Transitioning to Virtual Organization Management

When NASPA CEO Kevin Kruger co-authored an article in 2018 exploring the emerging need for Student Affairs programming to support online learners, he could not have anticipated how quickly and urgently this need would expand in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many of the needs identified remain equally valid—if not more so—in the context of the crisis. The article charged student affairs professionals to grow online learners’ goal-setting skills, sense of community, time management and overall awareness of campus resources.

Fortunately, Student Affairs departments across the country have stepped up to the challenge to adapt their models to meet the needs of a completely virtual cohort of students in spring 2020. In this article, we profile two campuses that quickly transformed their practice to meet the new needs of their student body.

Auburn University

Student Involvement at Auburn University supports a total enrollment of over 30,000 students. Cameron Eaves, a Student Organizations Advisor at Auburn, described their model as a balance of maintaining tradition while offering students support and flexibility during their transition to a new way of learning. Eaves astutely noted that a change in the student’s environment could have a detrimental impact for many students –including the shock and stress of a changing environment, a sudden loss of access to their friends on campus and also job losses and other serious life-changing incidents.

The Student Involvement office at Auburn’s approach returns to the classic Student Affairs adage of “challenge and support” and brings it up a notch. Eaves prefers to check in with her student leaders over webcam, allowing her to more accurately assess if a student needs to be pushed to keep a routine and stay engaged, or if they just need some space. Students might not be getting this kind of attention within a classroom, where faculty may still be adjusting to the abrupt online curriculum delivery format.

Wherever possible, Student Involvement shifted virtually for major department events in order to maintain a sense of normalcy for their students and continue to build campus pride. While these substitutes might not match the original, they can each find their own, new method to success. Eaves shared the secret is focusing on what value the student gets from an event. For example, the annual Involvement Awards would host over 400 students each year to mingle and connect while celebrating highlights from the year, versus the International Students’ Banquet, which greeted a much smaller crowd for a more intimate gathering focused on shared moments and recognition from faculty. For the Involvement Awards, Student Involvement is planning a live video with a student-hosted, massively interactive portion before and after the awards ceremony, while the International Student Banquet is being supplemented with mailed certificates and an article of recognition in the student newspaper. These approaches also help remind student organization leaders of the variety of ways to engage their students.

Eaves also shared that while it’s important to give students space to process this change, a virtual learning environment doesn’t equal student organizations “hitting pause.” She has encouraged her student leaders to use this time to focus on tasks they otherwise might not prioritize, like laying out a more strategic plan for the following year, bolstering their transition resources, restructuring their leadership board or editing their constitution. Student Involvement quickly created a new resource to guide students through specific tools inside and outside of Engage that could help them with these tasks. While many organizations were initially nervous about the loss of potential word-of-mouth opportunity, they've been taking this opportunity to improve their social media skills–and without a campus to visit, other students are paying more attention to social media than ever.

Capital University

As a smaller (< 4,000 students) campus, Capital University felt the loss of their campus space but, like Auburn, remained committed to maintaining their traditions. We spoke with Abbey Rutschilling, a Program Coordinator at Capital, who shared that a key component to the Student Development division’s overall model has been the concept of “drop-in” meetings. Offices including Student & Community Engagement, Academic Success and Career Development determined a plan for virtual office hours and use Engage’s online event feature to ensure Zoom links to office hour rooms are readily available for any browsing user. Each office continues to adapt their regular services for a virtual environment, such as the Center for Faith & Learning, which now broadcasts daily services over social media.

This drop-in model allows staff to hold the same kind of developmental experiences they would with a student on campus. A student might join the chat to say hello and gradually an advisor can help them debrief a recent student organization meeting and reflect on ways to grow and continue to connect in a virtual environment. This conversation might never happen if a student had to intentionally set a meeting time with an advisor.

Student organizations have gotten creative in developing a number of online events, like:

  • Live workout routines
  • A live virtual magic show
  • Video game streaming
  • Guided meditations
  • Watch parties
  • And more

These are all shared through Engage so a student can more easily maintain connection with their campus community. Capital captures and celebrates important moments of virtual connection using the social hashtag #CapFamConnected.

Rutschilling credits their campus’ success thus far in adapting to a balance of both light and serious content. The office’s Instagram account may share an important notice of stress and anxiety tips in light of COVID-19 one day balanced by open submissions of photos for National Puppy Day the next. Her office has a representative on a cross-divisional committee overseeing university response to the campus closure, allowing her department to plan for additional positive and uplifting messages to send out shortly after students receive difficult news. She also recommends a careful balance when relaying information to students rather than overwhelming them with too many details at once. In week one of Capital’s communication plan, they focused on highlighting resources of support for students. In week two communication decreased, giving students time to acclimate to their new learning environments. In week three, Capital re-introduced reminders about resources and practices that can aid students during this time.

How is your campus adjusting to a virtual learning environment? Let us know @CampusLabs what your campus is doing to transform and adapt this term. We also are interested in your ideas on how we can support you.

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