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Hello? Is There Anybody Out There?

Student Success Supporting the Profession Community Colleges Division Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services Orientation, Transition and Retention AVP or "Number Two" Senior Level VP for Student Affairs
December 10, 2020 Anthony Cruz Hialeah Campus at Miami Dade College

During these very difficult pandemic times, it’s more imperative than ever for higher education leaders to communicate effectively with students, faculty, and staff members. The increased remote nature of our work can make us question whether our messages are reaching the appropriate audiences in an effective fashion. You may be asking yourself, “Are they really reading my emails?” Moreover, our lack of person-to-person contact and increased use of online platforms has created a sense of anxiety and uncertainty that needs to be addressed with more intense communication using different modalities. During the last eight months, I have developed several initiatives to reach our students, faculty, and staff using teleconferencing software, social media platforms and socially-distanced personal visits.

¿Que Pasa Hialeah?

The City of Hialeah is home to my campus and a vibrant population composed of immigrants and first-generation Americans who are mostly blue-collar workers and innovative small business owners. Hialeah is rarely recognized by the local media and the surrounding communities. In January 2020, I started planning a new talk show that would showcase the wonderful things happening in the City of Hialeah. My initial idea was to record face-to-face interviews with individuals making a difference in our community. That all changed with the pandemic, and we decided to record these interviews remotely using Microsoft Teams. We started the show in June 2020 and have shared five episodes using LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook. I have learned a great deal during these interviews and have been able to share these stories with our students, faculty, staff, and viewers in the Hialeah community. ¿Que Pasa Hialeah? (What’s Happening Hialeah?) has become a very effective communication tool for me to reach a mostly remote audience of constituents and bring a sense of pride to the community that I serve.

Hialeah Connect

On March 15, our campus closed due to the pandemic, and we started working remotely. I soon realized that engaging faculty and staff was going to be a challenge. I knew emails were not going to be enough, and I needed to find another way to communicate and feel the pulse of the campus community. As a result, in April, we started weekly virtual town hall meetings called Hialeah Connect via Microsoft Teams. I invited all faculty and staff to attend these weekly virtual meetings. We shared jokes, stories about our families and their struggles, cooking recipes, what we watched on Netflix, and it also gave me the opportunity to share campus and College updates. As time has passed, I have also invited special guests like our College President. We have averaged 75 faculty and staff members attending each town hall meeting. Most importantly, we have been able to see each other and hear familiar voices. Hialeah Connect has turned out to be the best communication tool I could have ever implemented given the limitations created by the pandemic. We will continue with Hialeah Connect on a monthly basis as we enter the new year.

Social Media Push

We all know that our students are huge consumers of social media. During the pandemic, I have stepped up my social media game by posting pictures and videos to encourage and motivate our students. During the first few months of the pandemic, I started posting video messages to our students on a weekly basis. While I have reduced the frequency, I continue to work with our media services team to create messages that resonate with our students. I have tried my best to be transparent while encouraging our students to push through the adversity. I have received positive feedback from our students, and it has also had an inadvertent positive impact on our faculty and staff who have seen the posts. These social media posts on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn have also encouraged other campus employees to create their own posts and become much more active on social media. I have thoroughly enjoyed using social media platforms to engage our students and communicate my concern for their academic success as well as their well-being.

Personal Outreach Visits

There is no real substitute for face-to-face interaction. After a few months of the pandemic, we realized that many of our incoming freshmen were not signing up for their virtual new student orientations. I felt that their reluctance came from a mixture of their fear of the unknown and the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. So, I decided to take an unorthodox approach and started making personal visits to their homes to meet them and their parents. Thirty students took me up on the offer to visit them. We all used masks and practiced social distancing outside their homes. I congratulated them on their high school graduation and fielded their questions about our campus. I truly enjoyed the opportunity to answer their questions and getting to meet their parents. I felt that the personal connection made a significant impact on reducing their anxiety about what to expect in their first year of college in the midst of a pandemic. They all received a welcome bag full of goodies, and we took many pictures that later appeared on social media. This initiative proved that face-to-face communication can be safely achieved, and the value of spending ten minutes with students and their parents during these turbulent times can be priceless.

Have Some Fun

Creating different communication initiatives during the last eight months has definitely helped me grow as a leader. I have become more engaged and gained a greater connection with our campus community. I hope that my outreach has reduced the anxiety, uncertainty, and isolation created by the pandemic and our limited face to face interactions. I encourage you to explore some of these communication initiatives. It’s really fun, and you won’t have to wonder, “Is there anybody out there?”

About the Author

Dr. Anthony Cruz currently serves as the Campus President of the Miami Dade College - Hialeah Campus in Florida. He most recently served as the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at St. Louis Community College. Dr. Cruz currently serves on the NASPA James E. Scott Academy Board and has been a faculty member with the NASPA Escaleras Institute.