A Community without a Campus
Published27 January, 2021
Photo credit Chelsea Kelso
Is it possible to build community when everyone is apart?
Community. This word is featured prominently on every university’s website — including ours.
The implied understanding is that as a new student, you will be welcomed, supported and have opportunities to build new relationships through the shared experience of being a student.
But what happens when the community disappears?
The COVID-19 pandemic, which encroached upon and eventually overtook the lives of every student, presented a unique challenge for CapU’s Student Life Hub.
How do you rebuild community in a virtual space when face-to-face interaction is no longer possible?
Jennie Kostiuk, who serves as student success facilitator at CapU and oversees a team of assistants at the Student Life Hub, looked to find distinctive ways to reach students scattered around the Lower Mainland.
“CapU is a smaller campus and with that, it brings a lot of opportunities for engagement,” she said. “We are living in the students’ world and have to let them take the lead.”
With the lockdown, videos became the best way to connect with students. Their first idea was to start a YouTube channel.
They also tried holding events virtually through tools like the Hub's Instagram and Zoom accounts. The Hub’s accounts quickly gained 1,500 followers during the pandemic; however, keeping the attention of this audience didn’t come easily.
“Engaging people virtually isn’t the easiest thing,” said Rebecca Lyoba, a Business Administration student who handles marketing and communications at the Hub.
“It takes much more effort to build that community, but we are trying our best and getting better at it.”
The group has been proactive, initiating surveys on engagement and presenting results at department meetings. They’ve also maintained a small presence in-person, safely handing out snack and swag bags and providing information about student services to occasional visitors who stop by the Hub.
“I think people want a home-y feel to online events and lot of [students] aren’t looking at university as a big part of their social lives right now,” said Connor Yuen, a Communication Studies student who joined the Hub this fall. “And maybe that’s okay. We try to be there for them.”
Over and above the technological obstacles, getting every part of the CapU community involved in student-facing events has been a logistical challenge.
With heavy restrictions on personal bubbles, online delivery of most courses and reduced sources of employment, students living in CapU Residence are facing a unique and potentially crushing isolation.
“It’s a bit more challenging for students in residence to make friends,” said Larissa Marcatto, who is the social media assistant at the Hub. “They just know other students in residence, so we decided to change the approach a little bit and did lots of challenges and events on social media. Those worked really well.”
The informal nature of virtual events has been another part of their success.
“During quarantine, I’ve gone to [virtual] events like the Friday night Zoom DJ dance party, played games and I got to meet and socialize with new people and listen to live music,” said Arshia Mossannen-Amini, an associate of science degree student.
Collaborating with CapURec to do a series of virtual runs on Strava has also led to a stronger uptake for students who were fatigued due to excessive screen time.
“Students have reached virtual burnout with courses, work and other responsibilities and don’t want to do something that feels like or sounds like work all the time,” Kostiuk added.
There have also been some happy accidents. A Leadership Series chat with CapU president Paul Dangerfield in November ended up with fewer attendees than organizers planned for, but as a result, the students who attended were more actively involved in the session and had more room to interact.
“Students were asking questions, they were engaged, and it was more of a connection than if you’re listening to a presentation with 60 other students,” said Kaila Kondo, a student in the Acting for Stage and Screen program who handles external relations at the Hub.
“Having those smaller, more personal interactions has really helped.”
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Before long, different departments around the university were reaching out to the team of students to get advice and tips for engaging their students without the benefit of in-person learning.
“Because of COVID, I find we’re a lot more connected,” Kondo said. “I know [departments] had engagement meetings before, but now we’re actually talking to one another.”
“This time, it was like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing to engage people? Can we work together to try and build that?’”
“Our team meetings turned into consulting sessions with other departments,” Kostiuk said. “It was beautiful to see [students’] confidence grow as the experts on campus around student engagement.”
Other initiatives have also sprung up in the CapU community to keep students connected to the University.
The Centre for Teaching Excellence hired digital ambassadors to help students navigate online classes and the Library launched an online research help desk. Virtual appointments are available for Counselling Services and Academic Advising, and nearly all program information sessions are now online, to name a few.
With no foreseeable end to the “new normal,” coming up with new and exciting ways to keep students engaged has occasionally been a struggle, but spirits are high, and the team is motivated moving into the Spring term.
Checking in frequently with the students, including video calls at the beginning of shifts or during overlapping shifts, has been one way to keep the group strong.
“We share the common goal and vision to create an incredible student experience, which keeps us on our feet,” Kostiuk said. “[But], it’s really important to make sure we’re checking in with each other.”
“All these initiatives are a story of resilience and it’s been a learning experience for all of us,” Yuen said. “Now we’re more connected than we would’ve been if the virus never happened.”