Opportunity renewed: campus partnership welcomes back those who left because of pandemic

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 25, 2023 – A team effort at the University of Rhode Island has built a roster for a new team of students at the University, returning to the University.

When URI opened its doors to new and returning students earlier this month, the University celebrated some special students as part of that group — returnees to the University as part of a focused Re-Enrollment effort.

Dean Libutti, associate vice president for enrollment and student success, launched the idea for the program, after seeing that several thousand kindergarten through grade 12 students stopped attending school in Rhode Island during the pandemic. He wanted to make sure URI did not have a similar gap.

While John Olerio and Kim White have led efforts in URI’s Re-enrollment Office, the work to re-enroll students who left in the pandemic has been a campus-wide effort.

“Many young people just gave up on education,” Libutti says. “We wanted URI to be a leader in this area and offer any students affected a way to reconnect, to embrace people who wanted a degree.”

Several staff at the University have spent time working with these students who withdrew from URI during spring 2020 through spring 2022, the “COVID-19 era.”

For some students, the challenges of online school or wearing masks to college meant that it was just not the right time for them to attend. Others dealt with challenging circumstances, including illness or loss of family members. Some were here just a semester, others close to graduation. Even months after leaving, these students felt a variety of feelings about the experience: loss, anger, disappointment, failure.

To help them consider their next steps, the University reconnected to remind students that their spots were still open at the University, and to offer a free discussion/coaching session with the University’s Re-enrollment Office, led by Kim White, a longtime URI staff member and a certified life coach. The University offered the coaching meeting with White as a no-strings-attached offer — to bring perspective to the experience and to offer a chance to reflect on both the decision to leave and what a re-entry plan would look like. White says that students have embraced the coaching opportunity and the follow-up supports, and she applauds University College for Academic Success and the degree-granting colleges’ advisors and assistant deans for the personal services they have offered to these re-enrolling students. That kind of personal attention and connection has made all the difference for re-enrolling students.

Pandemic pause

While many students felt the isolation of what they were going through, they may not have realized just how much company they had.

Of the students who stopped attending the University in 2020-22, URI Institutional Research identified a list of 775 students who had left the University in good academic standing and had not transferred elsewhere. This group was contacted about re-enrolling at the University; many were open to the conversation and have found the readmission process an easy process to navigate with White’s help. To date 50 students have returned to the University; that’s the roster for the URI women’s rowing team in terms of size. And several others are in the process or in the consideration stage.

“We reached out to let these students know, ‘You’re still considered part of this University,’” says White. “There is a place for you here if you want to return. We made it clear — if you want to come back to URI, we will support you in doing so.”

The coaching session serves as the start of a student’s envisioning what re-entry can look like; other campus supports and activities are added as needed to promote a sense of belonging and readiness for academic success.

“The student often comes back stronger as a result,” White says.

Sometimes, the coaching session can lead the student down a different path than returning to URI, and that’s ok, too.

For some the invitation came at the right time. Students have found the Re-enrollment Office in Morrill Hall a friendly and welcoming place to start back at the University. Many return with a renewed appreciation for college and the normalized atmosphere at the school today, with in-person options available for tutoring, busy clubs and organizations, etc. These students are now ready to take advantage of the resources available, such as in the Disability, Access and Inclusion, or Counseling offices. White is with them every step of the way, talking about concrete steps, even walking students over to those offices to make helpful introductions.

These returning students are also finding the URI Academic Enhancement Center (AEC) a valuable support; the Center provides support to undergraduate students through tutoring, writing support, and academic skills development.

Jennifer Burgess, director of the Academic Enhancement Center, has noticed that with many students returning to campus after a break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need and desire to use academic support resources is at an all-time high.

“The AEC has seen record levels of usage in recent years and a growing demand for support towards things like resolving incomplete grades,” she says. “The center has responded to these student needs by increasing the availability of tutors and expanding into new subject areas such as Business and this fall, some select Nursing courses, in addition to the STEM courses we continue to support.”

Burgess and her team have put new systems into place to support students who are seeking to resolve incompletes, another increasing need post-pandemic. They provide regular updates to the Re-enrollment Office about AEC services (@uri_aectutoring) and connect to students directly, as well. Burgess and her team look forward to continuing to adapt to meet the changing needs of students.

Team effort

Libutti is also glad to see the Re-enrollment program’s success, and credits the departments like the Academic Enhancement Center, Enrollment Services and URI’s academic colleges for working together in a real partnership.

“This has been a wonderful collaboration across campus,” Libutti says, “embracing these students as they returned.” He says it’s not only a good development for the University but for the individual students, too — “this matters to these students, their families and the institution.”

“The URI community is here to support students,” adds John Olerio, director of URI Summer Sessions, Winter J Term, and Degree Completion, noting, “It has been amazing to watch assistant deans, professional advisors, faculty advisors, and support staff so enthusiastically engage these students as they rejoin our campus community. We are glad to welcome these students back and hope that they are happy to be here this fall. We want students to know that URI is a welcoming place for students to succeed and look forward to celebrating their continued success here at the University.”

To learn more about the re-enrollment process at URI, contact Kim White at kimwhite@uri.edu, 401-965-0427.