April 21, 2020
Sitting at home, Ashesi’s Dean of Students, Abdul Mahdi, watched as over two hundred students in the Class of 2020 logged into the first of many virtual townhall meetings. It had been a week since campus temporarily closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the University was laying the groundwork to move operations online. As the graduating class, students had a lot of questions about the next steps for their academic journey, and the University’s Executive Team was meeting with them virtually to answer questions.
“What happens to our graduation?” “Have we lost our semester?” “What should we do about our senior-year projects?”
The Executive Team took turns answering the questions, guiding students on how the University intended to move forward. The questions and comments were not unexpected, even the transparent one that read: “When can we come back? For many of us the campus is the only home we know.”
Dean Abdul understood how meaningful that statement was for many of the students he worked with. A few days before the virtual meeting, he had received notice of a student who could not find accommodation after leaving campus.
“He lived in vulnerable shelter – a kiosk in Accra – and had been kicked out by the owner a week after campus had closed down,” Dean Abdul explains. “During regular school breaks, he would have had time to make plans for accommodation off-campus. He didn’t have that window this time around.”
Reaching out to Ashesi family and alumni, the Student Services team found accommodation for the student. Over the first week of campus closure, many other students would share varied experiences about facing challenges in the move back home.
“We speak with students frequently, and we know that for many of them, our campus and dormitories are a safe space away from the pressures they face when school is on break,” says Dean Abdul. “The pandemic upended this steady-state, but we remain committed to helping all students continue navigating their university experience as effectively as possible.”
Thoughtfulness Remains Forefront in Decision-Making
Thoughtfulness in supporting students has been at the forefront of Ashesi’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the last three weeks, the University has introduced several support measures to enable online learning – many of them focused on the student experience. When the announcement was made by the Government of Ghana for schools to close, the University provided cross-country travel support for students, and international students received support to book quickly diminishing flights home.
Ashesi families and alumni also stepped up and opened their homes to international students who couldn’t travel home for varying reasons. Students on full scholarships, which covered meals on campus, were given stipends to support their upkeep at home. And with computer labs now inaccessible, Ashesi provided laptops for students who had reached out to indicate that they could not take online classes otherwise. Additionally, students with tuition arrears were allowed to defer payments in the short-term, and continue their classes without any disruptions. And faculty continue to develop their online classes to enable a more accessible learning experience for students.
“The pandemic worsens any existing difficulties that students may have had,” says Dean Abdul. “And under such extraordinary circumstances, we consider it our responsibility to be there for students; to ensure – as much as we possibly can – that we even the learning field for all students even if they are off-campus.”
Leaving No One Behind
In planning for the pandemic, Ashesi also reached out to third-party service providers – from landscaping teams to canteen operators – to understand how their teams would be impacted. In addition to maintaining critical support like health insurance and paid medical leave for University teams, Ashesi also maintained existing contracts with all service vendors.
“We considered it essential that everyone who works at Ashesi felt a sense of security, especially at this time,” says Chief Operating Officer, Yasmin Bucknor. “We couldn’t plan for just the University and its employees. We also needed to consider the broader groups of service teams that enable our campus to thrive. And we reached out very early on to all our service providers, working hand-in-hand to mitigate any disruptions to the incomes of their staff and teams.”
Working hand-in-hand meant that Ashesi offered to match a proportion of salaries paid by service providers, ensuring that none lost their jobs or saw reductions in income. In addition, Ashesi’s Health Team provided hand sanitizers to all service providers and led COVID-19 prevention training for various teams.
A Silver Lining to Be Grateful For
In a April 19 announcement, the President of Ghana eased lockdown restrictions in Ghana, allowing businesses to resume operation and advising continued vigilance. Universities will remain closed, as the government keeps a close watch on the effect of response measures. But there is a quiet hope that COVID-19 will be contained soon enough to allow campuses across the country to reopen. For the Ashesi Community, a return to campus promises to be a homecoming like no other.
“We continue to learn new things about our resilience as a community through this pandemic,” Dean Abdul reflects. “There have been challenges that we have been able to overcome collaboratively, and others on which we continue to make progress. It has been reassuring to see everyone pitch in, in their various capacities. If there’s anything I am sure of, it is that the Ashesi community will emerge from this even stronger than it has been. And that’s a silver lining I am grateful for.”
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