Student Affairs Podcast — Episode 5: Weather Emergencies and Natural Disasters

You can now listen to Episode 5 of “Conversations with Student Affairs,” the podcast managed by the Student Affairs team at Penn State World Campus in collaboration with our many colleagues and partners across the University’s Student Affairs teams.

Title: Natural Disasters

Participating staff members: Denita Wright Watson, associate director of equity, inclusion, and advocacy at Penn State World Campus; Rebecca Marcum and Malinda Sawyer, World Campus academic advisers; and Joe Buffone, program manager at World Campus Program Planning and Management.

Summary: Your ability to participate in course activities or complete course work could be affected in the event of severe weather or a natural disaster. Our guests discuss steps you can take to develop a plan or identify a resource to help you feel supported and prepared in this situation. They also share strategies for communicating with the University when you are impacted by a natural disaster or weather-related disruption.


Three interesting or helpful takeaways from this episode:

Be proactive and think ahead to prepare for an emergency scenario that might impact your course work. In addition to all the routine emergency preparations in life, students must have a plan for what they will do if a natural disaster creates an academic challenge — if, for example, there’s an extended power outage or you need to evacuate in a hurry. “It’s a good idea to have your instructors’ emails saved on your phone and to have the Canvas app on your phone, so you can access that,” Denita says. “Also, if you know there’s a major storm forecasted for your area — or you are in an area that is prone to severe weather or other events at certain times of year — if you can work ahead and turn assignments in early, that will help.”

Keep instructors and your adviser informed as much — and as early — as possible. “Ultimately, grading falls under the purview of instructors, but reaching out in advance — or as soon as possible — is key.” Joe says, adding that you should alert your instructors as soon as you know there may be an issue. “It doesn’t have to be a long message. Just a quick message to let your instructor know that you are experiencing this and to ask what things can be done to help with your course work. That can start the conversation of what’s next once the disaster is over.”

Your adviser can also offer assistance, but first you must let them know you need help. “Because online learners may not always stay in one place or may travel away from their home location, we may not always know when they may be in the path of a natural disaster,” Rebecca says. “So it’s important to reach out. We do this job because we really love to help our students, but we can’t do that effectively if we don’t know that someone needs help.”

Your adviser is eager to support you, but you should also be your own advocate. “Often, when students reach out to their instructors on their own, professors are willing to work with them,” says Denita. “I always advise students to share as much about their situation as they are comfortable with, to help their instructor get a complete picture so they can understand exactly what the impact is (or will be) for the student.” If you do need help, though, World Campus has a support system that is available to you. Denita says, “Ideally students should reach out to instructors directly, but if they aren’t able to do that — say, because they have limited access to technology or the situation is very upsetting to them — they should have confidence that Care and Concern is glad to support them.”

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When Weather Causes a Disruption


JEN TOOF: Welcome to Conversations with Student Affairs. My name is Jen Toof. I’m an Assistant Director for World Campus Student Affairs in the Office of Student Conduct. I will be serving as the host for our podcast conversations.

Today, our episode will be focused on natural disasters. As a student, this might not be one of the first things you think you might be impacted by. If you are an online learner, you might be impacted by evacuations or infrastructure disruption. As a student living and learning residentially on a campus, it’s possible your campus might be impacted by severe weather.

Now whether you’re learning online or learning in a classroom in-person, everyone has family or close friends residing in these hard-impacted regions as well. We hope today’s episode can help identify a plan or action item and resource to help you feel more supported and strategies for communicating with the University when you are impacted by a natural disaster.

I’m joined today by colleagues of mine. I’d now like to have an opportunity for them to introduce themselves. Malinda, would you like to go first?

MALINDA SAWYER: Absolutely. Hi, everyone. My name is Malinda Sawyer, and I am one of the Academic Advisors here at World Campus.

JEN TOOF: Rebecca, would you like to go next?

REBECCA MARCUM: Yes. Hi, everyone. My name is Rebecca Marcum. Like Malinda, I am also an Academic Advisor with the World Campus.

JEN TOOF: Denita?

DENITA WRIGHT WATSON: Thanks, Jen. Hi, my name is Denita Wright Watson, and I’m the Associate Director of Equity, Inclusion, and Advocacy for World Campus Student Affairs. Glad to be here.

