I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen this before.

Colleges and universities are accustomed to adapting to any number of strange and seemingly unreal circumstances: major storms, lockdowns in the face of safety concerns, but pandemics – mercifully – seem brand new.

As schools start to ensure the continuation of their academic operations with fidelity and high quality, I want to offer a few tidbits to think about for those seeking to do the same with extracurricular and co-curricular endeavors.

a student sits alone on the floor with a laptop in her lap, in front of a wall composed of glass mirrors.
IMAGE CREDIT: The Jopwell Collection

If Your Halls Are Open/If Students Are Still On Campus

Reassure students that proper cleaning measures are being taken. 

If your dining halls, lounges, computer labs, and common areas are open, they may be a welcome respite from seeming solitude for some students to gather and co-mingle. But for others, the prospect of being among other people—when the specter of community transmission still exists—might feel worrisome.

In addition to encouraging the typically recommended individual actions (e.g. handwashing; coughing or sneezing into the crook of arms; sanitizing phone screens, water bottles, and other frequently touched items), make students aware of the cleaning measures that are being taken. Knowing that these things are happening, even if they don’t see them happening on a regular basis, may lighten their mental loads during an undeniably heavy time.

Remind those who do leave campus of their duty to stay vigilant.

We can’t and shouldn’t assume that students staying on campus, are truly staying on campus. Much-needed off-campus work, recurring appointments, or internship/clinical placements may carry students away from the confines of our walls, which means that they run the risk of bringing illness—yes, COVID-19, but also the possibility of other germs as well—back with them.

It would be unrealistic to prevent these students from moving into the spaces that are imperative for their livelihood or the completion of their degrees. But what we can do is encourage them to be safe and smart while they’re gone, to take the necessary precautions to ensure their home base is safe, and to get in touch with someone immediately should they fall ill.

Facilitate community involvement opportunities.

Prolonged confinement, even if that confinement is spread across multiple campus buildings, could leave anyone feeling bored, lonely, or isolated. A great way to combat these feelings is by engaging with the community. And even if trips to do things like sorting clothes, books, or food; serving meals; or visiting hospitals or nursing homes feel out of reach, there are still a number of ways that students can engage with the community without leaving campus.

Consult with local hospitals about sending virtual cards to patients. Consider letting groups collect donations in support of hospital workers or first responders. If you have the tech to support it, letting students engage with apps like Be My Eyes can help them connect with the outside world…and help someone who needs that additional connection to survive, in the process.

I’m sure there are countless additional opportunities that can be arranged, these three are just the beginning. But more to the point, they’re representative of a larger mentality that I want us to keep top of mind as we support one another: This is an opportunity to not let the world close in on those who may be feeling trapped and vulnerable. This is an opportunity to widen our scope a bit, see how this unprecedented situation is affecting others, and then create opportunities for care and connection.

If Your Halls Are Closed/If Students Are Away From Campus

In so many ways, crafting student engagement opportunities online feels like an untenable frontier. What does student involvement look like when we aren’t in physical community with one another? Countless ideas may be swirling in your minds…or, you may be coming up short at the idea factory. In either case, I want to share a few thoughts on how to craft your plan of attack:

Be mindful of students with limited internet access.

It wasn’t too long ago that I worked with students at a fairly expensive private institution, who would spend long days on campus because their alternative was writing papers on their phones—their only reliable source of internet.

The default is to assume that wherever students may be, they’ll have reliable internet access to engage with coursework, stay abreast of campus updates, and interact with co- or extracurricular activities. To be blunt: that’s not everyone’s reality, and we should prepare accordingly. How can we use the livestreaming and robust video capacity of social media, alongside emails or coordinated text messages that offer students engaging alternatives? This isn’t a call to sacrifice the former for the latter, but rather to call attention to the need for a coordinated approach that doesn’t leave people out in the cold.

For those willing, feel empowered to also make these links from Comcast and AT&T available for students in need of affordable internet options.

Be mindful of students with accessibility challenges.

Related to this, do you know if your go-to student engagement sites, strategies, or tools are accessible from a disability perspective? While the academic side of the house frequently gets both more support and more information on student need when tackling this challenge, many on the co-curricular or extracurricular side operate with gaps in knowledge. As a result, we run the risk of leaving students out unintentionally. We can do better in this arena by carefully and rigorously vetting the tools we plan to lean on in these times, (a) selecting ones with the widest ability to let students participate, and (b) pushing those who are not as equitable or just as they should be, to be better.

