students are grateful for the Benedict family for stepping up.
“They helped us load up and even arranged for someone to take me to the airport,” Jayla Berry, a sophomore environmental engineering major from Detroit, told a reporter from The Hechinger Report. “The guy who picked me up and took me to the bus had no sleep because he’d been helping all the students get home. Even the [college] president called to check in on us, and I am forever grateful. They didn’t have to do that.”
Dr. Artis says that she is extremely proud of the way the Benedict College family came together in this time of crisis. The actions of faculty, staff, board members, alumni and members of the community shows what an HBCU family is all about.
“I am extremely proud of the way this community rallied around Benedict College, and specifically trustees stepping up financially and otherwise to ensure that all of our students had a path home,” Dr. Artis said. “Everyone was safely accounted for. And I would guess that we are probably the first, if not the only, institution that does not still have students on campus at this point.”