The power in Their Narrative

Pictures of students giving testimonials in this feature article. [View Image] Photo illustration of the professor and her students highlighted in this article participating in a Zoom call [View Image]

VCU Students’ Stories of Struggle, Strength and Solidarity During COVID-19

by
Shanna Brandt, Manny Liban and Aashir Nasim, Ph.D.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and in a manner we’ve become accustomed to since teleworking, each of us meandered through our respective homes into our makeshift workspaces, launched our web conferencing software and awaited the next meeting participant. The characteristic web conferencing chime signaled the entry of each new participant one by one, until the final chime revealed to us our awaited guest, Tanya Boucicaut, an assistant professor in VCU’s Department of Focused Inquiry.

With our agenda on the split screen before us, we exchanged pleasantries and indicated to Professor Boucicaut that we were ready to proceed through our list of meeting topics. But Professor Boucicaut wasn’t here for the run of the mill conference meeting. She had a story to tell. In fact, she had many stories to share -- those of her students enrolled in UNIV 112 this past spring semester. With their permission, we recount Professor Boucicaut’s students’ stories of struggle, strength and solidarity in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

...the work that we do will live outside of the classroom and that their stories are powerful enough that people will pay attention to them… not only are their stories powerful, there is more power in you telling your own story… I can’t tell your story better than you can tell your story.

Tanya Boucicaut

This video documentary includes the perspectives of five VCU students from diverse family backgrounds who discuss their lived experiences the past few months during the COVID-19 pandemic. The students touch upon a myriad of issues to include remote instruction and how it has affected their academic motivation and grades; their families and relationships; employment and finances; indulgences with social media; as well as their overall well-being and future plans.

Professor Boucicaut, who goes by both Professor B and Ms. B to her students, provided her students the space they needed this past spring to appropriate the new demands of the pandemic that have become commonplace now. She adjusted her teaching strategies to fit the new normal, and also encouraged her students to speak up and advocate for themselves and for each other, in order to get through this crisis. By transforming her curriculum, hosting weekly Tuesday class sessions over Zoom, and modifying the workload on her students, Professor Boucicaut endeavored to meet students where they were and to provide them with the bridge they needed to keep on learning.

After learning I contracted the virus, it took a huge toll on not just myself but also my family. Just hearing the stories, statistics, and all of everything going on, and the death rates going up with this virus, I was very, very scared.

Nylan Ntabazi, Forensic Science '22

Nylan Ntabazi, a sophomore Forensic Science major, said that this experience was "one of the most difficult times of my [her] life." When VCU announced the remainder of Spring 2020 would be completed via remote instruction, Nylan had to leave campus and return home to live with her parents along with her five younger siblings. In addition to juggling her own classes and her job as a teacher’s assistant, she had to help her brothers and sisters get caught up on their schoolwork. But, Nylan’s plight became more complicated when she tested positive for COVID-19. Nylan discusses how her academic motivation went down, but also how her professors supported her and were very caring and willing. Nylan says "During this transition I pushed myself like I never have before."

While the pandemic has significantly affected her students, it has also had a profound impact on Boucicaut and her approach to teaching. Boucicaut told us that she wanted to share this story because of her "unique position, particularly being not only a faculty member, but a black woman teaching first year students" in the midst of an unprecedented, remote-learning environment. She discusses her classroom structure, teaching methodology and constant emphasis on sharing her students experiences throughout because "their stories deserve to be told." She describes her teaching space as an open, collaborative classroom that is very much community centered and family-oriented – in order to create an environment in which students feel comfortable sharing their experiences. Professor Boucicaut says that she tries "to always present the totality of myself, so that students will feel comfortable presenting the totality of themselves as well."

It’s not just me who’s suffering from this transition, it’s also our professors. We’re all suddenly adapting to this change that we didn’t expect.

Jessica Johnson, Mass Communications '23

After enrolling in an online course during her first semester (Fall 2019) at VCU, Jessica Johnson, a Broadcast Journalism major, decided the experience wasn’t the best fit for her. Therefore, this past spring, Jessica enrolled only in in-person courses, because she believed there were better opportunities to engage with professors and students and to learn the subject matter. Then COVID-19 happened.

