Many college students are feeling isolated this school year, whether they are navigating strict coronavirus protocols on campus or tuning into virtual classes from far away. Particularly for first-year college students, this year presents a huge challenge for persistence amid practical challenges and personal upheaval. While in-person meet-ups are off the table, it’s more important than ever to find new ways to come together.
Through online events, college persistence programs can deliver informative and supportive content to the students they serve, build community, and ultimately, help students stay on track to a college degree. Here’s how.
Building a sense of community
Imagine moving away from home for the first time, showing up on a campus where you don’t know anyone, and trying to make friends from behind a mask and at a distance of six feet. Sounds pretty challenging, right? This is at a time when many students, struggling with the pandemic’s impact, could really use someone to talk to – study groups to make sense of difficult coursework and friends to offer support. These are the relationships that make college a more fun and meaningful experience.
From trivia nights to book clubs, online social events can be a great excuse to bring students together for relationship-building and a little bit of fun, too! UT for Me – Powered by Dell Scholars, which offers support services for Pell-eligible students at the University of Texas at Austin, recently hosted a virtual Halloween Hangout, with a costume contest, a round of the online game Among Us, and a guest tarot card reader. Along with a creative theme, a compelling guest speaker and the chance to win prizes are always a great draw for virtual events.
These events are more than a good time – they help students feel like part of a community. Consider opportunities to break out events by college, location, or areas of interest so that students can meet in smaller groups, exchange information, and build lasting relationships.
Offering practical advice and support
Beyond social events, the virtual setting offers convenience for busy students to tune into educational seminars and coaching sessions. Program advisors or guest speakers can address topics such as managing personal finances, navigating FAFSA renewals, and tips for staying organized, lessons that continue to deliver value for college students year after year.
Remember to account for the unusual circumstances that students are facing this semester. Uplift Education, a public charter school network in Dallas-Ft. Worth, has organized virtual events around how to succeed in the online classroom, covering video conference features, etiquette in a virtual setting, and how to set up virtual backgrounds. Many students are also struggling with mental health in these trying times. Realizing their students were in need of additional support, the St. David’s Neal Kocurek Scholarship Program at St. David’s Foundation introduced virtual programming like mindfulness coaching, town hall meetings with a psychologist discussing mental health, and an onboarding session aiming to normalize anxiety.
If your program has an online community, like private Facebook page, be sure to monitor for potential webinar or event themes there. It’s also worth launching a survey or email request to hear directly from students on the topics they would like to see addressed.
Nurturing a relationship with your program
For college success advisors, one of the biggest challenges is being there when it matters most. Engaging students through online events will help them continue to build a relationship with the program – so they know exactly where to turn when they’re in need of support. Advisors may also consider hosting virtual office hours at the same time each week, so students know a reliable place to find you if they’ve got something top of mind.
Virtual events can also help maintain a sense of normalcy for your program. It may no longer be possible to get together for your annual holiday get-together, or your mid-semester student leadership training. But instead of cancelling altogether, consider shifting to a virtual format, so students can continue to rely on a familiar calendar of events.
Remember that just like many of us in the professional world, our students are experiencing Zoom fatigue. You may no longer be able to entice students with pizza and snacks, but consider the other incentives that could encourage their attendance, such as gift cards to Amazon or their campus bookstore.
Don’t underestimate what virtual events can achieve for your students. A strong support system, helpful resources, and a sense of community can go a long way towards safeguarding a student’s college journey, until we’re all able to be together again.