Educational Accessibility at Spring Hill College

By: Sarah Craig (SFS'23)

March 20, 2024

This research explores accessibility and the impact of Jesuit values at Spring Hill College, a small Jesuit college in Mobile, Alabama. Interviews with students, faculty, and staff focus on support systems that sustain students throughout their time in college, and how those systems are influenced by the Jesuit values of social justice and cura personalis.

Downtown Mobile, Alabama cityscape

​Background on Spring Hill College

Spring Hill College (SHC) is a Jesuit college in Mobile, Alabama, that supports an undergraduate population of approximately 1,300 students, boasting a 13:1 student-teacher ratio. It was founded in 1830, making it the oldest college in the state of Alabama and the third-oldest Jesuit college in the United States.

Map of the 27 institutions that make up the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in the United States. The map of the United States is depicted in white against a blue background with gray lines drawing the state borders.

The map shows the following colleges: Washington: Seattle University and Gonzaga University. California: University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University, and Loyola Marymount University. Colorado: Regis University. Nebraska: Creighton University. Missouri: Rockhurst University and Saint Louis University. Louisiana: Loyola University New Orleans. Alabama: Spring Hill College. Illinois: Loyola University Chicago. Wisconsin: Marquette University. Michigan: University of Detroit-Mercy. Ohio: John Carroll University and Xavier University. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University. Maryland: Loyola University Maryland. Pennsylvania: The University of Scranton and Saint Joseph’s University. New Jersey: Saint Peter’s University. New York: Fordham University, Le Moyne College, and Canisius College. Connecticut: Fairfield University. Massachusetts: Boston College and College of the Holy Cross.

(Source: Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities)

While SHC is situated in the fourth most populous city in Alabama, 58% of Spring Hill students are from outside of Alabama, hailing from 31 states and 30 countries. Many of these students come to Spring Hill after attending Jesuit high schools.

During the mid-twentieth century, Spring Hill made many large-scale changes that were considered progressive, including the decision to admit women to the college in the late 1930s, making it one of the first coeducational colleges in the state of Alabama. In 1954, Spring Hill admitted nine Black students, making it the first and only integrated college in the Deep South, something that would remain true for the following decade. In 1956, Fannie Smith Motley became not only the first Black student to graduate from Spring Hill, but the first to graduate from a four-year college or university in Alabama. The following year, a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan snuck onto campus, only to be chased off campus by students who threatened them with bricks. Spring Hill’s integration efforts took place so much sooner than that of other Southern institutions that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. actually referenced SHC in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

These moments in Spring Hill’s history are accredited to the college’s identity as a Jesuit institution and its commitment to social justice.

​The Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education

The impact of COVID-19 was felt within the field of higher education as a whole, with many colleges and universities reevaluating their standards of educational accessibility. During the first year of the pandemic, many colleges shifted their content delivery to virtual and hybrid models, forcing professors to experiment with new teaching methods. A large barrier to accessing education during this time was the digital divide, with many low-income students not having the necessary technology and resources to complete online schooling. And while many schools returned to in-person instruction in the 2021–2022 academic year, higher education is still experiencing sector-wide high turnover rates, with many staff members at colleges leaving the field for jobs that offer higher pay and increased flexibility. Overall, the pandemic raised many questions about what it means for education to be accessible, and in the endemic period of COVID-19, institutions of higher education are still continuing to grapple with these questions.

“I think the pandemic really gave us a new perspective. People do have stuff going on outside of work, outside of home; you do have to be understanding that they have their own life,” said Raul Torres (he/him), a senior at Spring Hill (interview, June 29, 2022).

Like many other colleges, SHC transitioned to virtual learning in March 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic. During the following academic year (2020–2021), Spring Hill operated under a hybrid status, in which students took classes both online and in-person, but were unable to participate in in-person, co-curricular activities, which hindered opportunities for students to form new connections. Spring Hill returned to a fully in-person operating status for the 2021–2022 academic year, in which students were able to attend both classes and co-curricular activities in-person.