In this video, Jessica reflected on the university’s rapid transition to remote instruction / online learning and how difficult it was to keep up with some of her professors. While frustrating, Jessica doesn’t "blame this on the teachers [professors] at all; I think that they may not know how to best deal with the sudden change…"and said that she had realized "It’s not just me who’s suffering from this transition, it’s also our professors. We’re all adapting to this change that we didn’t expect."

In the extended cut, Jessica also shared her ongoing struggles with depression and what other students may be feeling "ever since quarantine." "I feel like many people are going through depression during this time because there is just so much time to think about any sad things in your life that happened, any embarrassing things that happened…" She also provides insight on how having too much "time" can lead to impulsive shopping; and the inherent value of parental interventions bringing awareness to a possible social media addiction.

...and that [the outbreak] has caused many people to feel unmotivated to do the things they need to do to take care of their lives. And I am here to let you know that you are not alone.

Austin Huls, Economics '23

Austin Huls, a freshman Economics major, recalls how everything was going so well for him in his academic and personal life; that is, until the COVID-19 outbreak stopped all of that. Suddenly, Austin found himself in the unfamiliar place of lacking motivation and not being able to get himself up and going again. While discussing the isolation and motivation issues he experienced, Austin says "I am here to let you know that you are not alone."

As Professor Boucicaut and her class settled into the spring semester, they worked diligently to break down the notion of "we’re in this together", which is a phrase that has been widely shared since the onset of this health crisis. "The reality is that ‘together’ looks different for different people at different places for various reasons," according to Professor Boucicaut. While working through this, she pushed her students to carefully consider how this experience unfolded for them and how "They didn’t just get through it, but how did they get through it. That was very important to share."

COVID-19 has made college students have to do schoolwork at home - but it doesn’t only affect the students, it also affects the household and the people that stay at home with the students.

Kalia Perry, Arts Foundation '23

Kalia Perry, a freshman Arts Foundation student, shares the experience of her sudden departure from the campus and the effect this has had on her and her family. She speaks rather insightfully about the value of having a built environment on campus in terms of providing the physical and mental spaces necessary for schoolwork. Now, at home, Kalia says "it’s hard finding a space to work", because of the competing demands for "work space" between her, her parents and siblings. In the extended cut, Kalia also reveals some of the financial consequences of COVID-19 and its impact on her family’s future plans.

My mom's a health care worker... for a home health agency... It’s just been really inspiring to be able to hear that and to be able to know that people are still doing everything they can to help others.

Corinne Putman, Forensic Science '23

Corinne Putman, a Forensic Science major, is both a commuter student and an essential worker, whose mother is also a health care provider. Corinne, who works in a restaurant, shares how COVID-19 has affected her and her coworkers, and she shares her positive and negative thoughts on re-opening. If the restaurant she works at opened up again, her co-workers would have an income and would not have to worry about money, but she also brings up her reservations – that she worries about an influx of coronavirus infections, because "people don’t always know that they’re sick and it stresses me out thinking about it." Corinne shared that her mom is a healthcare provider – and she brings up the stresses that come with that line of work in the midst of a pandemic. She also talks about the risk that healthcare providers take and how inspiring it is to her to know that people are doing everything they can to help others.

Professor Boucicaut shared with us that this health crisis and this exercise really shaped her teaching experience moving forward. While she was encouraging the students to actively speak up for themselves, she said this experience "taught me how to advocate for myself to my students." Professor Boucicaut said "it really forced me to embody the things that I say for them, like give yourself grace, give yourself time, if you need to rest then don’t come to class." It was really important for her to practice the same boundaries and balance between her personal life and her working life – in order to emphasize to the students that they should be giving themselves the same boundaries and grace.


Watch the full 24-minute video assignment from Professor B’s Focused Inquiry class as these students share their rapid-transition stories and experiences.

VCU Inclusive Excellence's Shanna Brandt, communications coordinator, Manny Liban, Director of Communications and Information Management and Aashir Nasim, Ph.D., Vice President of the Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success (IES) contributed to this feature.

Virginia Commonwealth University
Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success
817 S. Cathedral Place
Richmond, VA 23284
(804) 828-8947
inclusive@vcu.edu

Updated: 06/9/2020
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