‘Community will always matter’: Group of Six continues to support students remotely

The Tufts Women's Center is pictured on Feb. 3, 2018. Julia McDowell / The Tufts Daily Archives

Following the announcement that Tufts would be transitioning to remote learning and students would have to leave campus, the Group of Six identity-based resource centers worked to support students in this new environment. 

Director of the Asian American Center Aaron Parayno’s initial response to the announcement was thinking about what this change meant for students.

“The first thing that a lot of us thought about was what does this mean really for you all, the students,” Parayno said. “So I [thought] about supporting students in whatever capacities they needed.”

Jessica Mitzner Scully, program administrator for the Women’s Center, said the Women’s Center was thinking similarly about how to best help students. 

“We knew that there would be students struggling with personal, financial and logistical issues, so we tried to make ourselves available so that folks could come to [us] with questions and concerns,” Mitzner Scully wrote in an email to the Daily. 

The response from the Group of Six shifted as more information on COVID-19 arose and university policies changed.

“As things evolved we had a better understanding that we were not going to be coming back, so then it was trying to figure out the best way to make sure that everyone had some level of support,” Parayno said.

One of the first things some of the identity-based resource centers did was organize a food pantry for students leaving campus to drop off any unwanted food. Parayno spoke about the large number of donations received at the Asian American Center, in addition to donations at similar food pantries organized at the Women’s Center and the FIRST Resource Center.

“The first couple of hours people were just dropping a couple things off and we were putting it in one of our smaller rooms. Within a day we saw the growth of the donations, so we were able to organize it into a much larger enterprise to support students who were moving out, so that we were conscious of food waste, but also supporting students who were still around, ensuring that they had access to food,” Parayno said.

The Asian American Center, along with the Women’s Center, the FIRST Resource Center, Tufts Food Rescue and Tufts Mutual Aid, worked to find a space where students would have access to the food pantry, even as staff members were asked to stay home. Parayno described this as a “community effort” on the part of multiple groups on campus. The food pantry is now housed in the Mayer Campus Center.

The Group of Six remains open during this time, assisting students in various ways. 

“As you know, all of the Group of 6 offices are open (FIRST, LGBT, Women’s, Latinx, Africana, Asian-American) to support students in whatever support looks like in the moment,” Hope Denese Freeman, director of the LGBT Center and interim director of the Women’s Center, wrote in an email to the Daily. 

Meeting with students virtually is one way Group of Six staff members have continued to support students.

Katrina Moore, director of the Africana Center, and Domonique Johnson, program manager of the Africana Center, have been doing outreach to students, both those at home and those still on campus. 

Moore spoke about the importance of seeing students, even if virtually, to maintain personal connections.

Mitzner Scully highlighted how the staff of the Women’s Center remains accessible, just through a new platform.

“We continue to be available to students for meetings through Zoom, and we are checking in with our students to see how they’re doing and how we can support them,” Mitzner Scully said.

Parayno said that he is willing and glad to move his schedule around to make sure international students are getting the support they need.

“It’s making sure students who are international really get that support and … something we’ve been really conscious and aware of is trying to make sure that students don’t fall through,” Parayno said.

Virtual meetings, however, have made it more difficult to check in on students.

“It’s so much more difficult now that we don’t have that face-to-face interaction or we don’t have that constant interaction with students in the ways that we did when we were on campus,” Parayno said. “Part of it is knowing some of the students who needed more support when we were on campus and just making sure that we’re being in constant communication with them.”

Freeman has worked to support LGBTQIA+ students who may not have the same support in their home communities that they have at Tufts.

“Support for students also [varies] by state as there are some states that do not have the same protective policies in place that Massachusetts does when it comes to it being illegal to discriminate based on gender identity and sexual orientation,” Freeman said. “This poses challenges because we want to make sure students are supported, affirmed and not self-isolating because in these states there are no resources in rural towns and some urban areas.”

The identity-based resource centers are providing programming for students during this time. Some of their regularly scheduled programming is being adapted to a virtual format, while new programming is also being created to respond to the current needs of students.

The Black Women’s Collective and the Black Men’s Group have continued to run through the Africana Center with the help of their facilitators. The Africana Center’s sophomore year program wrapped up online, although scheduling virtual meetings took more effort than meeting in person, Johnson said. 