“I did see a big shift in the hybrid classes; it was a lot easier and a lot more accessible to say, ‘okay, now we’re meeting online,’” said Torres (interview, June 29, 2022).

As a first-generation and disabled student, accessibility has often remained at the forefront of my college experience. After years of exploring (in)accessibility and (in)equity at my own institution of higher education, I was interested in doing the same at Spring Hill College. During my time at Spring Hill, the following question was my primary focus: What characterizes accessibility at Spring Hill College?

Within the context of this project, accessibility can be understood and evaluated in terms of the ease with which students can have their needs (personal, professional, academic, identity-based, etc.) met throughout their college experience. Included in this definition of accessibility are mental health and disability culture—which encompasses attitudes and understandings of mental health and disability at Spring Hill—as well as the categorization of mental health conditions as disabilities.

​Characteristics of Accessibility at Spring Hill College

Interpersonal Relationships are the Foundation of SHC’s Support Systems

“Spring Hill is the people.”

This simple phrase captures the sentiments that coursed through every single one of my interviews at SHC. With a small undergraduate student population, it’s easy to understand how relationships are the foundation of the Spring Hill experience, but the strength of these relationships are rooted in more than mere proximity.

At Spring Hill, students form close relationships with each other via student organizations and classroom camaraderie. Professors—who also double as academic advisors—work with the same students semester after semester, getting to know them both inside and outside of the classroom. Staff members often operate on an open-door policy, ready to welcome community members who need support or simply want to chat. While these behaviors may seem typical on a college campus, they showcase the benefit of Spring Hill’s small yet intertwined campus community.

“I want to be someone that [students] can confide in, someone that they can come speak to and it not feel weird like, ‘Oh, I can’t go talk to my boss.’ Yeah, you know, even though I oversee the program, I still want to be an advocate for them.” (interview with MacKenzie Barron, Residence Life Coordinator, July 5, 2022)

Pictured is MacKenzie Barron, a white woman with long red hair pulled into a side ponytail wearing silver hoop earrings. She is sitting at SHC’s Residence Life booth, which is a table with a black tablecloth that has a stack of paper maps of the campus, a stack of her business cards, a brown teddy bear wearing a purple tee-shirt that says Spring Hill College in white lettering. The teddy bear is sitting atop a white polo shirt and in front of a purple and white pom pom. Towards the back of the table is a sign that says “Residence Life” and to the left of the sign is a “Home Sweet Dorm” canvas decoration that is teal with the silhouette of a moose on it. (Source: Sarah Craig)

As a small college, Spring Hill’s support systems heavily rely on organic interactions between students, staff, and faculty. The abundance of these interactions lay the foundation for a campus community, one that has sustained Spring Hill for years.

“[Students] come to [Spring Hill] because they feel that they’re going to be part of a community that cares,” an upper-level administrator said. “And here at Spring Hill, I think we need to take that responsibility with significance” (interview with SHC administrator, June 21, 2022).

Meet Rochelle - A Biology Student at Spring Hill College. Meet Rochelle - A Biology Student at Spring Hill College (Source: Spring Hill College’s YouTube Channel)

At Spring Hill, one way students find the sense of community is through participation in clubs. Clubs are oftentimes where students meet their closest friends and develop their strongest interpersonal support systems.

“Being a part of organizations, you create bonds; it’s a small school, so you’re creating bonds with just everyone, whether that be someone just in a classroom or, you know, people in your [residence] halls,” said a senior at Spring Hill (interview, July 1, 2022).

Another vital support system is the faculty members. Each academic department typically has between five and 15 faculty members, so students are likely to have the same professors across multiple classes and semesters. This continuity is enhanced by professors’ dual role as advisors, where they work with around 15 to 20 students in their department. These dual roles allow students and faculty to develop closer relationships, something that increases the chance that students will view their professors/advisors as consistent resources throughout their time at Spring Hill.

