Student Connection, Engagement, and Support During Online Learning | Part 1 of 2: State of the Students

A DSHA education is more than facts, concepts, coursework, and a rigorous college-prep curriculum. It is about young women finding a place that affirms they are created in the image and likeness of God. It is about being known by teachers, counselors, pastoral staff, administration, and the sisterhood that is only possible in an all-girls environment. It is about finding passion and purpose in the company of a supportive, Catholic community. Over the course of the spring semester of 2020, DSHA learned that while better together, this unique education — at its true core — is still possible when required to be physically apart because of a dedicated faculty and staff, unwilling to settle in order to meet students in their evolving needs.

On Thursday afternoon, March 12, the entire TSC (all faculty and staff) gathered in the Robert and Marie Hansen Family Fine Arts Theatre to discuss what had quickly become a national news story. COVID-19 felt foreign to most the week prior, but was now very likely going to affect the day to day of how students, faculty, and staff would interact and move forward in the coming weeks.


“Here is what we know,” shared Academic Dean Dr. Heather Mansfield to the group.“If — and likely when — we move into online instruction in the coming days or weeks,we are going to focus on student learning outcomes. These will not change. How we accomplish this is going to change and that is okay.”

Mansfield went on to share the vision that she and the academic administration had been discussing earlier in the week while monitoring the fluidity of circumstances:these pre-determined goals for each department, each class, would require a shift in terms of how they would be accomplished, but students should complete the semester with the same general knowledge and understanding of concepts aspreviously planned.

“These outcomes will drive all of our choices around content and materials,”she shared. “We may not be able to cover everything that would have been covered. Decisions will be made by prioritizing intentional, focused-learning experiences versus work for the sake of keeping students occupied.”

But this would only happen if all decisions were filtered through the established theme set for the balance of the semester: Student Connection,Engagement, and Support. The following day, Friday, March 13, was the last day of classes on campus for students across Wisconsin; after four days of planning, online learning began at DSHA on Wednesday, March 18.


The verbiage assigned to the theme of Student Connection, Engagement,and Support was new with the move to online learning. However, the concept was naturally at play during business-as-usual school due to the constant collaboration between the academic, student services, campus ministry, and applied wellness departments — each interacting with students in a consistent, dependable, and daily rhythm.

This ongoing connectivity encourages student engagement across the landscape of DSHA offerings — both with one another and the TSC. It also allows faculty and staff the ability to inherently and proactively understandand address student needs. The goal being this: no students will fall through the cracks; and if a need is known, DSHA will do everything in its power to meet that need.

During a typical semester, it might look like this: a usually engaged student has been noticeably quiet and seemingly tired in her English class for the past couple of weeks, nor has she turned in her latest assigned paper. Her teacher asks if everything is okay and if there is anything she/he can do to help. The student says she is fine, yet this does not sit well with the concerned teacher. The teacher then reaches out to a dean who might then either meet with the student directly, or contact a counselor or pastoral staff to help gain a better understanding of how to best serve this girl and re-establish her connectivity to her coursework and the community.

These types of conversations inherently occur throughout the year when operating in business-as-usual mode. However, leading into a season of online learning — coupled with the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 at the time — Mansfield was proactivelyaware that being physically serparated would change the natural protections that had become a systemized,intentional rhythm.

Because these natural protections were no longer present, faculty and staff moved quickly to create new frameworks based on the anticipated and evolving needs of students.


Applied Wellness Faculty Joanna McQuide, DSHA ’93, and Rachel Uihlein
,spent the first part of the year working out a new and evolving structure to the applied wellness experiences that had become a part of each student’s course requirements beginning in the fall. These in-school experiences gave students structured choice to meet their individual needs across the following areas:social, emotional, spiritual, contextual, diversity, and physical.

In adapting their programming to the online setting, with the goal of student connection, engagement, and support at the forefront, McQuide and Uihlein quickly realized the needs they had been used to meeting had drastically changed in a matter of days.

“We found ourselves wanting feedback from students, but also from our collaborators— what do they feel students might need right now that is different from a few weeks ago,” McQuide shared.

To attain this feedback, McQuide and Uihlein sent a weekly survey to students requesting insight specific to the circumstances surrounding online learning, with a particular emphasis on connectivity and overall wellness. This data — thanks to a statistically high student participation rate — allowed for a plan to address student needs atboth an individual and school-wide level.Thus, the State of the Students (SOS) team was born.


“The team began because we knew we needed a larger group to steer the wellness ship during this season; we wanted to bring everyone to the table at the same time,” McQuide said of the team that consisted of herself, Uihlein, Mansfield, Dean of Student Affairs Ruby Brock, DSHA ’92; Director of Campus Ministry Kathleen Cullen Ritter, DSHA ’05; Director of Student Services,Equity, and Engagement Lisette Rodriguez-Reed; along with all school counselors.

Mansfield adds, “This was completely initiated by Joanna (McQuide) and Rachel (Uihlein). They saw the need, have put in the extra time, and built the system to address it. It speaks to the creativity and dedication of our faculty and staff as a whole right now.”

The SOS team met virtually each week,diligently discussing information from the surveys as well as other student needs that surfaced throughout the previous week. If an individual student had a unique need, a plan was discussed and action steps were set into motion. If connectivity data was trending a certain direction for the overall student body, this was shared with faculty and addressed at a community-wide level.

“Having an element from every area and collaborating in this way — all together in one place on a regular basis is new, but we see the long-term benefit. We hope to continue with SOS once school resumes in the normal setting,” McQuide shares of her post-COVID-19 vision for this team and the purpose it serves.

Click here to read Part 2 | Defining Necessity — How Mathematics Faculty Libby Wissing, DSHA '10, redefined her engagment with students during virtual learning.


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