JEN TOOF: And lastly, Joe.

JOE BUFFONE: Hey, everyone. My name is Joe Buffone. I am a Program Manager in World Campus Program Planning and Management, and I am also a liaison between Academic Affairs and World Campus Student Affairs.

JEN TOOF: Thank you, everybody. In each of our episodes, one of our guests will read off a land acknowledgment. With the recent hurricanes, flooding, and the pandemic, for this episode, we’d like to do a service acknowledgment. Now, Denita, please take us through our service acknowledgment.

DENITA WRIGHT WATSON: Absolutely. Thanks, Jen. So just on behalf of all of us here at World Campus, I’d like to acknowledge all of the first responders. In times of natural disasters and pandemic and any type of emergency situation, it’s these brave men and women who put their lives on the line, sacrificing their own safety for ours. So to the EMTs, the medical professionals, the firefighters, the police officers, the military, the National Guard, everyone — we say thank you, and we appreciate you.

JEN TOOF: Our first segment is our “If You Could” segment. And if you have previously listened to our episodes, you know this is where you get to learn a little bit more about our guests. So our “If You Could” question this week is, if you could have any superhuman power, what would it be and how would you use it? And, Malinda, let’s start with you for this one.

MALINDA SAWYER: Thanks, Jen. Now this might date me a little bit, but since we’re talking about natural disasters today, if I could have any superhuman power, I would want to be Captain Planet, for those of you that remember that cartoon show. Then, in situations where natural disasters hit, I’d be able to help alleviate some of the impacts. So, for example, with a hurricane, I could potentially redirect the wind back to the ocean to help there be minimal impacts on the land.

JEN TOOF: I so agree with that one, Malinda. Denita, how about you?

DENITA WRIGHT WATSON: Hmm. I would say it’s pretty easy for me because anyone who knows me will say, yeah, that’s about right. If I could have any superpower in the world, I would choose the ability to heal. I would be able to put my hands on someone or something that is hurt, that is sick, and just take away whatever pain they have. So I would heal anyone who was in need. I would heal anyone who’s hurt, any birds with broken wings, you name it I would just heal everyone. That would be my superpower.

JEN TOOF: OK. Nobody else can see us here, but we’re all putting up our hearts and our hands right now. Thank you, Denita. And, yes, that would — that solely represents you. Joe, let’s have you go next.

JOE BUFFONE: I have a bit of a different take here. We’re

JEN TOOF: Ready for it.

JOE BUFFONE: For those already familiar with Star Wars, you probably know the character Admiral Akbar. He is, in my opinion, the best character in the entire Star Wars universe. Anyway, he’s famous for saying, “It’s a trap.” So, if I had one superpower, it would be an ability to remain aware of the potential for disasters and things around me so I could avoid that trap.

JEN TOOF: Rebecca, how about you? Let’s have you close us out on your “If You Could.”

REBECCA MARCUM: Sure. Hey, Denita, I’m actually going to steal yours. Or not steal — I had the exact same one as you do.

DENITA WRIGHT WATSON: Go right ahead. We can [INAUDIBLE] back and forth.

REBECCA MARCUM: So that would the ability to heal. Yeah. Awesome. Let’s do it. So, yeah, so the ability to heal — not to get too heavy on us, but I lost my mother to cancer about seven years ago. And at that time, I really thought about making a big career pivot into nursing. I didn’t go that way.

But ever since then, I really wish that I could have — like Denita said — the ability to just lay on my hands on somebody or something that is hurt and suffering, not only to save them from the pain and the suffering and the fear but also their family and loved ones. So I would really love to be able to do that in a perfect world.

DENITA WRIGHT WATSON: We could be like the Wonder Twins, Rebecca, and activate our powers.

REBECCA MARCUM: Let’s do it.


REBECCA MARCUM: Hey, I am right there with you.

JEN TOOF: I feel, like, at a concert where everybody is like putting their phones up and their flashlights, and we’re all putting our hearts and our hand signals for the heart up.

For today’s “Student Affairs Snapshot,” I’ll be reflecting back to an ice storm. It was the evening of December 11, 2008. I was working in Residence Life at a school in New Hampshire. There was a storm coming in with the ability to produce significant ice. I was attending one of my resident assistant’s residence hall programs where the residents were making ice cream sundaes.

