Students shape a virtual community

- Erin King

Undergraduate student Sydney Hunt says the New Student Connect Program gave her the tools and training to better serve her community.

That moment a new student sets foot on the UVic campus for the first time marks the start of one life’s most transformative and memorable experiences. But what does a new student university experience look like when you take most in-person activity out of the equation?

Making student-informed decisions

UVic announced its plans for a predominantly online 2020/21 schoolyear in May 2020. This sparked a flurry of activity and planning, to prepare for an unusual, virtual, new student experience that fall.

“As soon as we knew most courses would be online, we surveyed the entire entering class,” says Angi Ross, program manager in the Office of Student Life. “We wanted to understand what was top of mind for them; what they worried about missing without an on-campus experience.”

More than 90 per cent of survey respondents indicated they were worried about making social connections without an opportunity to meet face-to-face.

These concerns weren’t surprising to those who work with students regularly, but the issue wasn’t just about our students’ social lives. “Peer-to-peer connections are an important factor in student retention and success,” says AVP Student Affairs Jim Dunsdon. ”Social integration and an active co-curricular life help students transition to university and establish a sense of belonging at UVic.”

In response to the survey and with tremendous support from Deans and faculty across campus, a group of UVic students, the Office of Student Life, University Communications + Marketing, and University Systems came together to build the New Student Connect Program. This month they were honoured by the Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO) for their innovative solution to this unprecedented challenge.

Creative community building

Using survey results as guiding principles, the New Student Connect team created a virtual space for students to connect with each other to learn key skills and resources that would help them succeed at UVic. New students gained one-to-one access to upper-year mentors for guidance, support and problem solving. They also joined pods of students with similar interests (science, arts) and identities (Indigenous, international) on Microsoft Teams to share academic and personal resources and engage in fun activities like virtual movie nights.

The response was very positive, with 114 student leaders and more than 3,000 new students taking part. With entirely virtual programming, students could join from all over the world.

Having to stay in Brazil for the first term, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to meet new people. But I’m happy to say that the program allowed me to meet others and feel part of a community even being so far away. The Engagement Leader was absolutely fantastic, the people were very welcoming and the activities planned were awesome. I can’t possibly explain how grateful I am for this program.
—Julia Brusco, fine arts undergraduate student

Flexibility was key to the program’s success. “We had to build this so quickly—we knew we couldn’t get it perfect right away,” says Ross. “We built feedback loops into the program so students could tell us what was and wasn’t working. We learned what types of events had better engagement and what resources students found most valuable and we kept the program nimble enough to respond to what we were hearing.”

Gaining valuable leadership experience

Benefits of the program extended beyond the new student experience too. Upper-year students, called Engage Leaders (ELs), gained valuable experience in leadership and mentoring in a year where these opportunities were harder to come by thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Helping others is something that I am passionate about and my position as an EL has provided me with the tools and training to better serve others in my community! Mentorship will have lifelong rewards attached to it and I am so thankful for the opportunity to open myself up to this new and rewarding focus of learning.
—Sydney Hunt, fine arts undergraduate student

Celebrating student-focussed innovation

The team was recognized for its excellence in optimizing the student experience at the CAUBO 2021 Annual Conference on June 15. “We couldn’t be prouder of the staff, faculty, and students who brought this program and our university to life for our students,” says Dunsdon. “It’s an incredible achievement that will continue to benefit UVic students in the years to come.”

As we move towards an in-person 2021-22 school year, the Office of Student Life is exploring how New Student Connect can continue. “We’ve had such an amazing response. We’re looking into building on this success with a new model that includes lots more mentoring and engagement opportunities,” adds Ross.



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Keywords: student life, administrative

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