Connecting in the Time of Coronavirus: the Swearer Center Shifts to Virtual Engagement

by Ayenna Cagaanan, AmeriCorps VISTA Fellow
April 22, 2020

As the world adapts to social distancing practices in order to take care of ourselves and each other, the community engagement work of the Swearer Center becomes more vital than ever. Our students, faculty, and community partners are continuing this work in innovative - and virtual - ways: some Brown students are moving their tutoring to online platforms, while one of our community partners is inviting elementary school students to an online nationwide fitness challenge. Brown faculty affiliated with the Swearer Center continue to connect through year-long learning communities and recent faculty strategy sessions for those teaching engaged courses this spring in order to plan for shifts to remote engagement with community partners.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA fellow working with the Swearer Center’s communications team for the past year, I have been inspired by the many ways our community is evolving to stay engaged and connected with each other and this work. Join me to learn more about a few of the innovative initiatives that are happening here at Brown and beyond - virtually!

Innovative Work of Swearer Students

Eager to continue their lessons, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teachers Blanca Perez ’23 and Nari Kato ’21 have moved beyond their in-person classrooms to online Facebook pages. ESOL is a Community Corps group based out of the Swearer Center that partners with the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI) to offer English language and literacy classes to adults in the Providence community. “Nari’s One Minute English” and “ESOL con Blanca” keep students engaged through short videos, which sometimes feature guests like Nari’s dog, Sophie. Currently unable to interact with their students one-on-one, these teachers and their short lessons encourage daily consistent practice. Blanca, dedicated to keeping her students engaged, also reminds them that she is available just a phone call or message away:

“I wanted to continue working with my group of adult learners because they had shown admirable dedication to the material throughout the semester. Though I don't get to do fun group activities or see their "light bulb" moments in class anymore, I feel compelled to continue a remote version of our in-person classes because their enthusiasm for learning is contagious and makes me genuinely happy to be teaching.”

Connecting with Community Partners

In order to continue offering a supportive space for our community partners to connect with us and one another, we have shifted to convene virtually with our Community Partner Network. In April, 22 partners joined us to discuss the Swearer Center and Brown’s response to COVID-19 and ways that partner organizations can collaborate and share resources during the pandemic. 

During the school year, Beat the Streets Providence, a local nonprofit and Swearer Center community partner, coaches hundreds of middle school students using sports as a tool to find their pathway to success. Usually, each week of after school programming with Beat the Streets consists of team workouts, tournaments, and workshops. To keep students engaged at home, Beat the Streets Providence is participating in a nationwide social media Million Minutes fitness challenge, comprising daily fitness, technique, and thoughtful challenges. Coaches and athletes alike post their workout, tag others, and challenge friends and family. Already students in the Providence area have amassed more than 40,000 minutes of physical and mental wellness! 

Maxwell LeMay, a current Brown University AmeriCorps VISTA fellow, leads “Thoughtful Thursday” challenges integrating mindfulness concepts taken from his internship at Brown’s School of Public Health. He asks students to take time out of their day to tune into their emotions during this uncertain time. 

Focusing on the wellness of their patients, Community Corps students have continued to find resources for underserved populations through Connect for Health, a student group that partners with the Lifespan Community Health Institute to integrate basic resources into healthcare delivery. Connect for Health advocates typically work at Hasbro Children's Hospital to connect low-income families to resources vital to their health, such as utilities assistance, public benefits, furniture, and food. As businesses and offices cut hours and close completely, these advocates continue to work remotely with Providence residents to provide for their social needs, connecting with families via the phone or Zoom, even though they themselves may be currently out of state. At least forty Off-Campus Federal Work Study students and six Bonner Community fellows have created remote working plans with Connect for Health. Maintaining these relationships is more important than ever as many families face new challenges that separate them from basic needs. 

Connecting Staff with Students

Realizing the need for remote connection, Swearer Center staff have shifted their focus to virtual advising and support. One-on-one meetings with advisors continue and Bonner Community fellows continue to meet with their cohorts regularly. According to student development program manager Kelly Finn: 

“Our Bonner Community fellows continue to check in with each other weekly in-class cohort meetings, as well as more informal check-ins. These spaces have been critical to share with each other, connect, and offer support. These times separated by distance have reinforced the power of community and going through a shared experience together.”

Looking to the future, staff have also opened up their calendars to speak to prospective students who are interested in joining programs at the Swearer Center. Since A Day on College Hill (ADOCH) could not go ahead in its traditional format this year, Brown’s Office of College Admission launched a new virtual platform using Wisr, a networking software that connects different members of college communities. Using this platform, our staff and students have been able to connect with the incoming class in order to share information about the Swearer Center and answer questions about engaging with the Providence community. For the first time, the Swearer Center hosted our annual panel virtually with students Nari Kato '21, Parisa Thepmankorn '20, and Zeinab Kante '21, and community partner Michelle Wheelock of Lifespan Community Health Institute. Incoming first-years were given the opportunity to learn about the Swearer Center’s mission and to hear from current students about their personal experiences in our programs and fellowships. More than 90 students tuned in to listen and ask questions; the panel was recorded so that all incoming students can benefit from the resource.

Thank You to the Swearer Center Community

Thank you to all who have continued your work through this uncertain time, especially those who are reporting to work to deliver essential services. We are inspired and moved by the many students, staff, faculty, and community partners who continue to show tremendous commitment to supporting the Providence and Rhode Island community, and we are proud to stand with you in this work!