Outside of the residence hall, we could suddenly see students slipping and falling on the walkways. And we were a bit surprised as it had only been raining, and the bad weather was still in the forecast a couple of days away. So, that next morning at 5:00 AM, my director called my phone to notify me to wake up my resident assistant staff.

The entire campus, town, and region had lost power. When I looked outside, the entire trees, buildings, and even rocks were covered in the most beautiful sheen of ice. It looked like a movie set, where a beautiful Hallmark movie is meeting a disaster movie scene. When the power goes out on that campus, we would need to make a plan to have the resident assistants do continuous rounds to make sure the building was safe.

By noontime, we had more information regarding the weather situation. The weight of the ice had taken down several trees that had fallen on power lines and had blocked roads. We were now going to need to set up shelter in the Student Center.

The first step was for students who had a safe home they could go to with family or friends to keep warm, we would encourage them to go there for the weekend, as the buildings could only hold heat for so many hours. As that Friday continued, most students left campus. Finals were to start that following Monday on December 15.

A few dozen students and the res life staff had sheltered in the great room of the Student Center that Friday night. The next morning, the impact of the storm was so severe, the college made the determination that finals week would be canceled, and the campus would need to close. The storm had significantly impacted several states — New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York.

For our area in New Hampshire, it was expected that power would not be restored for a possible two more weeks when this decision was made. Faculty were expected to make arrangements with students to complete their semester finals in January before the spring semester began.

As a human, I had never experienced such an event before in my life, and I can fully understand the impact these events have on students and their families. Many of us have an emergency contact from medical-related incidents. I encourage students living away from home attending school to identify who might they turn to in the event of a weather-related emergency. This might be a campus office, a resource, a family, a friend, or a community member.

Up next is our “On the Corner” segment where we discuss intersecting topics that may impact students or some of the questions and topics that they inquire about. And so with today’s focus on navigating disruption and distress when impacted by a natural disaster, I’m going to have some questions for you, Rebecca and Malinda.

You both currently reside, or have resided, in geographical — in geographic regions where wildfire or natural disasters are a significant concern. We have many World Campus students who reside in these areas that could face significant disruption. And we also have students attending in-person whose families may be experiencing that same distress. Could you share with us what it’s like living in a geographic region that’s prone to significant weather disruption or a natural disaster? And, Rebecca, let’s start with you.

REBECCA MARCUM: So, I will preface this by saying I am not from, normally, a broad-scale natural disaster area. I grew up largely in the Midwest where there are, as everyone knows, the occasional tornado or ice storms or something like that, but nothing to the scale of wildfires or earthquakes.

So, about two years ago, my family moved to the Portland, Oregon, metro area. And suddenly the threat of what is called the “Big One,” which is a large earthquake that apparently is overdue, and wildfires, and other things like that are sudden threats. So it was a real shock to the system to realize that that’s something that could happen now to my family.

So I created a go box with first-aid materials, non-perishable food, emergency gear, and all that kind of stuff, also, a go bag with two days of clothes and some medicine for everyone in my family. And then we started collecting gallons of water.

And, just to be transparent, it made me a lot more nervous to be doing this. It made the threat seem more credible and real. But it also is really comforting with the idea of being prepared if something were to happen.

JEN TOOF: Thanks, Rebecca. How about you, Malinda?

MALINDA SAWYER: Thanks, Jen. So, I was born and raised in Southern California. And I spent some time living in Chicago. Because of that, I’ve experienced my fair share of natural disasters, from earthquakes to wildfires, severe weather, power outages. I’ve seen quite a few things.

And currently, I actually live a few blocks from an area that’s classified as a wildfire risk because it’s open brush for miles and miles that can’t be developed. So what we’ve done is created an emergency plan. It kind of overlaps a little bit with what Rebecca was talking about.

We actually created a shared note in our phones, everyone in my family has. And it’s just a list of things to grab so that if we are in the middle of an emergency, we’ve already identified what we need. And it makes it easier for in that minute when you’re stressed to just know what to grab. So on the list we have a to-go bag, like Rebecca mentioned, with just first-aid kit, water, flashlights. We also have passports, photo albums, our laptop, our safe.

