Hurricane Harvey has left a lot of unknowns in its wake.
If and when students get to return to their schools, the schools will likely look significantly different: structural damage, fans to help dry out the building, missing book collections. And beyond the physical, the emotional impacts of this disaster could haunt them for years to come.
“This is going to have long term effects for definitely months to come, probably years, of rebuilding and just of the kids having to deal with it,” Angelica Melendez, president of Texas ACAC, said. “The social counseling we’re going to have to do, the emotional counseling we’re going to need to do, on top of trying to find the school that’s the best fit for them. Some of our community colleges are flooded. Some of our institutions are flooded. Everyone was affected.”
Counselors just outside the flood zone are trying to figure out how to best serve their impacted students and how to proactively anticipate the questions and needs that will arise in the months to follow.
The University of Texas at Austin is scheduled to start class this week. The week before classes, the week Harvey hit, is typically a time of celebration and tradition, but this year the mood was different as the connection between campus and the impacted areas is strong.
Ka’rin Thornburg, the associate director of admission at UT Austin, said that nearly one-third of her school’s undergraduates are from the affected areas in Texas and most students and faculty members have a tie to the area as well.
“Those of us who live here have connections across the state. My family is in Houston and they were evacuated. A lot of my colleagues have family in the Gulf Coast, in some of the hardest hit areas,” she said. “I’ve spoken to high school counselors and college admission staff across the state and everybody is connected to this in some form or fashion. I think it’s been a challenging time for all of us, especially for those who are living this nightmare.”
Thornburg said that she and her colleagues were working to “be aware and sensitive” to the challenges facing students in the days ahead.
Displaced students from affected regions who aren’t able to return due to impassable roads or personal loss have been provided a list of resources and instructions through UT Austin’s Dean of Students office, Thornburg said. UT staff are working alongside colleagues at institutions across the state to make sure students receive the supplies and any mental health counseling they might need. The annual university-wide program, Gone to Texas, was also cancelled out of respect for members of the school community who had been impacted by Harvey.
Melendez, who lives and works in San Antonio said that TACAC is trying to think through and answer every question that could come up.
TACAC is working on finding supplies and computers for affected students, determining how to support students who decide to transfer, assessing how many schools have damaged records, and figuring out how many students won’t have access to regional college fairs or testing facilities as a result of the storm.
Admission and counseling professionals around the country are raising similar queries, said UT Austin’s Thornburg.
One of the most common questions: How will colleges adjust their policies and practices for families whose financial situations may have changed?
This concern was alleviated a little last Wednesday when the US Department of Education issued a statement intended to ease financial aid rules and procedures for those affected by Harvey. The department stated that schools may use “professional judgment” in deciding “to adjust a student’s financial information in the aftermath of Harvey” and “may even be able to waive certain paperwork requirements if documents were destroyed,” the Associated Press reported.
The need to be flexible with respect to deadlines will also be important, said Thornburg, as will understanding the emotional toll the hurricane may take on students.
“Be patient with respect to the essays that may come in from students that may deal with their experiences with Harvey. We may see a lot of those this year and next year because this is devastating for a lot of young people,” she said. “We need to be mindful of the impact this moment and this event will have on students and their families and the impact may last a long time and we may see it in different areas of our admission and financial aid process for quite a while.”
While applying to college might be the furthest thing from an affected student’s mind right now, Melendez wants students and counselors to know that they will be supported when they are able to switch their focus.
“There are just so many little things that when we are thinking about how to serve our members, we’re still trying to figure out how to best help,” Melendez said. “We’re just doing our best to make sure that students aren’t forgotten.”
Ashley Dobson is NACAC’s communications manager for content and social media. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.