COVID-19 Campus Challenge participants reflect on experience, discuss next steps

Wednesday, July 29, 2020 - 1:27am

.

Design Courtesy of Hibah Chughtai

The University of Michigan COVID-19 Campus Challenge, an initiative organized through the College of Engineering aimed to support and showcase student ideas for changes to be made on campus during the pandemic, hosted a virtual showcase on July 1. Teams presented their proposals in project categories including food insecurity, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, co-curricular activities, mental health, housing and transportation. Several projects from each category were designated as finalists. 

Business sophomore Achintya Saxena participated in the food insecurity category and proposed improvements to the existing infrastructure of the Maize and Blue Cupboard. His team’s project was titled “Maize and Blue Cupboard 2.0.” The project included a scheduling system to keep students and MBC staff safe while connecting with local farmers, distributing easy and healthy recipes and increasing community engagement with the Cupboard in the long-run. 

Saxena said he believes food insecurity grows with increasing economic problems, so health concerns and budget restrictions for some students may hinder them from getting the food they need. 

“Because of COVID, people aren’t able to go to the Maize and Blue Cupboard because they may not be on the Michigan campus or if they are on campus they may be afraid to go to a public space,” Saxena said. 

One of the most enjoyable parts of the challenge for Saxena was the collaborative nature of the development process

“It was kind of different than some of the other case competitions I’ve done before in that it fostered a much more collaborative environment where you were given a lot of mentors and staff who you could reach out to and ask questions,” Saxena said. “For example, for food insecurity we had a meeting with MDining staff and we were also able to schedule one-on-one meetings with the associate dean of students as well as the director of the Maize and Blue Cupboard. That exposure was really good because it gave us a lot of access to information we wouldn’t normally be able to come across as students.”

Engineering sophomore Manasi Sridhar and LSA junior Meredith Ainsworth created a project aimed at battling social isolation on campus during the fall semester. The project incorporates a survey — called the UMich Pal Pact — and a matching algorithm designed to help students connect with someone new and expand their social support network. Ainsworth explained how the makeup of the University’s smaller colleges and units coupled with the public-health informed fall semester can make campus a very isolating place for some students. 

“I think it is more important than ever to bring people together and try to make sure that people are not feeling lonely and able to advocate for themselves in terms of mental health,” Ainsworth said.  

Additionally, their team hoped to coordinate more virtual and in-person mental health wellness events. According to Sridhar, the problem with mental health services on campus is not the lack of them, but rather the lack of accessibility to them. 

Sridhar, Ainsworth and their other team members have decided to continue on with their project regardless of if they are contacted by the University’s administration, as they believe it will positively benefit students. 

“We’re hoping to match students, especially incoming freshmen, randomly or through the use of our algorithm that we have created and to use that as a marketing push for the second part of our solution, which is a service that connects students to mental health organizations on campus,” Sridhar said. 

The team is expecting to release the UMich Pal Pact Survey Aug. 1 and close the survey three weeks later on Aug. 21. Sridhar and Ainsworth hope for the matches to be ready for the first day of classes. 

“Another goal is to diversify the way students approach self-care,” Ainsworth said. “If you’re not really struggling with mental illness and are just feeling really stressed about the school year or feeling really lonely, (our goal) is to bring more events and opportunities to people who may be used to going out and seeing their friends all the time and provide opportunities that could be alternatives to that.”

Mariah Fiumara, Student Affairs program manager in the College of Engineering, and April Hays, Student Affairs associate director in the College of Engineering, were the administrators for the Campus Challenge. 

Fiumara explained in an email to The Daily how her work with student organizations on campus had given her the foundation to work with teams from the challenge to assist in implementing various parts of their ideas. 

“We are currently working with the Peer-Led Student Lunch Series team to develop a series of community programming to help bring together students during this socially isolating time,” Fiumara wrote. “In addition, I have been working with a team who developed a toolbox idea for student organizations to help with inter-org collaboration. We are currently developing this toolbox through Canvas and are hoping to launch it this fall.” 

Some projects are still a work in progress and will take more time to be implemented, Fiumara noted, but many of the projects will improve students’ experience at the University, even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hays said the University should continue to create ways for student voices to be heard and there should be future opportunities for students to tackle challenges on campus. 

“The response to this challenge at the University level has been overwhelmingly positive and we hope to keep that energy, passion and engagement going,” Hays said. 

