Navigating New Student Orientation During a Pandemic

It’s safe to say that in February 2020, we were all living the dream. Everything was open, on-campus activity was a buzz. And, for the most part, life was as normal as it can get. 

On the West Virginia University (WVU) campus, we had a rocky start to 2020. A freak incident involving a boulder and our Personal Rapid Transit system (PRT) caused chaos. The event was an act of God and the crisis communication team was in full-blown panic mode. 

Just like the boulder, things started to tumble out-of-control quickly in the form of the pandemic. Like other institutions, businesses, schools, etc. we were trying to navigate a virtual world with little to no training. A once busy campus with 30,000+ students and visiting prospective Mountaineers was no more. 

Planning events during a “normal” year is tough enough. Add in the term “virtual” and everything becomes more complicated. We held out hope that our New Student Orientation (NSO) program would have an on-campus component. But, as the time passed and spikes in COVID-19 cases increased, the reality sank in. Our new student programming would be virtual. At WVU, the Mountaineer Parents Club (MPC) is a team of 3 people. We are a small, but mighty group of women who work hard to implement parent programming. 

NSO is one of the most crucial parent events we have. Because NSO is mandatory, we interact with about 80% of new Mountaineer families every summer. Getting in front of them, shaking their hands, calming their nerves, and ensuring them their student made the right choice is what eases the minds of parents and it builds a strong relationship between the parent and the Parents Club. 

In the past, programming for families has been copy and paste. We know our role and what we have to accomplish each day at NSO. In a virtual, pandemic world, we were lost. Looking back at last March/April, I am proud of the way our team of 3 came together to plan our virtual parent receptions. 

We had to work fast and find effective and engaging ways to communicate with families. We knew that we would be interacting with less families as Zoom fatigue was already becoming a thing. Our motto became “if we can engage with one parent, we are doing our job.” So, we did just that. We sat down, looked at the calendar, and began the process of turning our NSO parent programming to “Virtual New Student Orientation Parent Reception.” 

Here are some key lessons learned from our experience that may help you as you plan your parent orientation experience this year.

  • Expect the unexpected … or nothing at all. Setting goals and expectations for an event is great, but be prepared for those goals to fall short. Some nights, we entertained upwards of 100 families. Others, we saw only 5. Regardless of the crowd, we made sure to bring our A-game.

  • Speaking of A-game, invite some key figures. We held our virtual receptions every Tuesday and Thursday in July and we invited different “friends” to join us. Every reception included our Dean of Students who would talk about what to expect for the fall semester and how to be the best parent for your student. Some nights, we would have a special guest from our Career Services Center, Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services, or our Office of Student Success. Regardless of the guests, we always tried to initiate the conversation of what to expect. 

  • Make it fun. Of course, nothing virtual is really fun, but we still tried. Families were invited to join us in a trivia game of Kahoot! They learned about our traditions, campus buildings, history, etc. We even made it seem like a game show for added effect and fun! 

  • Try to bridge the communication gap. Above anything else, we invited families to turn on their cameras, grab an adult beverage, and unmute themselves to ask questions. Some nights we saw many families do this, other times no one did. Regardless, we encouraged families to interact in the chat by saying where they were from. While the in-person communication couldn’t be there, at least the human aspect could.

  • Record the event. Sometimes life happens and people can’t attend your event. That’s ok. We recorded every reception we had and shared it on our West Virginia University YouTube under our own Parents Club playlist. We also shared the receptions in our Official West Virginia University Families of the Class of 2024 Facebook group. We never wanted families to feel out of the loop, so we provided everything we could to ensure they wouldn’t be. 

This summer, MPC will be back with more virtual receptions. This time, we hope to share good news of a more in-person approach to the fall semester. We know a virtual event isn’t ideal, but it’s what we have to work with. 

At the end of the day, reaching one family can be just as important as reaching hundreds. 

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