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Kindness calls reach thousands of Ohio State students

Personal touch helps students stay connected during pandemic

Caleb Hickman didn’t recognize the number making his phone ring earlier this month. Ordinarily he wouldn’t pick up, but he had already been on the phone all day and so he answered.

“The caller said she was from Ohio State and she worked in the accounting department. And she said that faculty and staff at Ohio State were just reaching out to students to make sure that they’re doing OK during the stay-at-home order,” Hickman said. “Then she just asked me if I was OK. I said, ‘Absolutely, I'm doing fine, probably a little bit better compared to some of my peers.’ It was just a really nice conversation.”

Hickman, a fourth-year student majoring in agriscience education, is one of about 18,000 first-year or graduating students at The Ohio State University contacted by the Office of Student Life’s Kindness Callers campaign. Staff from Student Life, Advancement, the Alumni Association and other colleges and units volunteered to call students to check in and to see how they were doing. The callers are also working to make sure students are aware of the university resources at their disposal, including counseling and financial aid.

"I’m often thinking about ways we can make the student experience better,” said Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers. “We wanted to tell them, ‘We are still right here, ready to support you.’”

Shivers said Student Life continued to communicate with students through email and texting once the COVID-19 pandemic forced the university to move to virtual learning. But she wondered if an even better way to make connections was to give them a call.

“We discussed it as a staff and the feedback was, ‘That sounds awesome … and overwhelming,’” she said.

Shivers wanted to make sure there was a clear message for callers and that if students expressed concerns that required appropriate follow-up, they would be treated with urgency. She asked Tracy Stuck, assistant vice president for Student Life, to lead the project.

“Then all of a sudden this idea became quite real. I was amazed by the number of people who volunteered to make these calls,” Shivers said.

Stuck said the plan started with a spreadsheet and a few meetings and rapidly expanded into hundreds of volunteers making dozens of calls. Stuck said the conversations were often heartfelt, emotional and deep.

“The calls took much longer than we thought because people talked a lot, which was awesome,” she said. “The students really wanted to share what was going on.”

What might at first have seemed like a lot of work quickly evolved into a positive experience.

“It was fun, too, because I think we’ve all realized that there’s some magic to this, the magic of actually picking up the phone and talking to someone,” Stuck said.

The magic was felt by not only the students, but also by the staff and volunteers making the calls.

“Once we found out about the idea, we were of course super excited about it,” said Zia Ahmed, senior director for Dining Services. “Because, especially in Dining Services, one of the things that we’re missing is a lot of student interaction.”

Ahmed said he and a colleague were discussing the calls they were making and agreed that they really wanted the students to answer the phone, not to just let it go to voicemail.

“We were hoping that on every call, a student would pick up the phone, because we wanted to talk to somebody. We did not want to leave a message,” he said. “I’m not making this stuff up, but I was keeping my fingers crossed, like ‘Please, pick up the phone.’ Because the experience, every time you talk to somebody, was so positive that you craved even more of that experience.”

Shivers wasn’t about to miss out on the same experience. She also picked up the phone and started calling students. Her reaction was similar to Ahmed’s.

“One particular student I spoke to was so wonderful. She was really appreciative of the phone call,” she said.

Shivers, Stuck and Ahmed said there was a common theme among the callers: Ohio State students have remained resilient and optimistic during this disruption in their lives.

Hickman, who will graduate on Sunday during the university’s virtual commencement, said he will be watching the ceremony at home with his family. Despite the distance, he said the effort from the university during this pandemic response has made him feel more connected to Ohio State.

“My faculty and staff have really reached out to me saying, ‘We miss you. We hope that you’re having a decent time at home, working on your projects and finishing up the semester,’” he said, adding that the Kindness Calling campaign meant a lot to him. “It’s just that extra little bit that Ohio State does that makes you feel it’s a home away from home.”

The positive feedback may lead to a similar effort in the future. Stuck said she hopes there’s more to come.

“I think there could be a part of this that we continue in a different form and fashion in future years.”

The university announced plans on April 3 to hold the virtual commencement. Graduates will receive their degrees and a copy of the commencement program in the mail at their permanent address. The university will hold a physical recognition event at a later date when it is safe to do so. Members of the Class of 2020 will be actively involved in the scheduling and planning of that event.

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