It doesn't take much to fall behind at university. Miss a few classes, botch an assignment or an exam and the term can take a sharp turn. Combine that with separation from family and friends, financial stress and other personal issues, and a student can suffer overwhelming anxiety or sink into a depression. To better support struggling students, the University of B.C. launched its Early Alert program in January to help identify problems and respond to them fast.
"It's really all about supporting student learning through identifying students early, before they develop more serious types of difficulties, and connecting to them appropriate resources, again, as early as possible," said Cheryl Washburn, director of counselling services at UBC and project lead for Early Alert. She notes a one-semester course is short so going off track even for a couple of weeks can cause significant problems.
Now faculty and staff can build on the assistance they provide students by expressing their concerns about students using a secure online form.
A team of advisers reviews concerns and develops a co-ordinated plan for supporting the student. A professor or faculty adviser in contact with the student lets the student know about the resources available to help him or her get back on track. Students could receive referrals for financial assistance, counselling services and learning skills support. A student can refuse to follow up. "Most students are very thankful because oftentimes with what's going on with students, there's all sorts of things that prevent them from reaching out themselves, and that can be anything from shame, embarrassment, feeling overwhelmed, feeling paralyzed, really, with stress," Washburn said. "And sometimes it's just not knowing what services are available."
Washburn says Early Alert can allow for a more holistic picture of a student's state to emerge if staff from different faculty and, say, sports and recreation submit concerns.
She said the system provides greater privacy and security regarding concerns about students because only a limited number of advisers can access the information and it eliminates the need for paper files in various offices.
An overview of the program was provided last year to all undergraduate faculty advisers, department advisers within the faculty of arts and advisers across student services. An overview will be presented to all faculty staff and student leaders this year. UBC plans to eventually train students to submit concerns about their peers to the Early Alert system.
So far, 519 student concerns have been submitted for UBC's more than 45,000 students through Early Alert.
Of these, 22 per cent of students were identified as needing more help than previously provided and have been contacted.
Early Alert is part of the university's student mental health plan. UBC consulted with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, which already runs Early Alert, prior to implementing the system.
Similar programs run at other institutions across Canada and the United States.