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RBC Office of Research & Innovation Gets $694,000 Grant

Assisting COVID Traumatized Students Across Virginia

When the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down education in March 2020, Tori McArtis could never have predicted just how off course she would get in her pursuit of a psychology degree.

“COVID impacted me in many ways,” recalled McArtis, who was then a freshman at Virginia State University (VSU). “I had to go home in the middle of my spring semester. I had to quit my summer job to protect myself and my family from getting sick. Even though I felt like I did everything I could, I still ended up contracting COVID that year.”

Dr. Kimberly Boyd, Ph.D., Vice President and Chief Research and Innovation Officer at Richard Bland College of William & Mary (RBC), heard similar stories from individuals who wrestled with the pandemic while continuing their studies at institutions of higher learning.

“These are traumatized students,” described Dr. Boyd. “Because of COVID, some couldn’t return to school; others had death in the family; some caught COVID themselves. If their grades went down or they failed, they couldn’t apply for financial aid. No financial aid means you can’t afford college anymore – all very traumatizing”

Knowing COVID posed unprecedented educational and emotional challenges, Boyd anticipated there would be a massive call for help. Boyd was a sounding board for students on the RBC campus and had regular conversations with leaders at VSU, Virginia Commonwealth University, Hampton University, and the College of William & Mary.

Using insight from her communication with them and encouragement from RBC President Dr. Debbie L. Sydow, Ph.D., Boyd developed the CTS component to be linked to the RBC Guided Pathways to Success (RBC-GPS), a program offering recruitment, engagement, and support services, along with educational and training pathways for COVID traumatized students (CTS).

RBC secured one-time funding of $694,000 from Senator Warner and Senator Kaine for students at Richard Bland College from Petersburg, Dinwiddie, Prince George, and Hopewell Counties to participate in the College’s Guided Pathways for Success program that provides services, education, training, and job placement support for students from rural areas, underrepresented Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) groups, and students highly impacted by the COVID pandemic

“I wrote this grant from the heart,” said Boyd. “I wrote this grant for the community. What does this community need? I wrote this grant after listening. I listened and tried to be that solid ear for so many students who were hurting.”

Through this program, RBC will offer several pathways to assist students with getting back on track. The first path focuses on getting students from high school to move forward to college. This path allows students to complete two to four classes at RBC to assist them with moving forward to college if they are a high school senior or students without a home school.

The second path allows students to complete two to four classes at RBC to assist them with returning to their two or four-year Virginia institution.  “A lot of colleges kept a COVID withdrawal form, but now students are in the predicament that they cannot go back because they lost their financial aid,” Boyd relayed.

The third path is designed “If students decide after their classes with us that they do not want to go back to their first school, they can stay at RBC.” This RBC-GPS path gives individuals an opportunity to enroll in RBC’s Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME); it combines coursework to earn an associate degree with paid, on-the-job training and experience.

On the third path, RBC faculty, staff and students will also work on job readiness and attainment through a partnership with Job Corps, the country’s largest residential career training program.

Each path also addresses mental health needs triggered by the pandemic; the isolation of remote learning and social distancing created high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.

“The mental health part of the program is so important to me,” Boyd explained. “When students come into the program, we use positive psychology, mindfulness techniques and mental health first aid, to make sure we are helping them, truly helping them. Think about it, the world was turned upside down. Some of them still don’t know how to get back up.”

“All of the upperclassmen have been affected by COVID in some way,” McArtis recognized. “It caused me to have to take my sophomore year online and at home. Online classes are very challenging especially when the professors are not used to having their classes online.”

RBC-GPS will support a minimum of 100 individuals.  Through this program and others “we hope to positively impact the community and build the workforce by having manufacturing jobs through FAME,” Boyd said. “Also, DroneUp is now at RBC to teach students how to drive unmanned systems. These are tomorrow’s jobs available to GPS students. Walmart and DroneUp will deliver packages, and students can get an education on our campus to operate the drones.”

Currently, RBC enrolls approximately 2,400 students, with 59% considered low-income and Pell Grant recipients. Of those individuals, 42% identify as African American; another 30% of RBC students are Caucasian, while 26% are Native American or Asian.

Most RBC students are from the cities of Petersburg, Colonial Heights and Hopewell or the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, and Prince George. These rural communities, which have fewer options for mental health services, will benefit from the resources provided by RBC-GPS, said Boyd.

“This program is designed to assist students with getting back on track.  I believe in all of our students and want them to have a fair chance that COVID took away for many students” she explained. “So many times, during COVID, I would talk to them and realize this one lost a mother, or they had COVID themselves. Just the trauma behind it all.”

As RBC prepares to welcome its first students in 2023, Boyd already envisions it as a model for other schools.

“As they realize the benefits of this program, they can start their own. I can see it moving around the state of Virginia with various tracks to jumpstart education post-COVID,” predicted Boyd. “In my career, I have always worked to give students what each individual needs to move forward. Not just focus on the academics but the person. RBC continues to do just that.”



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