Foster connections in a physically distant environment

Expert Insight

Foster connections in a physically distant environment

Student health and well-being is a top-of-mind concern for campus leadership as institutions prepare for the coming semester. Whether institutions are planning to be remote, hybrid, or fully in-person, physical distancing guidelines will prevent students from participating in the face-to-face activities and events they typically associate with the college experience. Providing students with opportunities to build community and form meaningful connections will not only make students more willing to follow distancing guidelines, but will also positively impact students’ mental health—another growing crisis of the global pandemic. EAB has identified four strategies to foster connections among the student body in a physically distant environment.

Work with student groups to re-envision their events with physical distancing

Friendships in college are often built through shared experiences and interests. Student-led organizations, like clubs, affinity groups, and Greek life, are key for helping students build connections around those commonalities. But these groups may lack the technical infrastructure or experience to successfully host physically distant or virtual events. Offering support or guidance to help students organize events and club meetings helps campus leadership build stronger relationships with student leaders and ensures student organizations can continue to offer community for students on or off campus.

Ways to support your student groups

Support students orgs by offering trainings or resources on how to host engaging meetings on platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. East Tennessee State University offered a live training session on using Zoom for virtual student organization meetings. American University and Cornell University provide ongoing support to their student organizations through virtual engagement resource pages which offer best practices for virtual meetings in addition to key information about where to ask questions or receive additional guidance from campus staff.

Identify popular events that can translate to a physically distant format

Campus traditions and events build a sense of camaraderie among students and an affinity towards your institution. By identifying the events and traditions that are adaptable to a physically distant environment, institutions can replicate the events that students are already primed to attend from years past.

What sort of events translate to a physically distant format?

Online orientation provided a great trial run for institutions to identify what virtual programming was most engaging for students. Recurring or ongoing events, like Southern Connecticut State University’s “OWL meet-ups,” give incoming students an opportunity to meet with smaller groups and provide feedback on what social activities they most enjoyed and would like to see continued into the school year. Institutions like the California Institute of the Arts replicated popular campus events like their “Thursday Nights” art series by creating a live showcase site of online experimental work and publishing both live and pre-recorded events to their website each Thursday.

Provide virtual opportunities for meaningful conversation, particularly around issues like social justice and activism

Following the murder of George Floyd, institutions like the University of Southern California and Wayne State University held virtual dialogues and forums to discuss race in the United States and racial dynamics at their own institutions. George Mason University held a series of anti-racism town halls every day for a week following the murder of George Floyd. The town halls attracted over 100 attendees at each session and launched the “GMU Solidarity Project,” a series of anti-racism events, dialogues, and initiatives to be held over the following school year.

By creating a space for dialogue around these issues, institutions offer students a chance to engage in deep, substantive conversation in a virtual format. The conversations also lay the groundwork for institutions to “build back better” and work with students to develop initiatives that will create a more inclusive and supportive environment for all students on campus.  

“We need to bring students together and have these difficult, important conversations. We can’t use the pandemic as an excuse to put them off. Our students are hungry for that connection, for that opportunity to share their story. They want someone to talk to.”

Vice President of Campus Life

Acknowledge and humanize the challenges of the current environment

Feelings of loneliness and anxiety are natural in the isolated and uncertain climate of COVID-19. Providing opportunities for students to connect in a physically distant format while acknowledging these events are not perfect substitutes is an opportunity for leadership to connect with students in a transparent, empathetic way. Institutions should also increase institutional investment in supporting students’ mental health and well-being through providing virtual resources and spaces for reflection.

Through these four strategies, institutions can help students sustain the relationships and connections that are so crucial for a positive college experience. While bringing people together from afar is a challenge, providing the appropriate resources and experiences will make a physically distant college experience more sustainable and lay the groundwork for students to further their relationships in a post-COVID environment.

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