According to Dr. Leigh Ann Litwiller (she/her), an English professor and the faculty director of curricular integration, faculty members grow in their advising roles over time: “I think the longer you’re here, the more students see you as a resource, the better resource you’re able to be to them,” she said (interview, June 30, 2022).

These advising relationships are a built-in support for students, but faculty assistance does not only extend to assigned advisees. Many students shared experiences of their (non-advising) professors offering help, including providing increased flexibility for deadlines or giving advice about their intended career path.

Erthaly Thomas (she/her)—a senior studying international business—shared that she had initially come into Spring Hill on a pre-medicine track and was determined to stick on that path despite realizing she was struggling in her STEM classes. She didn’t feel that she could switch her major until she met with one of her professors who asked her what she really wanted for herself. Despite not being her advisor, this professor took the time to meet with her, something that helped her realize what she truly wanted to study (interview with Erthaly Thomas, June 30, 2022).

Students Erthaly Thomas (left) and Rochelle Gomez-Guillen (right), sitting on a short brick structure that is surrounding a tree. Erthaly is a dark-skinned Black woman with dark dreadlocks and glasses; she is wearing a navy blue short-sleeved shirt that says “Awakening” across the chest and light-wash denim jeans. To the right of her is Rochelle, a light-skinned woman wearing a dark grey polo shirt with the SHC logo on the top right corner, and below the logo says “Springhillian Ambassadors.” Rochelle is wearing dark-wash blue jeans and a black quartz necklace. (Source: Sarah Craig)

Underlying the support of interpersonal relationships is a campus-wide commitment to cura personalis, a Jesuit value that means “care of the person,” something many students identified as the connection between mind, body, and spirit.

According to sophomore Mary Johnson (she/her), cura personalis is often embodied by professors. “I often find myself getting really close with my professors because I feel comfortable sharing, you know, the mind and spirit part of [me] as well” (interview, July 1, 2022).

For Thomas, cura personalis also means recognizing her various identities: “I’m a Spring Hill student, but above all, like, I’m an immigrant, I’m a Black woman, I am all of these other things. And that is what… I bring to the table as someone like me that makes us a part of the Spring Hill community” (interview, June 30, 2022).

For education professor Dr. Lori Aultman (she/her), practicing cura personalis means recognizing the connection between students’ experiences outside of the classroom and their learning.

“In the forefront of my mind is that students are coming into my classroom with their own background, their own experiences—whether that experience was five years ago, ten years ago or last night—influencing how they’re able to learn, listen, focus, all those things, as well as how they’re able to interact with other students and me in the class” (interview with Dr. Lori Aultman, July 8, 2022).

Cura personalis is often important for staff members who work closely with students in their offices. According to Emilee Truitt (she/they), program director of campus sexual assault prevention, cura personalis is important for remembering that students are not full-time employees.

“From the staff perspective, we try really hard to see them as an entire person, not just as a student, which can be kind of hard for some offices that really rely on students because they’re almost like employees. We’re so small that one person, one student can be doing so many different things that they almost are like an unpaid faculty member or unpaid staff member” (interview with Truitt, Program Director of Campus Sexual Assault Prevention, June 23, 2022).

With Spring Hill being such a small campus, the downside of resources being dependent on relationships is how easy it is for necessary support to get disrupted. With each campus department only having a few staff members, the smallest amount of turnover has the potential for exponential impact. And in the context of recent wide-scale turnover within the field of higher education, disruption of support seems more possible than ever.

During the fall 2021 semester, Spring Hill experienced a lapse in counseling services when the only two counselors on campus left SHC. The result was two months without on-campus counseling services, resulting in students needing to seek off-campus care, which eventually garnered such a high volume of Spring Hill students that it developed a waitlist of its own (interview, SHC administrator, June 21, 2022).

Spring Hill hired new counselors by the end of the fall and restored on-campus counseling services. But the turnover of two staff members disrupting a vital campus resource shows just how reliance on informal relationships as resources often leaves these resources vulnerable. While the college is introducing more formalized resources, the foundation of support at Spring Hill remains most reliant on interpersonal relationships within the community.

SHC Is Expanding Its Support Network by Creating More Formal Resources

While support systems at Spring Hill are very much rooted in relationships between students, staff, and faculty, the college has begun to develop new formal resources and to adapt existing ones. There are pre-existing formal resources, such as Residential Life, Public Safety, and the Center for Student Involvement. But within the past three or so years, SHC has developed more specific, formal resources with the goal of creating a more robust support system for students.

Some of these more formal resources were created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 revealed a myriad of inequities for marginalized students within higher education, particularly in terms of support for low-income students.

As a result of these inequities, Spring Hill created an emergency fund to support students—particularly those who are low-income—throughout the pandemic and beyond. Through the fund, students can apply for funding to cover medical, travel, and personal emergencies. They apply for a specific amount of funding, and then SHC administrators decide if a student receives funding (interview, SHC administrator, June 21, 2022).

There are still logistical challenges that the administration is working through, however, such as determining the eligibility criteria for emergency funding, the deciding authority on who should be able to decide if funding is awarded, and considerations for institutionalizing the funding. Without an established process in place to figure out these logistics, it can take longer for students to receive the necessary funding, which can create another barrier to students’ educational experiences.

Another pandemic-era addition to Spring Hill is the arrival of a campus TRIO Student Support Services (SSS) program in 2020. TRIO programs are federal grant programs that focus on college access and retention programs for disabled, first-generation, and low-income students. At the college level, TRIO programs provide students with academic and financial assistance, advising, mentorship, and programming, among other services.

Spring Hill’s TRIO SSS program has the funding to serve 140 students. Students can apply to TRIO at any point in their college career. When the program first began, there were 11 students. In August 2022, the program had 102 students, with the hope of recruiting incoming students during orientation weekend.

TRIO director Michael Cozart, a dark-skinned Black man wearing a purple and white checkered shirt, black glasses, and a nametag sitting at a table with a banner reading “Spring Hill College TRIO” draped over it. The banner is dark blue and on top of the table are two boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts, two rows of purple SHC pens, and a stack of purple SHC drawstring bags. (Source: Personal Collection of Sarah Craig)

“You have to look at people as a whole and not take them in segment parts. Okay. We’re all in the academic world. Academics means nothing. If I’m hungry, I can’t learn. I can’t learn if I’m struggling.” (Michael Cozart, TRIO director, June 28, 2022)

Although the TRIO SSS program is new, Spring Hill once had an Upward Bound program, another kind of TRIO program. According to TRIO SSS Director Michael Cozart (he/him), the legacy of SHC Upward Bound has influenced the growth of the new TRIO program, with many Upward Bound alumni being willing to share their experience with the program director (interview, June 28, 2022).

The development of TRIO at Spring Hill has also been influenced by other TRIO programs at neighboring colleges and universities. With regard to this collaboration, Cozart said, “I’ve never seen a community in all the workforce that is like this. We help each other. We strengthen each other. We support each other” (interview, June 28, 2022).

SHC’s creation of an emergency fund and a TRIO SSS program, both in 2020, shows its commitment to creating more formal resources for its students. This commitment is also exemplified through its recent attempts to further develop already existing resources.

One of these resources is Purple Alert, Spring Hill’s urgent alert system. Purple Alert allows campus community members to make an anonymous report about students that they are concerned about. After a report is made, it is sent to the Student Affairs Coordinator, who then sends the report to a staff or faculty member who is equipped to handle the issue. The team member will then reach out to the student and offer the appropriate support. Reports made through Purple Alert can range from basic concerns of a student repeatedly missing class to much more severe mental health concerns.

Emilee Truitt, a white woman with tortoiseshell glasses and a purple polo shirt, seated at a table with a white banner entitled “Hill SPEAK” draped over it. The acronym SPEAK is spelled out underneath the letters: Support, Prevention, Education, Advocacy, and Know Your Rights; underneath this, Spring Hill College is written in purple lettering. Spread across the table is a variety of infographics, phone wallets, stickers, resource pamphlets, and ribbons. (Source: Sarah Craig)

Emilee Truitt is one of the staff members who oversees Purple Alert. They explained that despite its good intentions, Purple Alert remains clouded by stigma, with the word “alert” having a negative connotation to it, making the system seem more like a punishment than a resource. As a result, only around half of students follow up on the resources offered (interview, June 23, 2022).

While a new name may appear to be a simple linguistic change, it is one that the Purple Alert team believes is necessary to shift campus cultural attitudes towards the resource. The team hopes that these changes will entice more students to file reports and to use the subsequent offered resources, and, in turn, increase access to formal support services on campus.

Truitt began working for Spring Hill in May 2021. She was hired to run Hill SPEAK, a program that works to increase support, prevention, and education surrounding sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. Hill SPEAK is funded by a federal grant that Spring Hill received in October 2020—the Office of Violence Against Women Campus Grant, which is housed under the U.S. Department of Justice.

“[Hill SPEAK] has helped alleviate some of like the mental health concerns that comes after a sexual assault or domestic violence incident, and it’s helped [students] get into counseling sooner after an incident,” Truitt said (interview, June 23, 2022).

While Truitt recognizes the responsive nature of Hill SPEAK, they also believe that the creation of the program and having a confidential resource already in place adds an element of proactivity.

As Spring Hill works to formalize more campus resources, it seems that the institution is working to strike a balance between being proactive and responsive. Spring Hill’s efforts at creating more formal resources speaks to the intention of proactivity in supporting students, an intention that is necessary for increasing access on campus.

Spring Hill College’s Support for Disabled Students Follows an Accommodations Model

One aspect of Spring Hill’s support system that relies almost entirely on formalities is its support for disabled students. While at Spring Hill, I found a disability culture defined by a system of procedures—most of them mandated by law—that have been integrated into university policy.

“I feel like people don’t really even acknowledge disability here,” said Emilee Truitt. “I’m sure there is some sort of [disability] culture, but it’s not a widely known aspect of people’s lives here” (interview, June 23, 2022).

Disability at Spring Hill revolves around an accommodations model, in which students can formally request academic or residential accommodations. Students apply for accommodations through a self-identification form, in which they list the requested services and their diagnosed disability. As a part of this application, students must submit documentation to the Disability Services team that verifies that they have the listed condition.

Against a beige background is a dual-column comparison chart titled “Accommodations vs. Accessibility.” The left side lists characteristics of accommodations, including “modifies, adjusts, or adds to already existing structures,” “reactive,” handled on a case-by-case basis,” and “typically requires a disabled person to disclose details about their disability.” The right side lists characteristics of accessibility: “Built into structures and spaces as they are being created,” “proactive,” “works to address a variety of needs,” and “prioritizes the privacy and autonomy of disabled people.”

One student (she/they) said that obtaining accommodations is “not hard once you have the actual diagnosis. It’s not a big, lengthy process that’s very obscure. It’s extremely easy” (interview, junior at SHC, July 1, 2022).

This student has testing accommodations for her processing disorder. These accommodations allow them to have extra time on exams and to take them in distraction-free environments. The documentation of their disability has led their professors to be increasingly accommodating, offering them extra time on course readings and a separate space to take their exams.

MacKenzie Barron (she/her), Spring Hill’s residence life director, concurs with the ease of the process. In her position, she oversees the process of obtaining residential accommodations, working with students to attain verification of their disability or condition for the accommodations.

“All we ask of students is to provide either a physical copy of a [documentation] letter or fax it over. Even an email can be acceptable” (interview, July 5, 2022).

Although disability resources are cemented in an accommodations model, it seems that faculty and staff are willing to be flexible in supporting disabled students, something that veers closer to an access model than one of accommodation. Spring Hill’s disability support remains centralized in formal accommodations, with individual members of faculty and staff being willing to address access needs that go beyond formal accommodations or legal obligations.

