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Welcoming New Students To Campus (Virtually)

Photo from Alex Kappas

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:

  • Give time for processing in the virtual space: Most of us watch a lot of content on screens passively. We stream shows, movies, and scroll for hours on social media. Even when we are being social on social media, our devices are not often asking us to act or respond to prompts in real-time. Whether asking participants to post in the chat or unmute to ask questions, we were trying to reach an audience not accustomed to responding to prompts from the voices on the screen. Our lesson learned: Embrace the awkward silences and allow your audience to warm up! 
  • Seek genuine connection: Our President, Dr. Robert Davies logged in and out of live virtual programs each morning, participating in over 39 unique sessions over the course of 5 weeks. As the positional leader on campus, his real-time presence spoke volumes. Sometimes Dr. Davies would call on students and say, “Good morning NAME, who is that sitting with you?” We witnessed some really special moments and genuine connections in noticing people in the virtual space. I also think it’s important to react to emotion even in the virtual space. For example, you notice a student laughing after you make a joke, “I see Sydney enjoyed that pun!” This is a small way to bring the human element in the virtual space.  
  • Your audience needs breaks and movement: Yes, literally! During training, we incorporated stretch breaks, where we asked staff to take time to move around, grab a glass of water, get outside, or just rest their eyes. Halfway through the live orientation, we encouraged students to reach up and stretch it out. All presenters did it at the same time to lead by example. The new students could often be seen doing the same, smiling at our goofy acknowledgment of the static nature of watching a screen. 

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.  

  • Stick to a routine and structure folks can rely on. Our two-week training balanced live and pre-recorded material. To create consistency, we held a live staff training session at 9:00 a.m. every day of the two-week training. The staff navigated their self-paced and live sessions through an online course shell. 
  • Provide space for regular check-ins and debriefs. During the orientation season, we held daily debriefs for the advisors, mentors, and leadership team on a daily basis. This allowed our staff to honor positive moments and address concerns. Sometimes the debriefs were short, and other times we went over the time allotted.  
  • Consider optional, passive time together. During training, we invited student mentors to an optional “breakfast hour” where students could log into a video conference and be in company with others. This was well-attended and a nice way to encourage staff to get up and moving each day.  
  • Use assessment to improve and celebrate success. After our sessions, we sent a survey to new students. We used the data to see how we can improve, but also to remind staff of the very real impact they were having in the virtual environment. We would pull key quotes or even share messages from social media posts in staff announcements and meetings.  
  • Leverage social media. Our student mentors bonded when they created this video using popular TikTok trends 
  • Build a team visually. I realized one of our traditions, a staff photo during training, everyone in their fresh polos would not be possible. Instead, we had folks send in headshots and our student staff member created the composite photo at the beginning of this article.  

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. 

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