By Philip Walzer

When Amarillo College shifted to online learning this year, each employee was given a list of five students to call every week. The result? Despite the pandemic, course withdrawal rates declined during the spring.

"That is the power of relationships that are designed to serve every student you have," said Russell Lowery-Hart, president of the Texas college. Lowery-Hart was the keynote speaker of a webinar, sponsored by Old Dominion University's Center for Social Mobility, on June 3.

The webinar is the first in a series to be offered this year in lieu of ODU's annual Social Mobility Symposium because of the pandemic. About 250 people attended.

In his talk, titled "Social Mobility & Supporting Students: A Culture of Care During COVID-19," Lowery-Hart said the pandemic has increased the importance of pursuing social mobility and emphasized the need to create "a culture of caring."

"We are deeply committed to loving the students we have, not the students we used to have or the students we want to have," he said.

After surveying students, the college found that the biggest barriers to their success in the classroom were not academic. They were related to poverty: 11% reported being homeless in the last month, and 59% described themselves as housing-insecure. "It's hard to talk about learning in the classroom when students are hungry or worried about where they're going to sleep."

Amarillo College has a food pantry, clothes closet and legal clinic, but it's important, Lowery-Hart said, for institutions to "glue them together in a system that gives robust support for students." So, for instance, tutors are required to remind students about social services offered by the institution.

Amarillo College, where Lowery-Hart has been president since 2014, also has provided $100,000 in emergency aid to students in the past two months.

The efforts have led to significant increases in its graduation rate, he said. During the pandemic, it kept its computer lab open, with the governor's approval, for students who don't have access to technology at home.

"I delivered some books to houses," Lowery-Hart said. "It required us to think about our work more intently and more personally."

Old Dominion's work on social mobility has won recognition from NASPA - Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and CollegeNET. The next social mobility webinar will be in October in conjunction with Hispanic Heritage Month. For more information, go to

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