Eureka College Student Engagement Efforts Continue From Afar During Pandemic
By Blake Baxter
This is the second of a three-part series that focuses on how Eureka College has responded and adapted to the unprecedented circumstances posed by the COVID-19 global pandemic. You can read Part 1, on the EC Admissions department, here.
HIGHLAND, Wis. – Nearly 230 miles away from her college home, Hannah Lindner is doing her best to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Separated from the familiar faces, sights, sounds and activities that populate Eureka College, she’s staying on top of her studies and as active as she can be in the organizations that normally occupy a significant chunk of her time spent on campus.
She’s never had to do any of this from her family’s home in southern Wisconsin before, and now it’s all happening while she shares a space – as well as internet bandwidth – with her younger sisters. It’s certainly not how she envisioned spending the second semester of her sophomore year.
“The conditions that we find ourselves in right now are completely different than anything I’ve experienced before,” Lindner said. “It’s kind of hard to navigate.”
But, on a busy Thursday afternoon in April, she took time in between classes to check out an online inspirational leadership program presented by the Eureka College Office of Student Life. It was a part of the “Lunch and Learn” series that EC was offering, in collaboration with teamwork and leadership expert and Nashville-based musician Jason LeVasseur.
Lindner logged into the Zoom session and watched a bearded man wearing a hat and headphones launch into an enthusiastic introduction.
“Today, I just wanted to check in with everybody,” LeVasseur said. “I want to talk about what habits we’re forming, what we’re doing to stay healthy and happy at home, how we’re connecting to other people, and I want to talk to you about five amazing characteristics that you all have, and have the ability to embrace to make the next few weeks and months work so much better in your favor.”
Over the next 40 minutes, LeVasseur gave a rousing spiel, led workshops, asked and answered questions, and separated participants into breakout sessions.
“I thought the breakout sessions were really cool and good because I got to interact with people that I hadn’t seen in a while,” Lindner said. “It was a nice change of pace.”
The program ended with a couple of spirited musical performances, and then Lindner left the meeting and headed to her next virtual class.
This scene is what student engagement looks like in higher education during a time of social distancing and staying at home. It’s the kind of online programming and services that the Eureka College Office of Student Life has been trying to provide since its normal semester flow was disrupted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
While it shares the same basic patterns of previous programming, the presentation is new, the feel is different and it has potential to reach students who don’t typically frequent the OSL office, such as commuter students.
“I’m exciting about the opportunity of moving student engagement activities online,” Interim Dean of Student Services, Engagement and Leadership Jess Brown said, “because it can lead to new, creative and innovative ideas like this that will not only give us a band-aid for the time-being, but also possibly transform some of the things that we do into a hybrid method going forward.”
In addition to Brown, the Office of Student Life features the Director of Resident Life Lisa Allen, Associate Deans of Student Life Ken Baxter and Shari Rich, International Student Services Coordinator Lizzie Rassi and Chaplain and Director of Inclusive Excellence Bruce Fowlkes. Since EC announced that operations were moving online during the stay-at-home order, the members of this office have spent a considerable amount of their time finding solutions to logistical issues for students.
Among these efforts have been checking the well-being of the students who are still on campus and weren’t able to return home, making sure they’re getting meals and resources, recovering belongings for students who are off campus and facilitating the move-out process.
Although campus has been desolate for weeks now, the OSL staff has remained focused on engaging and supporting students from afar. It’s resulted in a more intentional slate of online programs and activities, as well as an increased emphasis on mental health and well-being outreach.
“My philosophy around this is that we want to keep students engaged, but we also want to be realistic about what they’re actually feeling,” Brown said. “I wanted to find a happy balance and provide them some things to do, but not overwhelm them.”
Some of these student engagement opportunities are new innovations for Eureka College. Others, like the “Lunch and Learn” series, were altered versions of previously planned events.
