Natural Disasters and Other Environmental Barriers to Student Success - An Innovative Approach to Develop an Active and Caring Online Community for When Disaster Hits

Concurrent Session 4

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

This session explores an innovative new program for addressing the barriers to the online student’s success during natural disasters and other major events. Details will include program design, event severity and impact rubrics, technology for efficiently tracking event data, student outreach, success metrics and developing individual student care plans.


Ms. Jungbauer began her WGU career in 2011, as a part-time Evaluation Faculty in the Business College (MBA-HCM), bringing a wealth of career experience in healthcare and business management. From there, she transitioned to the WGU College of Health as the Evaluation Manager for the growing UG/Grad Nursing Evaluation teams, supporting a season of unprecedented growth in the WGU College of Health Professions. Currently, Ms. Jungbauer is supporting severalinnovative student experience programs in the Student Support Services department, to ensure barriers to student success are identified and removed, including managing the WGU Environmental Barriers Program, which supports students during natural disasters and other events. Ms. Jungbauer also is managing the stage of development of the Universitie's Excellence Award Program, with the vision to accurately and consistently recognize excellence in student work across all programs.

Extended Abstract

The Environmental Barrier Program ObjectiveA collaborative effort to reduce student barriers to success during natural disasters and strengthen our online community culture to become a Community that Cares.

As part of our student obsession, WGU greatly values our students’ safety and well-being. We realized that natural disasters and major events greatly affect our students’ ability to be successful. We decided we needed to take an innovative and proactive approach to supporting our students by monitoring daily for severe weather barriers, fires, and other major events, which may hinder student progress in their studies. We committed to provide the academic resources necessary to support students in managing their studies while working through the events that may potentially affect them.

The Environmental Barrier Program Design – A Collaborative Effort - WGU developed a university-wide initiative to provide a high level of support to students and their mentors, when experiencing disasters that impact our student’s ability to progress in their learning journey. Hurricane Harvey created an opportunity for synergism and early cross-departmental collaboration, which resulted in formal development of this initiative, one that has allowed us to be more proactive in our Student Obsessed efforts and a proven success in reducing barriers to student success.

Student Success Impact

During the initial year of the WGU Environmental Barriers Program (EVB), the EVB team monitored 32 major disasters and reached out to nearly 12,000 students potentially impacted by these events (hurricanes, floods, fires, etc.).  Each event was assessed for both severity and student impact, using a 1-4 rubric for rating the event.  Over 6,500 students had individual student care plans to ensure they were able to continue their studies despite the significant impact of being displaced from their homes (84% remained in their programs). Technology facilitated an efficient identification of students in harm’s way and notification of both the students and their mentors of the university resources available to them.

Natural Disaster - Severity Rubric and Definitions

When an event occurs, the Environmental Barrier team identifies the potential severity of the event, as well as the potential student impact. The following rubric is used to determine severity, impact, and how to best support our students.

Severity Rubric



1. Declared - Indicates an event has been federally declared, and is on the FEMA website. Events declared at the state or local level are not considered officially declared.

2. Displaced – Student is unable to return to or inhabit their home for an extended period of time.

3. Partially Displaced – Student is temporarily displaced by an issue related to the disaster or major event.

c. Student unable to access their belongings due to law enforcement boundaries (such as quarantines, road closure or mandatory evacuations)

Event Notification Details include:

  1. Type of Event:
  2. Potential Length:
  3. Event Severity:
  4. Areas of Impact:
  5. Potential Student Impact:
  6. Federal Declaration:
  7. Related Links – Environmental Barrier Event-Case number in Salesforce


Types of Support Provided

Departments across the university gathered together and provided incredible support to our students during each Environmental Barrier Event.  The support provided allowed for such a successful outcome, truly changing lives. The initial pilot was successful and determined that these types of support provided will now be continuously available to students moving forward; see below.

Student Stories

  • Healthcare Management student in Andrews, TX. The laptop was damaged by the hurricane flooding. The student was able to stay in school with a loaner and is still active.
  • Business student in Houston, TX. The computer was damaged by the hurricane flooding. The student was able to stay in school with a loaner and is still active.
  • Healthcare Management student in Baytown, TX. The computer was damaged by the hurricane flooding. The student was able to stay in school with a loaner and is still active.
  • Student able to have her course enrollment reset so that she continues her aspirations later.
  • Student able to have her tuition adjusted for a period so that he could stay active in the program while working through the impact of the Hurricanes that devastated the State of Florida.
  • Student, was withdrawn and readmitted back into the program; impacted by the Hurricanes.
  • Student and their family were displaced by Hurricane Irma. To stay active and engaged in their program, the student used their car battery as the power source needed to study and complete assessment requirements. Frequent support calls provided to student.
  • Multiple students were offered shelter at their place of employment, many of which stayed for weeks as they were completely displaced due to the Hurricanes that impacted both the State of Florida and Texas. Students were able to proctor their assessments out of their office and use employer resources to continue to engage in their programs and progress.

Next Steps - Process Automation for Efficiency and Scalability

  • Automation of mentor notification from Environmental Barrier Event records in Salesforce.
  • Regulatory Chart for students in Higher Ed impacted by Natural Disasters
  • Expansion of Salesforce object for event, to include Student Care Plan boxes for needs identified by category, with link to student mentor platform.
    • Financial Services
    • Academic Services
    • Student Services
    • Hardship Support
    • New Student Enrollment
    • IT Support
    • Assessment Services

Personal Reflection

  1. What barriers have you seen in your students’ experience due to natural disasters or other major events?
  2. What responsibility does an online university have for students impacted by local events?
  3. How can natural disaster student support programs be part of an extended Community of Care initiative?

Group Discussion; Q and A