ETSU Student Success Specialists helping meet needs during COVID crisis

Published 12:37 pm Thursday, April 23, 2020

JOHNSON CITY — The COVID-19 crisis is creating unprecedented work experience for several East Tennessee State University social work students who are helping their fellow students with challenges related to the pandemic.
Every year, ETSU provides three graduate assistantships to Master of Social Work students who are interested in serving as either Undergraduate or Graduate Student Success Specialists (USSS or GSSS). Their day-to-day responsibilities include assisting students with managing obstacles, resolving problems and finding support, locating services on campus and in the community and setting realistic personal goals.
When ETSU transitioned to online learning mid-semester due to the COVID crisis, the workload changed and increased for the student success specialists. Now, they are working remotely to help fellow students navigate COVID-related and other challenges.
“We have seen an influx of students experiencing food insecurity and housing needs,” said Dr. Karin Bartoszuk, associate dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “We have also seen the need for academic and emotional support during the coronavirus crisis. As the spring and summer semesters continue, we anticipate an increased number of students utilizing our services.”
Rachel Ratley, a Master of Social Work student who currently serves as the USSS, says that during a regular academic year, the three most common requests are academic support, housing needs and food insecurity.
“However, the No. 1 request since COVID has been housing assistance,” Ratley said.
In order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, ETSU transitioned to online courses and also asked that students without extenuating circumstances not return to the residence halls. Some students needed help locating alternative housing. In addition, some students are struggling to pay for housing and utilities due to loss of employment.
Ratley has worked with ETSU Division of Student Life and Enrollment to develop a list of community housing resources, including public housing, reasonably priced private housing, community shelters and other resources.
“The assistance of our student success specialists has been crucial at this time,” said Dr. Michelle Byrd, dean of students.
In addition, for students who are experiencing hardships with paying their rent and utilities (off-campus), ETSU is extending small grants funded through the Buccaneer Student Crisis Fund to help them. To date, 34 students have received a grant, and the average award is $600. The most common concern among the grant applicants has been job loss, and the most requested assistance has been with rent and utilities, according to Byrd.
“So far we have awarded more than $20,000 in grants since April 7. Over 90% of this money covers rent and utilities for students who have been laid off or furloughed from their jobs — most in the service industry,” Byrd said.
Bucky’s Pantry, a food pantry for the ETSU community, has received 49 requests for food boxes since April 1.
Another effort, Bucs Help Bucs, is also underway to assist students who have been affected by the COVID crisis. This campaign is raising money for student/staff emergency funds, Bucky’s Food Pantry, the ETSU Counseling Center and other areas.
“I have seen a lot of really great things in the ways that our community has responded to what is happening,” Ratley said. “It’s been inspiring for me, and it’s been educational.”
As the semester winds down, Ratley wants her fellow students to know that the student success specialists are still available and working remotely to help them. She serves undergraduate students and Meredith Dod and Courtney Naylor are the graduate student success specialists.
“This is what social workers train for; this is what we’re supposed to do,” Ratley said. “We are supposed to help the community or help our clients in any way that we can, and especially in crisis, whether it’s an individual crisis or community crisis.”
Students who would like information about support services, can visit To contact the student success specialists, email (graduate students) or (undergraduate students). More information about Bucs Help Bucs is available at

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