With schools making sudden shifts to remote learning and companies pivoting to digital work, devices are playing a vital role in sustaining communication across and within ecosystems, notably in education. And while educators and experts are often reluctant to value texting, present realities should push us to embrace it as a way to engage and support students, notably high school seniors who are graduating into even more uncertain postsecondary pathways.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have recognized the increased role texting plays in building relationships, yet little has been said about its place in building one of the most valued relationships of all: connecting educators and students. Since 2012 texting as a support intervention for first-generation college students in particular has had its highs and lows, but for the Urban Assembly and other organizations that support students through texting, it’s been an extremely effective practice.

The Urban Assembly (UA), a network of 23 public New York City schools, supports 4,000 alumni (75% in college and 25% on alternative pathways) primarily through its texting campaign, which pushes out messages about twice per month. The campaign lets us share resources to address food and housing insecurity, disseminate information about job opportunities and encourage behaviors that facilitate wellbeing.

Only 9% of students from the lowest income quartile will graduate college, compared to 54% in the highest. This reflects a growing college completion gap, not a shrinking one. The implications for Black and brown students are as obvious as they are complex, and I don’t mean to diminish that by suggesting a text can accomplish what people cannot. But things are getting worse, and it’s time to think deeply about how this seemingly shallow technology can affirm and coach young adults through moments of crisis.

COVID-19 Texting: Stephanie Fiorelli (headshot), deputy director for alumni success at Urban Assembly, smiling woman with long brown hair, glasses, sleeveless black and white top

Stephanie Fiorelli

Texting as a practice is more complicated than its word limit would suggest. When crafting our texts, we at the UA are intentional, careful and patient. Rachel Hicks from Signal Vine does a good job of outlining our philosophy but the quick way of saying it is that we craft each text — down to punctuation marks — with an intentionality most writers reserve for novels and essays. Each text is both a story and an argument. We’re creating an environment and building a relationship founded on the mutual respect between young adults and those who are supporting them.

Both are experts. Both are novices. Both are frustrated with a system that sets up Black and brown students for failure. The anonymity, the distance, the word limit: We treat these texting limitations as assets, and that mindset shift allows us to know our students in ways that seem impossible.

TEXTING IS TEACHING US

Through texting, you can learn a lot. Through data stemming from our texting program, the Urban Assembly has learned that 45% of alumni were food and housing insecure in 2019 (more now, during the pandemic). Forty-two percent “rarely” or “never” ask for help from family, and that percentage is 44% for instructors, 50% for friends, 51% for advisors/tutors and 66% for mentors.

How else could we know this, if not for texting? How else could we know that out of the near 700 alumni who responded to our survey, half don’t even ask for help? Sure, if you’ve worked with a student from a low-income home, you know this anecdotally. But how could we know the magnitude except through texting?

During this pandemic where students face greater obstacles to maintaining employment or navigating the harsh realities of the upcoming financial and social burdens of entering college this fall, it’s time for organizations and individuals to reset how we approach our connections to young people. Otherwise, students will continue to weather storms on their own, despite our feeble efforts to distribute umbrellas.

Recently, the UA asked alumni which texts were most helpful. They could select only one: the reminders, the funny ones, the holiday ones, the resource links or the tips about college/jobs. Unsurprisingly, the majority selected the “reminder” texts. But 20% — 20%! — preferred the “funny” or “holiday” ones.

This data is incredible. If we’re really serious about changing the landscape of higher education, we’ve got to take our young people at their word: Maybe what they’re looking for is not just help. Maybe what they’re looking for is connection. We’re out here handing them umbrellas when all they really want to do is come inside.

Stephanie Fiorelli is deputy director for alumni success at The Urban Assembly. She has over 10 years’ experience in higher education both as a teacher and adviser, and she has worked on behalf of low-income, first-generation college students to close the opportunity gap and drive up college graduation rates.

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