Engage incoming students through and beyond virtual orientation

Expert Insight

Engage incoming students through and beyond virtual orientation

As institutions pivot from COVID-19 emergency response to long-term planning, higher education leaders are beginning to grapple with the challenges of a remote orientation and potentially remote fall semester.

Even before COVID-19, colleges and universities were facing increased pressure to recruit and retain incoming students due to changes in the NACAC Code of Ethics and Professional Practice. The predicted surge in students opting out of or postponing their freshman year has also led to broad concerns around yielding the fall 2020 class.  Given these circumstances, keeping students engaged through orientation and across the summer  will be vital for institutions’ long-term success. 

Across the month of April, EAB hosted six virtual working sessions to discuss creating a compelling virtual orientation experience. In conversations with student affairs and enrollment leaders from over 90 institutions, we identified seven key areas to guide your institution’s programming through the summer and early fall.

1. Foster peer connections

Genuine peer connections are critical to students feeling at home at an institution. Incoming students are eager to make friends and connect with their peers, even in a virtual format. Institutions can help students connect during virtual orientation and over the summer through small, interest based-activities that help foster meaningful connections. Northern Illinois University orientation leaders hosted casual discussions with their orientation groups through Instagram live “Ask Me Anythings,” giving students a glimpse into normal life on campus and a chance to speak with their peers in an informal environment.

2. Build affinity and a sense of belonging

Establishing a strong sense of community helps students feel connected to their class and their institution. Brigham Young University brought peers together from afar through social media with the Instagram hashtag #BYUBound and personalized Instagram templates. University of Tennessee-Knoxville welcomed the incoming class through an alumni-driven welcome call campaign during which each student received a phone call from a UTK alumni.

3. Facilitate virtual campus experiences

Virtual programming should help students envision themselves on campus and engage in the social activities that students see as part of the college experience. While it is difficult to fully recreate face-to-face events, institutions can still capture the communal aspects of campus life that draw students to an institution through virtual events. University of North Carolina-Wilmington gives students a space to show off their interests outside of class through virtual concerts featuring performances from current and incoming students. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute connected students with mutual interests through a virtual club fair held on Discord.

4. Drive engagement with academics

In addition to social activities, orientation is a time to highlight the myriad academic opportunities your institution has to offer. Students will be more motivated to enroll in the fall if they’re excited about the classes they can attend. Florida Atlantic University professors plan to promote academic engagement by recording three to four-minute videos on their discipline and how they plan to deliver online learning. Simon Fraser University professors will build connections with students and excitement for future classes by giving five to ten-minute video sessions on their courses followed by Q&As.

5. Engage parents and family members

Students’ family members are also navigating increased uncertainty and stress as their students prepare for the fall semester. Offering compelling family orientation activities can help mitigate concerns about the upcoming year. More virtual programming can also increase equity by virtue of being more accessible to working parents. To better engage households during virtual orientation, Metropolitan State University-Denver is hosting Facebook Live family orientation sessions in English and Spanish to ensure non-English speaking households can participate. Institutions should also consider offering safety-focused information sessions for parents worried about students returning to campus in the wake of COVID-19.

6. Offer volunteer/service activities

In times of crisis, many students want an opportunity to give back. You can foster connections with the local community by highlighting local service opportunities on social media or build camaraderie among the incoming class by organizing a “virtual” food drive. During the drive, students can donate food or volunteer at their local food pantry and post a photo with a customized incoming class hashtag. Institutions can also highlight virtual service opportunities on sites like 7 cups and Project Gutenberg.

7. Provide career exploration opportunities

Generation Z, also known as “the Children of the Great Recession,” is one of the most cost-conscious generations to ever arrive on college campuses. Orientation activities should incorporate information on career services and outcomes to demonstrate to students the return on their investment for their degree and set them on an early path to professional success. Institutions can introduce students to the career center through hosting Q&A sessions with its director or hosting alumni panels that feature graduates from a variety of professional sectors.

Moving towards a virtual orientation will be a huge undertaking for leaders in higher education. However, this challenge also offers an opportunity for innovation in student programming. By creating activities that can keep students engaged remotely, partners in student affairs and enrollment will lay the groundwork for more successful orientations even after the end of the pandemic. 

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