This past spring semester our world was forever changed as we each became witness to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. In the weeks and months that followed the initial outbreak stateside, we watched as our campuses and institutional operations had to rapidly pivot to remote-enhanced environments as residence halls and campus quads quickly became barren and lifeless, a stark contrast to a traditional spring day on any college campus. During this time, many of us were required to reimagine student engagement, leadership banquets, and even graduation ceremonies to virtual spaces. I said goodbye to long-serving student staff in my office as they graduated from afar, I completed writing and successfully defending my dissertation (more on that a little later on), and assisted in quickly moving our office operations and services to be available remotely.
Three years ago I began my doctoral journey with a research focus on first-year commuter student support and working to better understand how this population perceives a sense of belonging in the context of a residential campus and with the introduction of a commuter peer mentoring innovation. While I could have never predicted a pandemic at the beginning of my study, I quickly found myself at the end of this past semester working to support colleagues who were challenged with creating community remotely, or from a socially-distanced 6-feet. As I reflect on the almost four months that have followed, I, like many of you, have come to better understand some of the challenges and opportunities that have been presented in the time of COVID-19.
As I have thought about fall planning, I have come to realize that for those of us who work in roles supporting our off-campus populations, working from a place and space of “remote” is very often the nature of our work. Ever since transitioning from residence life to off-campus student services almost six years ago, I have sought to create community for our students, wherever they may live. I have been inspired over the past few months learning from my off-campus colleagues, many of whom presented during the recent International Town & Gown Association conference which was hosted virtually for the first time at the beginning of June, or during one of several Coffee House Chats the OCCSS KC hosted over the past month.
As you prepare your own fall plans for your campus and student body (whether in person or remote), I would like to share a few considerations and reflections with you:
- Think about existing tools at your disposal. For the last cycle of my action research, I introduced a Microsoft Teams virtual community to complement my in-person commuter peer mentor team. Teams allows for two-way communication via video conferencing, chat message, threaded discussion, and more. While it was intended to help supplement and bridge between the synchronous and asynchronous engagement experiences for our first-year commuter students, when my institution went remote this platform became the primary means of communication and connection for our first-year commuter student population. Teams is a free resource already available to my entire institutional community through our Office365 subscription. Bonus: many of you have probably become quite familiar with collaboration platforms yourselves in recent months!
- Consider issues of access. Just because something may be facilitated or hosted online does not mean it will be inherently accessible to all students or users. Beyond the physical accessibility challenges that many software and social media websites present, concepts such as time may present barriers for students with jobs or socioeconomic divide when hosting events such as “takeout Tuesday” that became quite popular this past semester (unless lunch is on you!)
- Seek out synergies of scale. I have been using the term “synergy” quite a bit on my campus recently and not just because it is could be seen as another buzzword. In times like those we are currently experiencing, we are being required to rapidly prototype and scale resources, programs, and initiatives in weeks rather than months. Seek out strategic campus stakeholders and community partners that you can combine resources and ideate with in order to reach collective success and amplify your respective messages. I encourage you to reach out to the staff member(s) or office on your campus that is responsible for supporting off-campus and commuter students. They might have a few ideas and strategies on how to support students in new and exciting ways!
- Center on the student experience. This might seem like an obvious one but I think in the midst of reacting to so many new processes, planning for multiple contingencies, and the challenging and tragic situations that have unfolded in our country in recent weeks, centering on the student experience is more important than ever before. While it might not be the same in-person experience, COVID-19 has presented new ways for us to reconceptualize how we can create spaces and opportunities for our students to connect, grow, and learn. One way this is being done within the OCCSS KC is the development of virtual housing fairs which will provide essential housing assistance, resources, and information to students and families at a time when many campuses are seeing a reduction in on-campus housing due to social distancing and COVID-19 mitigation needs.
- Have space and grace for yourself. I’ve talked a lot in this article about the concept of spaces--whether physical, virtual, or metaphorical. The demands on our time, energy, and hearts have been greater in recent days, and planning for a pandemic was certainly not part of my graduate program. Acknowledge and validate where you are at each day and celebrate each win, no matter how small it may be. Take your vacation time. Get up and stretch a few times or hourly if you want to go for the gold. If you are in a position of supervision or mentorship, consider how you might also be able to extend space and grace to those in your realms of influence.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to me if there is anything I can do to help you, your department, or institution now or in the future. If you have ideas or suggestions for the Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services Knowledge Community, I also encourage and welcome those at any time.
For more information on the OCCSS KC including how to get involved and open leadership positions, please visit us at https://www.naspa.org/division/off-campus-and-commuter-student-services or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/OCCSSKC.
Take good care, NASPA IV-W,
Dr. Jeremy Moore
Off-Campus and Commuter Student Services Knowledge Community Representative
Off-Campus Housing & Neighborhood Relations
University of Colorado Boulder