It’s all on the list so that if the time comes and we need to evacuate, it makes it easy to just open up the list, know what we need to get, throw it in the car, and then go. And I hope that none of us have to use this list. But in the case that we do, it will be helpful to be prepared.

JEN TOOF: Thank you, Malinda. And thank you, Rebecca. As we’re talking about items that we can put together and action steps for students to be successful when these disruptions happen, it might be that time where you have to evacuate. You might have to take that box that you’ve created and activate that list that you’ve made.

There’s also some precautionary steps, too, that I’ve learned about because I, too, have family in Southern California. And I know one of the mitigation strategies in relation to wildfire is some planned power outages during high-wind-risk time periods.

And so when I think about students who might be learning online, that disruption could really impact their ability to possibly meet for group work, turn in assignments, if they have a scheduled exam. Malinda, I’d like to start with you. Could you share with us — why is it important for a student to reach out to their academic advisor or their instructor if they have been impacted by a natural disaster or one of these planned disruptions?

MALINDA SAWYER: Absolutely. So I can speak on this from both personal and professional experience. When I was earning my graduate degree, I was an online learner. And we did experience a power outage at the time. And what I did was reach out to my academic advisor and my instructors.

So, I think it’s really important to reach out to your academic advisor proactively if you can in this situation where it’s going to be a planned power outage. Or if it’s the situation where it’s not planned, and you can’t be proactive, then just reach out in that moment. Your advisor is your resource and, in some ways, your lifeline. So he or she can connect you with the tools that you need depending on your situation.

As an academic advisor, I’m always happy to help point my students to the right direction depending on the scenario. And every student situation is so different. So the resources you need are going to vary case-to-case, and that’s what we’re here for — to make sure we’re connecting you with those tools. If you find yourself in an unfortunate situation, that’s exactly what we want to do.

JEN TOOF: Thank you, Malinda. Rebecca, same question for you. What would you share with your advisees if they need to reach out to you?

REBECCA MARCUM: Yeah. Thanks, Jen. So the interesting thing about the work that we do here with World Campus and World Campus advising is we don’t always know which of our advisees, if anyone, is being impacted by a given natural disaster.

And this is especially because, as online learners, our students can move mid-semester cross country, travel for work or pleasure. So they don’t — they’re not always at their listed address on the line path. And so we don’t always know when they might be in harm’s way. And so normally this freedom of movement is a big reason that brings us to online studies. It makes it really attractive and feasible for a lot of our students, but it also makes it difficult to pin down who’s in the affected area.

So, sort of piggybacking off of what Malinda said, it’s really, really better if you can contact us, as your advisor, ahead of time if you see a developing situation. Or reactively as soon as you can after something that’s already happened, just so we as your advisor can offer the best and quickest help that we can.

In higher ed, we’re in this job because we really love to help. We really love to help our students. We can’t do this very effectively if we don’t know that there is someone out there who needs help.

JEN TOOF: That’s such an excellent point to end on Rebecca. Thank you so much. And as we roll into our next segment for our “Toolbox for Success,” we want to leave our listeners with this important advice — as Malinda was talking about that list in her phone. What is this list that students can make from an academic perspective? When you’re safe and able after one of these situations, what can you do?

So I want to start here with Joe. So some of these action items in relation to disruptions, like natural disasters, how should a student approach their semester work if they live in one of these geographic regions that may experience these disruptions? Take us through that communication and what should students do from this academic side, especially with your role with World Campus.

JOE BUFFONE: Thanks, Jen. I think one of the most valuable things that students can do is to be aware of the risks around you, first of all. With a weather-related disaster, the weather forecast that is going to help you know what’s coming around the corner.

However, if you live in an earthquake zone or a wildfire zone, you might not always have a lot of time to think about what to do next. So it’s important to come up with a plan. So if you’re living in an area prone to disaster, be mindful of forecasts — weather forecasts — be mindful of what’s around you.

And the single question one could ask themselves is, what will I do if my power goes out and I can’t submit assignments? First, make sure your family is safe, obviously. And after that, it is important to reach out to your instructors and your academic advisors. Ultimately, grading is under the sole purview of instructors. However, reaching out in advance is key.

