Welcoming New Students To Campus (Virtually)
July 2, 2020
Alex Kappus is an educator with over 10 years of experience in higher education. He is the outgoing Associate Director for the Office of Student Success at Central Michigan University, where he was responsible for leading new student and family programs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Alex is a Ph.D. candidate in the Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education program at Michigan State University. Connect with Alex using @akappus on Twitter.
Editor’s note: We recommend that you pair this resource with How to Weave Worldview Into Orientation by Janett I. Cordovés.
Students at every level of education were forced to move online this spring and many will continue to engage in educational experiences virtually for the foreseeable future. While digital spaces can never replace the beauty of in-person interpersonal connection, I am convinced there are ways we can work to bring a human element to our virtual spaces. Over the course of the past three months, my colleagues and I designed and implemented a virtual new student orientation for over 2,500 new students and their families. This effort relied on a 2-week virtual training program and on-going support for a team of 45 undergraduate student orientation mentors and 40 student affairs professionals. In the following piece, I reflect on the move online and lessons learned in centering human experiences and building community in a virtual new student orientation program.
In the new virtual model, we offered a mix of synchronous sessions, asynchronous learning, as well as on-going connection to resources through optional virtual or phone-based appointments. We opted to provide a 2-hour live session to allow us to maximize a human element in the virtual orientation programming. My mantra: “Students will not simply press play on their orientation.” We held four concurrent welcome programs each day to create smaller groups, and then in the second hour, divided students out into smaller virtual spaces hosted by academic advisors and student mentors. Academic Advisors then hosted 1-1 virtual advising appointments throughout the afternoon. Students were able to see one another on the screen (we encouraged but did not require cameras to be turned on), used the chat feature, and later engaged in conversation with mentors and advisors in the smaller virtual environments.
In conducting synchronous virtual programming, we found the following strategies helped to humanize the virtual space:
We understand online delivery can present challenges based on learning needs, so we collaborated with Student Disability Services and the Office of Information Technology to ensure responsiveness to students and families. We used Google slides and the Closed Captions feature for real-time captions. Also, we knew that not every student had access to consistent internet. Universities around the state, including CMU, offered publicly available WiFi, so we directed students and families to these locations. We realized there were limitations to what we could provide. If a student informed us they did not have access to a device, for example, we encouraged them to schedule for a late summer in-person orientation session. We hope to accommodate a small number of students when deemed safe to do so.
Pivot Anchored in Your Values
Even though you’re virtual, you and your team will need to continue to ground your work in the larger field. I pulled from foundational concepts and theories at the center of the field of student affairs administration, such as the CAS Statement of Shared Ethical Principles to guide my decision-making and leadership about not only new students and families but also my student and professional staff.
One of the ethical principles I thought about often is nonmaleficence: do no harm. While we cannot prevent all harm, we can be prepared for the worst. For example, early in the planning phase, we learned about the troubling trend of “Zoom bombing,” where university sessions were hacked with racist and harmful material. We worked with our IT department to implement several strategies to try to prevent this from happening. We also trained staff about how to respond to various scenarios and gave all permission to end the call immediately in the event of something harmful.
People Are Still Your Greatest Asset
We cannot build a human experience for our students or families without first meeting the needs of our teams. Our hiring process occurs in January and February, and our staff welcome breakfast was scheduled for the week following spring break. Unfortunately, we were never able to convene the student staff to formally welcome them to the team. We communicated regularly with the student staff as things unfolded, including the prospect of what we knew could happen – a move to a virtual format. I felt a sincere duty to provide meaningful work for our student staff, especially given COVID-19. We needed to be very clear about our expectations and realistic about the challenges of remote work. Students had the choice to turn down the role or continue as a virtual mentor. Instead of being on-campus providing tours and presentations for new students and families, virtual mentors navigated the complex behind-the-scenes logistics of virtual presentations and virtual student appointments. I am proud we were able to provide employment for mentors to connect with new students throughout the summer while also enabling student mentors to gain new skills and earn a similar overall compensation as the in-person role.
Supervising 45 undergraduate student orientation mentors, all working remotely, required us to think about how to build community and also develop systems of accountability. My number one recommendation for managing virtual staff is to create rituals.
Acknowledging the Moment
In some ways, the virtual format afforded benefits new students never had before, such as the ability to schedule virtual appointments with a variety of campus resources and view additional self-paced content. More often, however, students experienced very real feelings of loss and pain with everything going on this summer.
Many students are grappling with feelings of loss – no last softball season, no graduation, and worse – ill family members, economic uncertainty, and more. This particular incoming class is facing not only the challenge of transition to college but is also doing so in the middle of a global pandemic and at a time when our country is reckoning with racial injustice. Many students are in pain and I think it’s important to name what’s going on, to encourage students to reflect.
We began each of the live virtual sessions by acknowledging the present moment. We acknowledged our shared disappointment and frustration over our present reality. We named the ongoing pain many are experiencing due to racism and social injustice. We pulled a quote from our University president, which spoke to validating their feelings about navigating life during the pandemic.
“I know many members of our community are struggling with feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration…these feelings are natural and valid. These are uncertain times and it’s hard to know what to expect or how to plan for what’s ahead.” – President Robert O. Davies, “Adapting in Uncertain Times”
We emphasized transition to college does not happen in a one-day virtual orientation experience. After all, the transition is a complex human phenomenon, requiring cognitive, emotional, and physical skill and perspective-building. I am confident our virtual orientation was effective in initiating the important transition to college while planting seeds we hope will flourish as they begin courses this fall.
As leaders and communities navigate the challenges of COVID-19, I hope we will all consider taking the time to foster inclusion and hope for a better tomorrow through intentionally designed virtual spaces, never forgetting the human being on the other side of the screen.
Share your ideas for how you have tried to humanize virtual spaces using, #HumanizeVirtual.