When a snowstorm and freezing temperatures struck Texas in February, Penn State World Campus student Alex Vazquez was one of millions of residents who lost power. He had no electricity or Wi-Fi for almost 40 hours, so he resorted to charging his phone in his car to have a way to check on his family members.

A headshot of Alex Vazquez

When he emailed one of his professors about his situation, Vazquez found that Penn State World Campus had already told the professor that he and other students in Texas might be facing difficulties because of the storm and power outage.

Vazquez said he was relieved that his professor understood his predicament.

“Having one less thing to worry about in a time of stress is key,” said Vazquez, who is majoring in organizational leadership. “My professor’s awareness gave me that peace of mind at a time when I needed as much mental bandwidth as possible.”

The email to Vazquez’s professor was part of a broader notification process that Penn State World Campus uses when a natural disaster or emergency threatens students’ health and safety. The other part is an email to students. The goal of the notifications is to advise students to put their health and safety first and reach out to the instructors once they can do so safely.

The process begins with Penn State World Campus Student Affairs, whose staff assess the scope of a natural disaster or emergency and the possible impact on students’ safety. The student affairs office emails students they determine to be in the area of the natural disaster, explaining to them to follow the emergency guidelines in place and, once they’re able, reach out to their instructors. The note also includes links to resources.

Denita Wright Watson is shown with orange leaves in the background

Denita Wright Watson, the assistant director of equity, inclusion, and advocacy for Penn State World Campus Student Affairs, said her office hopes the protocol provides some assurance during what may be a tense or traumatic time.

“Our students’ safety in these situations is our top priority,” Wright Watson said. “We want to make sure they know they should focus their energy and attention on staying safe and secure during a stressful time. Their school responsibilities can wait until they know they are safe to get in touch with their professors.” 

Another team, from Penn State World Campus program management, notifies the students’ instructors, explaining that students in their courses may be affected by the disaster or emergency.

Since last year, World Campus has alerted students and instructors when hurricanes struck locations on the Atlantic seaboard, along the Gulf of Mexico, or in the Caribbean Sea. The protocol was activated when wildfires broke out in California, and World Campus alerted hundreds of students in Texas in February.

Instructors say the alerts are crucial to supporting their World Campus students. 

Brian Redmond, a teaching professor of organizational leadership, said two students in his courses were affected by the power failure in Texas. The alert let him know his students might be experiencing stress beyond their course work.

“Knowing that I had students in the affected area was an important piece of my supporting them,” Redmond said. “Most importantly, it gives me a heads up that I need to be concerned for their safety.”

Carl Anderson, who teaches several English courses for Penn State World Campus each semester, said he has received these notifications.

The alerts show who in his courses may be affected and help him figure out a timeline for students to make up their work. 

Anderson said students are relieved to hear that he and Penn State World Campus will do whatever they can to help them.

Vazquez said he was lucky that his household only lost power for almost two days while others experienced far worse, but he was comforted to know that his instructor and the University wanted him to put his safety and well-being first.

“It's a time when any sort of additional relief or serenity is welcome,” he said. “That initial sense of relief — knowing that there's some understanding from my professors — is what made the difference.”

Learn more about the resources and services for students on the Penn State World Campus Student Affairs webpage.

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December 12, 2023 / 8:00 pm (EST) 9:00 pm (EST)