Before engaging students online, LeVasseur spoke on campus at a leadership conference in early February. He was scheduled to return for a session with members of Greek life in late March, but as campus events were cancelled across the country, he and OSL devised a plan for a series of virtual visits.
“He was really engaging and energetic, and I just thought his message would be really relevant and relatable to students,” Rich said.
In addition to leadership and self-help seminars, OSL has also hosted a virtual Easter Egg hunt (with the Campus Activities Board), where students searched for images of eggs hiding on its webpage and competed to win a gift card, and a joint Netflix party, where students could interact while watching the same movie at the same time. They’ve included links to activities that students can do on their own time on their website, such as virtually visiting museums, zoos and aquariums, taking a ride at Disney World, facing a Hogwarts Virtual Escape Room and watching Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals.
And they even sent out a light-hearted video of their staff members dancing and singing along to the Friends theme song, reminding students that they’re still there for them.
While many students have stayed tethered to their campus organization and athletic teams through virtual meetings, Rich says they also want to reach the students who aren’t.
“There’s a lot of students that don’t have those connections,” Rich said, “so we wanted to offer something where students across the board could just come together.”
Over the past couple of weeks, members of the office, with the help of other staff across have spent countless hours personally calling each student to see how they’re doing, what their current needs are and how they could help. In Highland, Wisconsin, Lindner was recently caught off guard when she received a check-in call from Ken Baxter.
“I was surprised that they would take the time to call each student individually and have a conversation,” Lindner said. “There’s been lots of ways that they’ve been reminding us that we’re still a community, even though we’re not physically together. They still care about us and it’s really nice to know that.”
When he was on campus, Fowlkes regularly ran into students who needed a listening ear. But when everyone’s stuck at home, he worries about students who need help, but don’t have an environment conducive for a private conversation.
He’s been trying to counteract this issue by keeping students informed of resources and making himself as available as possible. Three days a week, Fowlkes holds office hours on Zoom for students to pop in and chat with him about their concerns. He’s also regularly sending out helpful links and bits of information and encouragement on social media and email.
“The subtle reminders (that we need to talk to someone) that we take for granted that we use all the time on campus don’t exist anymore,” Fowlkes said, “so we’re trying to recreate those reminders to make it seem like normal.”
“One of the things I believe in is quickly responding,” Brown added. “It allows one less thing for students to be antsy about. Even if we don’t have the answer yet, just hearing from us, that will go a long way with decreasing some of their anxiety.”
There’s plenty of anxiety in the air right now, particularly for the graduating seniors who will soon enter the workforce during a time of rising unemployment and general uncertainty. Like her colleagues in OSL, EC Director of Career Services Kelly Bay is frequently reminding students that she’s still available to help them navigate this altered landscape.
“I’m trying to tell students to stay positive and try to use this time as a learning opportunity,” Bay said. “I’m encouraging students to get better at software they’re trying to learn, research job descriptions, and really try to enhance their skills to make them more marketable.”
She says students should be looking for virtual and remote work and internship opportunities, and be open to relocating. This is a time when young professionals can show employers that they can be adaptable, resilient, and creative.
Bay recently launched a Brightspace course on perpetual career development that students can access from anywhere at any time for free, and created a library of resume templates that students can use to create their own.
Students have also gotten a kick out of her video series, “Mullet Message Quick Tip of the Week,” where she gives quick tips while wearing a mullet wig.
“It’s silly and goofy, and I think we need some levity during this very serious time,” Bay said with a laugh.
Though it’s happening under novel circumstances, it’s definitely Uniquely Eureka, and it fits in the college’s longstanding mission to cultivate excellence in learning, service, and leadership through the mutual development of intellect and character, enabling graduates to lead meaningful lives and have successful careers.
“We’re all trying to remind them that Eureka cares about you in our own unique way, but at the same time, we’re trying to be human and sensitive about it,” Brown said. “I think that’s the best thing we can do for our students, as mentors and leaders.”