Prioritizing virtual social interaction in student organizations
Face-to-face interaction is a big part of the college experience. Students create life-long friendships with their peers and often gain knowledge and experience from campus organizations that help them land a job post-graduation. With the COVID-19 pandemic rocking colleges across the country, university administrators and organizations have been forced to rethink how they conduct business without completely losing the human interaction and socialization students have come to know and rely on. At the same time, students are experiencing increased stress, anxiety and loneliness as a result of isolation and are looking to their universities for mental health support and safe ways to socially interact.
At the onset of the pandemic, The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS) noticed its over one million members were in need of support. The organization shifted gears to create Live Online, a structured, interactive virtual experience. Live Online includes speakers, breakout sessions and networking opportunities—all critical parts of the NSLS program—in one easy-to-navigate location so students had one less technology issue to stress about going into the new school year. This platform introduced a new way for student organizations to maintain engagement through virtual collaboration.
While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating a crisis of this magnitude, there are a few things administrators and organizations can do to prioritize and encourage virtual student interaction this school year. If implemented correctly and safely, student mental health and overall academic success can be improved at a time when support is critical.
1. Connect with students to know their needs
Connecting with and understanding your students is key. If you have created a virtual platform for your organizations or if you are in the process of doing so and haven’t connected with your students about what they want, need and expect, it will be more difficult to capture interest and participation. Students often join organizations because they want to be among the company of like-minded individuals, and to feel a sense of belonging.
Transitioning to a virtual model is more than hosting weekly Zoom meetings or coffee hours; it’s about creating buy-in and trust. Get students involved in the planning process, and don’t stop involving them once the process has been created. Polls, surveys and one-on-one meetings can capture feedback.
2. Reimagine organizational structure
Weekly or bi-weekly in-person meetings are likely a thing of the past until universities and public health departments can ensure it is okay to meet safely without putting students at risk. Organizational structure must support a virtual experience in order to keep student participation and social interaction active. With many students already struggling with stress and their mental health, administrators and organizations should strive to make the transition as seamless as possible. One way to do this is by sticking with virtual platforms—like Google Classroom and Blackboard—students use most in their classes in order to build on what is familiar and comfortable.
3. Provide proper tools and resources
Another way to alleviate stress on students is to provide the tools and resources needed to get involved with organizations and interact with other students on campus. Administrators and organizations should make sure to put out accurate and timely information as it relates to COVID-19 updates, upcoming meetings and resources. Whether you are planning a virtual networking hour or special speaker series, students will be looking to leaders for answers. If you can’t provide them with information that is easy to understand and access, you risk losing participation.
4. Plan virtual conferences and events
Organizations and businesses from all industries and sectors are now taking advantage of this popular format. Student organizations play a critical role in professional growth. Often, students join groups with the expectation of building relationships, skills and experience that can be used in the workforce—and conferences and events are a large part of a student’s learning journey. The opportunity to learn and grow should not cease because in-person events have been canceled. NASPA’s Leading with Character in Times of Crisis, in partnership with the NSLS, is a great example of an event geared at providing administrators the tools they need to support the mental and social health of students.
5. Continue to update and collaborate
COVID-19 cases continue to ebb and flow, meaning universities must frequently update not only safety protocols and procedures, but also the technologies and platforms that are being used. It is also fair to admit the current environment in which we are operating is mostly unknown, so it is okay to collaborate with other departments, groups and even universities to find the methods that best work for your students.
Students attend college to gain an education and eventually find a good-paying job. Along the way, they make new friends, join organizations, work and live on campus, and often discover who they are as people. When crises like COVID-19 take away that very important aspect of social interaction, mental health and academics are ultimately at risk. So administrators and student organizations must prioritize students’ emotional and social needs and commit to creating opportunities for social interaction, despite any disruptions or challenges to the learning environment.
Charles Knippen is president of The National Society of Leadership and Success, the nation’s largest collegiate leadership honor society with more than one million members at 722 colleges nationwide.