Both the Africana Center and the Asian American Center have offered cooking demonstrations. Cooking with Dom from the Africana Center is an event where students would normally come together to cook, but now Johnson has recorded these cooking demonstrations for students and uploaded them to YouTube. The Asian American Center has shared traditional recipes on its Instagram page.

“Being able to share community from home to the community on campus, even though it’s virtually, we thought that was a good opportunity,” Parayno said.

The Asian American Center celebrated Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month, which normally happens in April on college campuses, through virtual programming, including infographic posts and Instagram takeovers, among other means, Parayno said.

New programming has also been created in response to feedback from students. 

“One of the things people enjoy about the programming that we do at the Women’s Center is the opportunity to gather together in community, so the shift to online programming has necessarily meant reevaluating some of that,” Mitzner Scully said. “But it has provided an opportunity for us to check in with our students to ask them what would help them during this time and what kinds of things they would like to see from us.”

At the Women’s Center, students responded that they would like a creative outlet. The Women’s Center in turn transitioned its Creative Workshop program to Zoom, Mitzner Scully said. 

“Some of our interns and other students in the community have helped lead skill-sharing workshops on embroidery and friendship bracelet making, and we have been excited to hear feedback that people are really enjoying those events,” Mitzner Scully said. 

The Asian American Center has organized new virtual programming as well, including virtual workouts and study sessions, Parayno said. 

Many of the identity-based resource centers are continuing to work with their student interns. Student interns provide insight to what students currently need from the Group of Six, Parayno said.

Student interns are also able to facilitate programming and skill sharing, Mitzner Scully said.

The Africana Center has partnered with its alumni base to provide support for students, Moore said. 

All of the identity-based resource centers have been active on social media during this time, promoting their virtual programming and connecting students with resources. 

The Women’s Center has been sharing resources, from housing to mental health, on its social media, particularly Instagram, Mitzner Scully said. The Center’s Instagram page has also served as a place to share positive content.

“We have been sharing some more uplifting things too, like pictures of our pets or images of the things that are helping us cope right now,” Mitzner Scully said. “It’s grown into a really great, engaging community, which we are excited to continue.” 

Social media is a way to stay connected with resources on campus, in the community and on a national level, Freeman said.

“We make sure that our social media is staying connected with various communities that fall under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella,” Freeman said.

To address the email fatigue that some students were feeling initially, the Group of Six has adapted to be more active on social media.

“We all kind of joked that we can now add ‘social media manager’ to all our resumes [because we have] been trying to navigate that space to ensure students get that information,” Parayno said. “[Email] communication is important, but at the same time it can be very overwhelming, so it’s just trying to figure out that balance.”

The Group of Six has been able to share events and resources that are now available to students for free, Parayno said.

“It’s a great way to collaborate with other spaces as well,” he said. “It’s how [we can] work smarter and not harder in times like these.”

During this time the Group of Six has worked together to continue to provide programming and resources for students. 

Staff at the various identity-based resource centers can serve as a home base for students, and overlap between the centers allows for more resources and points of contact for students. 

“Knowing that there’s also overlap between our centers, some [students] do just find home in one space but a good amount of them really find community in multiple spaces, at least in that regard we’re able to have multiple touch points with the students,” Parayno said.

The Group of Six centers have been uplifting the work of the other centers and sharing these resources with their own students.

“All of the identity-based centers have been doing an incredible job creating opportunities for virtual community-building, so we are trying to be sure to connect our students to those events and resources as well,” Mitzner Scully said.

This community response extends beyond the Group of Six. 

“I think it’s been great to have the response from colleagues to really be there and try to support the students,” Parayno said. “It even extends beyond the Group of Six, folks from [Counseling and Mental Health Services] and [the Office for Campus Life] have been really great about partnering with us and uplifting each others’ things.”

Parayno hopes that during this time students have felt support from various on-campus resources and continue to push the university to serve students as best as it can. 

While the programming and support the Group of Six offered during this time doesn’t replicate the physical community on campus, all of the directors are working to keep community connections strong.

“At the end of the day what this has shown is that community will always matter, and that’s something that I hope to carry forward,” Parayno said. “It’s really shown that community in the abstract, but also community in the physical space of the Center, really matters.”

The FIRST and Latino Centers did not respond for comment in time for print publication.