The circumstances the challenge was created and executed in, as well as students’ ambition in creating ideas to serve the University community, prompted an overwhelming response, according to Hays. She does not believe financial incentive like a guaranteed amount of funding for the winning projects would necessarily advance outcomes. 

“We had over 60 students initially sign up for this challenge, with 89 team deliverables submitted by the deadline,” Hays said. “The knowledge that ideas could help us create an engaged, public-health informed fall was incentive enough for students to want to get involved and help.” 

One participant who chose to remain anonymous out of concern for jeopardizing the implementation of his team’s ideas said the one issue they found with the challenge was the lack of concrete data some teams were able to access for their projects. 

“When we would ask for data they would say, ‘Don’t think about the data,’ but when we went to pitch it, they would say, ‘This is not feasible because you aren’t showing data to back up your idea,’” the participant said. 

Another point the participant brought up was the discrepancy between some mentors in terms of their passion and interest in consulting on the teams’ projects.

“It almost felt like at a certain point there were certain people or stakeholders who were involved that just considered (the challenge) as a PR type thing, while there were other people that were really taking it seriously,” the participant said.  

LSA sophomore Sam Jaehnig was part of a team in the housing category that proposed a sign-up process for safe study space accessibility that utilized unused classrooms and lecture halls. The solution included using vacant lecture halls and classrooms as study spaces, increased cleaning and access to cleaning supplies in communal study spaces, and ensuring residence hall study spaces only be used by residents of the dorm. 

Jaehnig said she decided to participate in the challenge in order to stay connected to the campus community while at home in California and to try to help other students have a successful fall semester. 

“The challenge gave me a bit of an opportunity to at least help with some part of it,” Jaehnig said. “There’s only so much I can do but at least I can be a part of the solution for some Michigan students, hopefully.”

Jaehnig said she and her teammates really believed in the feasibility of the solution and the direct impact study space availability will have for students, so they were disappointed with the lack of administration members at their showcase. 

One helpful feature of the challenge, according to Jaehnig, was open office hours with faculty from each project category for students who were participating. 

“We had one person able to go to to get estimates for how many rooms would be available and the hours for each week that we could potentially use classrooms,” Jaehnig said. “We were also able to get some estimates for funding but we only accounted for things like cleaning supplies to maintain the rooms.” 

Following the showcase and after being told their project is being considered as finalist in the challenge, they were told the administration may reach out to them in the coming weeks. According to Jaehnig, they have not gotten any more information.

“As far as moving it forward, I don’t think our group knows who exactly is in charge of implementing the solutions,” Jaehnig said. 

University alumni Sujai Arakali and David Chang, co-organizers of the COVID-19 Campus Challenge, were impressed with the projects students created, as well as the attention the showcase garnered from University departments. 

“We had the Dean of UHS there and the Dean of Student Life so there were definitely a lot of higher-level people who were interested in these projects,” Arakali said. 

Chang and Arakali worked with students after the challenge to showcase their work on LinkedIn and other promotional methods. They also wrote articles summarizing the projects in each category and provided links to the presentations, but Chang said an area of improvement would have been a greater emphasis of self-promotion for the participants. 

“Sujai and I put a lot of time in writing articles following the whole thing to try to cover what everyone did but having them do some form of self-promotion and trying to do a better job with that would have helped us out a lot and would have been good for all the students because that ties into community and support,” Chang said. 

Sustainability of the projects was one of the criteria for the winning teams due to the uncertain nature of funding and campus life in the midst of the pandemic, according to Arakali. 

“We wanted to make sure that the projects were not only great ideas for the fall semester or winter semester where COVID throws everything into disarray, but even past that when things return to normal,” Arakali said. “I’m really optimistic that in January or later, when there is more funding and if students maintain passion for their projects, they could see them (move) forward and implemented.”

Chang said he believed the challenge ultimately was a way to show students how far teamwork, drive and passion can go.  

“I think as long as there are students that are passionate about making these projects come to life then some of them will actually work out, but it really comes down to the students being dedicated,” Chang said. 

Arakali agreed, noting the lessons students learn from this challenge will stick with them for years to come.

“We wanted to show students that you don’t really need a challenge or immediate support from the administration,” Arakali said. “If you have a good idea and you’re really passionate about it and you have the right team, then you can make something happen on campus.”

Daily Staff Reporter Celene Philip can be reached at celenep@umich.edu.