It doesn’t have to be a long message. You don’t need to write an encyclopedia, just a quick message to let a professor know that you’re experiencing this. You may be away from your coursework, and ask what things can be done to help with your coursework. And that way, it can start the conversation of what’s next once the disaster is over. Ultimately, any arrangements on due dates or anything like that will be between you and your instructor. So it’s very important to start that conversation as early as possible.

JEN TOOF: Thanks, Joe. Denita, advocacy is so very important. Can you share with us why that is such an important step between the student and the instructor?

DENITA WRIGHT WATSON: Sure, Jen, thank you. And I agree with everything that Joe said. So, basically, it’s important for students to advocate for themselves to their instructor because often in these times when students reach out to the instructors on their own, professors are often willing to work with them on some type of flexibility. And I always advise students that they should share as much about their situation as they’re comfortable, just to kind of help paint a picture for the instructor so they can understand exactly what the impact is from the events.

Having said that, also like Joe said, students should be aware that — you know, they should be mindful that these requests for grading flexibility — it does fall under the sole purview of the instructor. But we want them to still advocate for themselves and reach out, nonetheless. Like I said, professors are often willing to work with students in those situations.

If a student has experienced a natural disaster or any type of emergency, there is also support from World Campus to kind of help them navigate their way through a challenging time. We advise students to reach out to their instructors as soon as they’re physically able.

If the emergency is one that is foreseen, like a predicted weather event, then they should let their professors know, or their advisor know, in as much advance notice as possible. They should tell them that they may be without access to technology and requests for flexibility — I’m sorry, request flexibility with regards to their coursework. They should use that opportunity to discuss whether assignment deadline extensions or deferred grading, some type of option, whether that exists for them.

And sometimes students will reach out directly to Care and Concern when they face a natural disaster or some type of emergency. And depending on the circumstances, we may need to support them by reaching out to their instructors on their behalf.

So there may be circumstances in which the student has limited access to technology, or maybe it’s a situation that might be very upsetting. So our office would reach out to notify the instructor on their behalf and copy the student in. So that way, they can pick up that conversation with the instructor as soon as they’re able. So, ideally, the student should reach out to their instructors. But if they aren’t able to, they should have confidence knowing that Care and Concern is glad to support them.

JEN TOOF: And Denita, for all of our listeners here, we might be having students who are listening to us who are learning in-person, on a campus. And some of the steps is, think about if your campus — and who that person is on your campus who is a part of Residence Life, or a part of a care team, or an advocacy team. These are going to be those services.

Plus, think about that academic advisor. Malinda and Rebecca started us off with talking about that advisor can simply receive a message and open so many doors of communication, which could also be going to those offices such as a care team or Care and Advocacy office to get a student connected. So the academic advising role in that care role is so greatly important.

But I can’t completely dismiss at all about why, if you are able to, send an email for a student, send an email to their instructor when extenuating circumstance is happening. And some of the things that I think about for students — if they are utilizing Canvas as their learning management system, do they have an app installed on their phone? Do they have their instructors or their faculty members email addresses saved in their phone so that they don’t — they may not readily need to have computer access but, potentially, a mobile device that can help while they are there.

So as we get to closing, Denita, can you take us through some final words that you would like to share with our listeners in relations to care support, or just what does it look like for a student in this aftermath, really, of a disaster or disruption? What does that look like? And how can a University support that student?

DENITA WRIGHT WATSON: Sure, Jen. So, first and foremost, I would say that we want our students to be safe. So I would say, follow all the recommended instructions from your local emergency services, and protect yourselves, and protect your families. That’s first and foremost always.

Regarding your schoolwork, you want to be as proactive as you can. Like Jen said, it’s a good idea to have your instructor’s emails — their email addresses in your phone. It’s a good idea to have the Canvas app — I’m sorry — the Canvas app on your phone to be able to access that to contact your instructors as well.

We also suggest, if you’re able to, to maybe work ahead on some assignments if you can, if you know that there’s a major storm or hurricane or some type of disaster forecasted for your area. You always want to reach out to your professors as soon as you can regarding your assignments. The more proactive you can be, the better. And, also, just know that Care and Concern is here to support you in those times of crisis.

JEN TOOF: We are here to help. We are here to make these situations feel, hopefully, less stressful for what is probably an already stressful situation for you to manage. And we wish everybody well and good health.