Post-Webinar Plática

Q&A with Natalie Halsell of City College

* Plática = talk, or chat

CLP hosted a series of webinars to support student services faculty, staff, and administrators at community colleges across California as they re-orient to providing services completely online during the Covid-19 pandemic. Find information about the Moving Student Supports Online webinar series (and additional materials) here. Natalie Halsell, a professional development coordinator at Riverside City College (RCC), was a webinar presenter.

Natalie Halsell’s presentation addressed classified staff and the challenges they are facing in switching to a virtual work environment. We followed up with her to ask a few additional questions about the transition to online services at RCC.

CLP: How are the virtual meet-ups going? Are these enabling people to connect and support one another? Are you able to create a sense of community in this modality?

Halsell: They are going well. We had quite a few people attend the first one. When the initial e-mails went out announcing the virtual meet-ups, the response was positive. People are welcome to engage beyond the level of team meetings to get work done, it’s an opportunity to interact with individuals that you don’t interact with anymore and see how they are doing and just to share outside of our normal assignments. Admissions and records and financial aid were physically close to each other in the office environment but no longer have the opportunity to interact together, unless managers schedule the time for the two groups to meet. By mixing topics and changing them every week in our virtual meet-ups, it creates an opportunity to interact with individuals you may not be currently engaging with.

In a normal work environment, you would have the chance to walk around and see people in passing. Now that we are working in a virtual environment, we aren’t having those quick conversations just to share an idea or to greet each other, those opportunities aren’t there to build that human connection. With the virtual meet-ups, it does get close to recreating some of those interactions.

CLP: What tools have you found most useful in doing your job from home?

Halsell: For me, I found the use of Microsoft Teams to be helpful and the plain old phone call. I’m trying to limit Zoom meetings as much as possible. Most of my colleagues are more than willing to pick up the phone. When on the phone, you can walk around or go outside, and you can’t do that when you are on a Zoom. Quick interactions on the phone are easier because you can move around your house or sit outside and not feel stuck at your computer.

CLP: How do you keep the momentum going with your work during this time? Sometimes staff are motivated by seeing their peers and getting that instant feedback on an idea. How are you doing this in a virtual environment?

Halsell: In my position, I report to a vice president. I don’t currently have the opportunity to spontaneously engage with him as I did in the office. We have regular standing meetings and that does help, but I do miss our quick chats. I try to maintain interoffice connections with the individuals who were in my physical location in the office by having weekly “lunch” dates. We make sure to call each other and share what’s going on with our day and our lives.

If there is a committee meeting, I make sure to continue to participate to have my pulse on what’s happening. It’s important to continue to participate in standing meetings to ensure we understand what are the current needs of our students. The best way to stand in tune with others in the organization is to interact as much as possible by phone, lunch “dates”, and interacting with different individuals from different areas of the college.

CLP: What more could colleges do to enable classified employees to better support students and their colleagues during this time?

Halsell: What I have noticed is that there have been surveys conducted to identify the needs of faculty and students as we’ve transitioned to a virtual environment. I think it might be a good idea for administration to reach out to classified employees as well and survey their needs. Some classified employees are very student-facing and are experiencing several challenges. For others, their work may have slowed a bit, and I think that there are opportunities to give them a chance to maybe step up and do more. For example, some of these employees who aren’t as busy could be recruited to make calls to students that we are trying to reach.

Some of our classified employees are on standby, and some may not have a specific assignment right now. They are worried about what might happen with their positions should we face significant impacts to our funding. We should reach out to them and find out how to harness their skills and capacity to meet student needs.

For many of us in our district, we know that we are getting paid through June 19. However, there is a feeling of helplessness and disconnect, and even a fear of being unimportant and nonessential if they aren’t being fully utilized. This is a workforce that cares about our students. How can we use them to continue that student interaction and maybe find a way to use their skills and talents creatively and even outside of their job description? This will take negotiation with the unions and the district, but I’m hopeful that these things will work out.

The webinar series was produced by the Career Ladders Project with funding from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.