Advisors from Virginia Tech TRIO Programs are finding new ways to help Southwest Virginia students, many of whom are struggling with the unexpected demands of remote learning.

In addition to guidance from TRIO’s advisors, middle and high school students in the university’s Upward Bound and Talent Search programs can now receive technology support as well as academic tutoring from Virginia Tech students.

TRIO Programs, part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides academic, career, and financial counseling to about 900 middle and high school students each year through the federal college access programs. The majority of participants will be the first in their families to attend college, come from underrepresented populations, and meet income-eligibility requirements. Throughout the year, TRIO’s advisors offer academic counseling as well as workshops to equip students with the skills and information needed to apply to and succeed in college.

With so many schools now providing instruction online, the needs of many of those students have changed, Director Frances Clark said. “Giving students the support and guidance to pursue postsecondary education and achieve their dreams is at the heart of what we do. We are working to make sure no student is left behind because they’re having problems adapting or can’t access the technology they need.”

Joe Lyle, a Talent Search project advisor, said he’s seeing more students struggling. Access to reliable internet connections is a real problem, particularly in rural areas.

“Watching a student with poor connection is a horror show for teachers. The student’s words come out as a robotic stammer — if at all — as video connections freeze and jerk,” Lyle said.

A strong internet connection is vital not only so students can complete schoolwork but also so they can make plans for college. Through the federal CARES Act, TRIO can offer support with technology hurdles, including providing internet access or equipment to strengthen a poor connection, Clark said.

“While some students don’t have internet access at all, what we’ve found to be a more common issue is that their internet signal doesn’t have the bandwidth to allow for video during virtual schooling because multiple siblings and parents are using the Wi-Fi at the same time,” Clark said. “We also have had some students reach out to us who were on waiting lists for hot spots from their school systems.”

In addition to providing hot spots, internet boosters, and ethernet cables, TRIO can lend laptops for schoolwork and can help families get a reduced rate for internet service.

Lyle said he’s also seeing more students falling prey to online exhaustion.

“Zoom fatigue is real. Worksheets are dull. Computer interactions are less engaging than their real-time counterparts. It is easy just to drift away,” he said. “I have noticed that it is harder and harder to get my students to connect online.”

To help combat this, TRIO is offering free virtual tutoring sessions. Tutors are available to help students with assignments in English, math, lab sciences, and social studies two evenings each week.

“Our tutors are students at Virginia Tech, and many have previously worked for us as work-study students or as mentors during the Upward Bound summer component. Some of them are also alumni of either Upward Bound or Talent Search,” said Jason Puryear, Upward Bound assistant director. 

Jordan LaBord, a Virginia Tech junior majoring in public relations with a minor in international studies, is one of the TRIO tutors. “Students are struggling with the accountability to log in to their Zoom classes and pay attention during class, but I also think being at home all the time has been weighing on them heavily,” he said. “A lot of students loved the social interactions that came with actually attending school. Simply seeing a new face helps. It is a breath of fresh air for them.”

In addition to help from Virginia Tech students, other virtual classes have been scheduled throughout the semester. Monthly “Saturday Sessions” cover topics such as career preparation, wellness, and citizenship. A course in coding teaches participants to program a Sphero robot.

Students also may join a TRIO advisor for college campus tours. This fall, the visits are online using virtual reality goggles and a college search website. The goggles, designed to be used with a smartphone, are sent to students to keep, but tours may also be taken without the virtual reality component. Participants also receive a guide to go with the tours.

“Students are exposed to colleges and universities both in and out of Virginia. Even if Virginia Tech is not their final choice, we help them feel confident about pursuing a college education through experiences at Virginia Tech,” Clark said.

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh