Despite grappling with novel circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Student Advocate’s Office, or SAO, has continued to operate and help students fulfill their basic needs in the process.
The SAO is a nonpartisan executive office of the ASUC headed by student advocate Era Goel, who was elected to their post in April and has served in the office for seven semesters. The SAO assists students in navigating academic, conduct, financial aid and grievance concerns, Goel said in an email.
During the pandemic, the SAO has seen increased academic, misconduct and housing challenges for students, according to Goel.
“We assist students in meeting their basic needs by serving as a trusted, confidential point of contact and working with students one-on-one to find solutions that meet their specific situation,” Goel said in the email.
Hundreds of students come to the SAO for help every year, and during the pandemic, hundreds more have come.
According to Goel, in 2020, the SAO saw 681 cases come to its door — a record number. The greatest increase came from student conduct cases, which increased by 250% from the previous year, Goel noted. The SAO temporarily created a helpline to handle the demand, they added.
Campus data backed up the trends Goel saw. According to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff, reports of academic misconduct more than quadrupled between the fall 2019 and fall 2020 semesters.
Both Ratliff and Goel noted declines in academic misconduct cases, as students have largely returned to campus in fall 2021. With the return to campus, Goel added that a new type of misconduct case has gained ground: noncompliance with the campus vaccine mandate.
The mandate, issued by campus July 15, requires all students and faculty to get vaccinated for COVID-19 in order to visit campus in person. Students who were vaccinated off campus had to submit their proof of vaccination status to the eTang portal by Aug. 4.
Goel also noted students’ financial challenges are omnipresent in their office.
Requests for additional financial aid increased significantly during the pandemic. Ratliff noted appeals to the Expected Family Contribution increased by 21% from the 2019-20 to 2020-21 academic year. Cost of Attendance Adjustment Requests have declined since the peak of the pandemic, but are still above pre-pandemic levels, according to Ratliff.
Goel pointed to the expense of a UC Berkeley education as a major financial issue for many students.
“The rising cost of attending college and its disproportionate impact on students of marginalized identities is prevalent across the nation, and is certainly not exempt at Cal,” Goel said in the email.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of attending a four-year public institution increased by 23% from 2008 to 2018, adjusted for inflation.
While UC in-state tuition has only been increased once in the past decade, the UC Board of Regents approved a plan in July to raise tuition rates over the next five years, according to the UC Office of the President.
Goel added Berkeley’s shortage of affordable housing has persisted even as students have returned to campus.
“The housing crisis has continued to displace more students than ever,” Goel said in the email. “And with the return of in-person instruction, the funding to support these students continues to dissipate.”
In response to the pandemic, the SAO went fully online during the 2020-21 academic year, according to Goel. As classes have resumed on campus, the SAO has continued to offer remote access to its services on top of in-person access, Goel added.
Remote access has its benefits, according to Goel. In addition to functioning “mostly the same” as in-person casework, Goel noted that remote services can be more accessible to some students.
“Clients who might have found our in-person space inaccessible are now able to more easily find us,” Goel said in the email.
This academic year, Goel noted the SAO would continue to advocate for the basic needs of students. They highlighted the SAO’s work in a program that allows students to find local housing during winter break and the role of the SAO Holistic Fund in assisting withdrawn and unenrolled students in need.
Goel also emphasized the SAO’s “strong relationships” with campus organizations — including the Basic Needs Center, Educational Opportunity Program and Financial Aid and Scholarships Office — help it get resources to food and housing-insecure students. The SAO plays an important role in communicating students’ needs to campus administration, Goel noted.
Ratliff underscored the SAO’s relationship with campus as well.
“I can say that the Division of Student Affairs has and will continue to partner with the SAO students, and that we value their feedback and insights,” Ratliff said in an email.
Goel said in an email the SAO has urged campus administration to have “more timely, structured communication” about changes in academic policies.
The SAO has also collaborated with campus groups, such as the PATH to Care Center, to promote restorative justice in the handling of sexual violence and harassment cases, according to Goel. The office advocates for restorative justice in misconduct processes as well, Goel added.
With its numerous advocacy programs, Goal noted the SAO is unique on campus for the level of support it offers all students.
“We strive towards values of student-centered advocacy, equity, belonging, empathy, education, and resilience in everything we do,” Goel said in the email.