When natural disasters or personal crises occur, Colorado State University is prepared to help students.

When Hurricane Ida struck the Gulf Coast in August, CSU’s Division of Student Affairs and Office of the Registrar closely collaborated to identify students from the region and share the resources available through Student Case Management, which provides crisis prevention and intervention services.

“It’s just one way we support students who are coping with issues going on back at home, whether that’s within or outside the United States,” said Jody Donovan, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “As students, they may be dealing with a lot of things here on campus, and they can’t learn if they’re worried about what’s happening back at home.”

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, CSU has been reaching out to students experiencing crisis situations through collaboration across the University. The Alumni Association, International Programs, the Registrar’s Office, and Student Affairs all participate in this initiative, sharing lists of impacted students, cosigning letters and sharing email messages, depending upon the situation.

In addition to hurricanes, CSU responds to natural disasters that include wildfires and flooding as well as even personal crises, such as a fire that damaged a student’s home, Donovan said.

Personal crises

Sahar Bagheri Toulabi

Ph.D. candidate Sahar Bagheri Toulabi is just one of many students that CSU leaders have assisted in helping through crises. 

Sahar Bagheri Toulabi, an Iranian Ph.D. candidate in horticulture and landscape architecture, was facing a personal crisis following the Trump Administration’s renewed sanctions against Iran in 2018.

With her U.S. bank account frozen due to administrative issues, Toulabi was wrestling to figure out how to pay rent and make ends meet.

“Imagine you bring your life savings from your country with you to start a new life and a new education in a foreign land, and suddenly one day without warning all your money is frozen and you’re left without a penny,” she said. “I was struggling to find money for food while having to be a teaching assistant, attending classes and doing research. The bank manager was taking it upon himself to deny me any of my assets, and I was powerless to fight him. The fear and threat were real that I may not be able to survive this.”

Toulabi explained that she thought she might have to leave the dorm where she was living. She said that Jessica Davis, head of the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, and Donovan were “lifesavers” in helping her.

She explained that Davis and Donovan helped her through their display of empathy and support. Donovan said that her rent was able to be deferred because she was living in a residence through CSU Housing & Dining Services.

“When you’re in a crisis like this, you’re ready to quit, especially when you’re worried about going back home. But when people like Jody and Jessica emerge, they step up and say, ‘You’re not alone. We can help.’ So, then I think: Maybe I can. Maybe I can be strong.”

— Sahar Bagheri Toulabi

“When you’re in a crisis like this, you’re ready to quit, especially when you’re worried about going back home,” Toulabi said. “But when people like Jody and Jessica emerge, they step up and say, ‘You’re not alone. We can help.’ So, then I think: Maybe I can. Maybe I can be strong.”

Today, Toulabi is finishing up her Ph.D. and is expecting to start her post-doctorate soon. Her passion focuses on improving the nutritional quality of crops as a translational delivery vehicle for health. She said that her research is focused on the effect of phytochemicals on cardiometabolic disease and helping improve access to healthier crops.

Collaboration key to success

Donovan attributes CSU’s ability to quickly respond to student crises large and small in scale to the collaboration across colleges and divisions.

As an example, Donovan pointed to Timothy Johnson, student data reporting analyst in the Registrar’s Office, as a key player in helping reach students impacted by natural disasters.

Donovan as well as Associate Dean of Students Craig Chesson, Assistant Dean of Students John Henderson, and the student staff who work in the Vice President for Student Affairs office, regularly keep an eye on potential crises that could impact students. When one — such as Hurricane Ida — arises, the team reaches out to Johnson to secure a list of students who could be potentially impacted.

With Hurricane Ida, the team requested information on those students with addresses within a 100-mile radius of the storm’s path. Johnson explained that he uses postal codes to search for students, which can take as little as an hour with data testing and validation.

“My work is really behind the scenes,” Johnson said. “When a request comes in from the Dean of Students Office, it’s generally of a critical nature. My role is to obtain the data and work to try to understand what they need to help them make a decision or take action.”

Johnson pulled a list of 136 students from the Gulf Coast, which Donovan, Chesson and Henderson used to email the students and parents. Often the emails have the subject line “CSU Cares About You.”

But it doesn’t stop at emails. Tonie Miyamoto, director of communications for the Division of Student Affairs, said that the Dean of Students Office goes the extra mile, sometimes calling and even traveling to help students in need.

In the end, Donovan said that they surpass expectations because of the students and their commitment to CSU’s Principles of Community.

“With 30,000 students, it would be easy for us to be so busy to not stop and think about what’s going on with the students back in their hometowns or countries. We want to make sure students know we care about them holistically.”

— Jody Donovan, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students

“With 30,000 students, it would be easy for us to be so busy to not stop and think about what’s going on with the students back in their hometowns or countries,” Donovan said. “We want to make sure students know we care about them holistically.”