“There are the legal [accommodations] and then there are ones that you do because it’s what you should do. It’s the right thing to do” (interview with Lori Aultman, SHC professor, July 8, 2022)

One aspect of disability that is more explicitly talked about on campus is mental health. According to Truitt, students’ treatment and willingness to talk about mental health culture on campus is “very black and white,” with some students being incredibly open to discussing mental health and others not at all. Truitt believes this divide is influenced by students’ degree of involvement on campus. “The students that are very involved on campus are more likely to be really strong, like, supporters of people with mental health issues,” she said. “And the ones that are more quiet or aren’t as involved, they don’t really want to seek out help” (interview, June 23, 2022).

Most of the students I interviewed were leaders on campus and were indeed fairly open about their experiences with mental health issues and the state of mental health culture on campus, aligning with Truitt’s observation. Several students talked about their experiences seeing therapists at the Wellness Center, while also acknowledging the stigma that exists on campus. One of the students said, “Because we’re a small campus, people still have the stigma around the Wellness Center and counselors in general and just believe that what’s being said in their sessions is just going to go around. And because it’s a small campus, they’re afraid” (interview, SHC senior, July 1, 2022).

Professor Aultman shared a similar perspective. At the beginning of each course, she gives her students a questionnaire to gather general information about their needs. In the past few years, she’s seen an uptick in the level of anxiety among the students’ responses. “I’ve noticed more and more with my questionnaire at the beginning of the semester that students talk about actually having sought medical support and help for issues surrounding anxiety and more are on some kind of medication. Now, often those students are the best students in the class” (interview, July 8, 2022).

There is no explicit connection between mental health and disability on Spring Hill’s campus. Students, staff, and faculty alike treated them as distinct phenomena, with mental health prevailing more in campus conversations, despite the stigma. Disability was largely talked about by staff and faculty in terms of legal obligations and accommodations.

“I don’t think the general student body would consider [mental illness] a disability. I would say most of them would likely categorize it as like an acute issue that was just going to go away. And if that goes away on its own or if it goes away because they went to counseling like that, it’s not a chronic issue,” Emilee Truitt said (interview, June 23, 2022).

Truitt’s observations align with the students’ responses about mental health, but none of them mentioned it in relation to disability. While the relationship between mental health illnesses and disability issues is not easily defined, it seems that this relationship at Spring Hill is almost nonexistent, with mental illness treated as a common occurrence, while disability exemplifies a personal, individualized occurrence that is defined by legal procedures and accommodations.

Accessibility via Cura Personalis

In exploring the students’ accessibility to have their various needs met, much of Spring Hill’s commitment to ensure access is reflected in its commitment to cura personalis, or care of the whole person. With cura personalis acting as a core tenet of the campus culture—guiding the behaviors of all SHC community members—students are able to express their individual needs to faculty and staff and get those needs met without having to navigate an inaccessible, robust bureaucracy.

As Spring Hill navigates its way through pandemic-era shifts in higher education, much of the college’s recovery has taken the shape of creating more formal resources, which builds on the existence of the informal support systems sustained by cura personalis. The one aspect of campus culture that is inherently formalized is disability culture, which has been largely characterized by accommodations, legal obligations, and the formal processes for obtaining them. While an emphasis on formalized resources runs the risk of creating situations of forced intimacy, cura personalis being the foundation of Spring Hill’s campus culture has the potential to proactively address the harmful aspects of an overly formalized system.

Overall, accessibility at Spring Hill rests in informal relationships and support systems on campus and is developing via a recent commitment to expanding formal resources. As this expansion occurs, Spring Hill makes its way toward creating a culture of access that is balanced with informal support and institutionalized resources. In striking this balance, Spring Hill should continue to prioritize the well-being of its students and create a process that is, in the spirit of cura personalis, student-centered and student-driven.

The views expressed in this student research are those of the author(s) and not of the Berkley Center or Georgetown University.

Featured Person: Sarah Craig Person