When Southwestern College Restorative Justice Program Director Patrice Milkovich popped the trunk of her Subaru in the parking lot of the Pilot Truck Stop near the Mexican border, the cargo inside was more precious than any illicit cargo that passes through.
Milkovich was there to hand over 414 individual student packets of printed materials for the college’s students at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. For the 22 classes offered inside the prison, student packets contained up to 200 pieces of paper depending on the student’s course schedule.
While the country moved to online education in response to COVID-19, that just wasn’t an option for the Donovan students. There are no computers, cell phones or any other electronic devices allowed inside.
That hasn’t been a problem for the dedicated Southwestern College faculty who have been providing face-to-face instruction for the last four years through the Second Chance Pell program. But effective March 17, nobody other than employees could even enter the prison parking lot because of the health implications for those inside the prison. Enter “Coronaspondence College,” as Milkovich coined the effort.
Southwestern College leaders had already begun preparing for finishing the semester remotely for all its students, but the timeline quickened for the Donovan faculty. Will Dalrymple, who is teaching his third semester of English 115 at Donovan, spent the week before spring break and much of spring break developing individual education packets for his 24 students.
“Everything was in flux,” Dalrymple said. “We were unsure ourselves of our target. Would we only have one shot at providing coursework? Would we have to rely on mail alone?”
Such questions were important for Dalrymple as an English faculty. His course success relies on providing feedback to students on their assignments.
“Normally we have so much back and forth,” Dalrymple said. “Now I had to anticipate their questions without overwhelming them with too much explanation. That’s a tricky balance. We’ll see how it goes.”
Jason Hicks, the Richard J. Donovan College Coordinator, gave a glimpse of how the education packets were received.
Hicks wheeled a cart into the middle of the three-housing unit of Echo Yard. Each housing unit has four pods, which contain 15 dorm units each. Then within each dorm unit are cells that have seven beds each. Hicks called a student representative from each pod to where the envelopes were staged.
“We had a line of students, and everybody was super curious,” Hicks said. “When they see me, they know it’s from the college. This was a huge relief for them. They were not left behind. Southwestern College came through for them.
“You’ve saved their semester,” Hicks said.
Dalrymple said trying to anticipate every scenario, including researching the postal service and how he would correspond with Donovan students if he had to send assignments via mail, probably made for an 80-hour week and many sleepless nights. But for him, that didn’t matter.
“In my class, the agreement, spoken and unspoken, is that the guys are going to bust their butts for me, and I’m going to bust my butt for the guys,” Dalrymple said. “Together we’re going to do the discomfort, so that they can not just learn to write sparkly-fine essays but so that when it comes to what matters, when it comes to meaning—whatever for them that means—they’re motivated and equipped to take the deep dive.
“Walk away from that?” Dalrymple said. “No. No-how in the multiverse is that remotely an option. There was no way I was going to let the guys make it halfway through the semester and then not be able to complete.”
So as Dalrymple, Milkovich and Project Specialist Raquel Funches spent an entire Thursday in early April compiling and sorting more than 6,000 sheets of paper—all the time wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing—to prepare the students’ coursework for the remainder of the semester, they did not quite understand the impact it had for Donovan students, and for the Southwestern College faculty.
“We had to break the courses into manageable amounts of information so we don’t retraumatize the students,” Milkovich said. “But there was also trauma for our faculty. They were required to quickly transition away from physically being in the classroom to a correspondence, paper-driven process. I’m in awe.”
The four years of building relationships with the Donovan students and administrators was key in helping make this transition as smooth as possible.
“It really allowed us to respond to the situations that come down the pike,” Dalrymple said. “At least we had half a semester with them. But what does it mean to start a new semester without those relationships?”
As Southwestern College explores what happens for the summer and fall semesters, that will be a very relevant question.
Southwestern College at Richard J. Donovan–By the Numbers
- Total Number of Face-to-Face Courses: 22
- Total Number of Faculty Teaching in Face-to-Face: 17
- Total Number of Student Services Personnel (Counselors/Tutors): 5
- Enrollment Numbers: 509
- Total Number of Unique Students: 296