This accessibility can and should speak not just to disability, but also to economics. Doing a watchalong of a show or film on Netflix or Hulu might seem accessible, but not all students have, again, either the bandwidth or economic access to these tools. A way to get around this may be to pair students with means, with those in need of assistance, to provide access to friends. Alternatively, consider platforms like YouTube or library streaming services like Hoopla or Overdrive that require a download but no payment for access.

Be mindful that some students may not be riding this out from home. 

In general, it’s easy to default to the type of language or mindset that implies students are in comfortable, safe, or familiar surroundings when they’re not on our campuses. But for increasing numbers of students, this may not be the case. In truth, I have no concrete recommendations here. But I do want to acknowledge the idea that there’s added vulnerability for these students; you may know of some and be able to reach out to them. But there are countless others whose circumstances you’ll never fully be aware of.

The best we can do is be attentive and responsive to these needs, present ourselves as open to students who may need to talk about or ask questions about their concerns, and cultivate a larger awareness about this segment of students – and continue to advocate for institutional responses that take their needs into account.

[Additional Resources to Share: both Enterprise Rent-a-Car and U-Haul have adapted their services to allow for students in need of help transporting items off campus.]

Regardless of Where Students May Be

Publicize a variety of options to help students tend to their mental health.

Even as someone whose anxiety is for the most part under control, the last few weeks have tested my capacity. This is likely also true for you as professionals, and it is most assuredly true for the students with whom you’re working. As we talk about the measures we’re going to to stay well physically, we should speak in similar volume about staying healthy mentally and emotionally.

The default recommendation is to consult with campus counseling facilities, and depending on your circumstances your institution may be set up to offer these services onsite and/or virtually. But there has to be more to it than that. Are there places of worship that are creating safe ways for folx to congregate? How about support groups? Calls with assistance groups like Samaritans or Catholic Charities? Even informal gathering places (that may still be open) like community centers, barber shops, or hair salons? People may meet their needs or find “their people” in a number of ways. Our approach to offering support should acknowledge their physical safety (refer to the above advice about staying vigilant for folx taking communal routes), but also value and recognize their psychological safety.

Consider virtual programming.

Yes, there’s an element of self-interest here. A number of my sessions can be offered in a virtual format if your institution has the infrastructure to support it. The same is true of a lot of the speakers, trainers, and workshop facilitators – and even many of the traveling entertainment acts – that you commonly book in person.

But in a larger sense, I bring this up to invite you to think about what you can do to preserve a sense of normalcy during a difficult time. It is normal to have opportunities to see a magician, or a comedian, or a spoken word poet on campus. It is normal to meet monthly to ensure that students are getting the most of their leadership opportunities. And in a moment where many of us are feeling not only panic or worry about this drastically shifted version of normal, but also a sense of mourning for what we’re leaving behind temporarily, attempting to bring steadying experiences is a good thing to do. To my earlier point, provide as much notice as possible when scheduling these events so those without internet access or those in need of different arrangements – perhaps travel to a library for computer access – can do so in good time.

Don’t overdo it.

Students will still have a full load of classes, and the work needed to complete those may be compounded by the mental load of (a) doing this learning in a new space, and (b) the rapidly shifting dynamic of the world they’re living in. When programming contends directly with care and responsibilities for younger siblings, their own kids, or any employment that may not have a remote component, a school-sponsored program may simply not make the cut.

It could be easy and tempting to build out a schedule of involvement opportunities as robust and varied as would exist on campus under normal circumstances. But at least for the time being, I’d recommend instead being measured in what we put together.

Maybe once a week there’s something on the calendar designed to bring students together and keep them engaged. Maybe meetings that convene executive boards and general members happen every other week instead of every week. But our sense of duty to program in these times of uncertainty doesn’t have to evolve into overprogramming. These circumstances may be a moment to consider the volume of what we offer: how much is truly necessary? What do students really need and benefit from, and what can we reduce, adapt, or throw out? And, crucially: what can we learn from this period to impact how we work when we return to “regularly scheduled programming?”

Have questions or want to talk about this further? Reach out via the contact form, I’d love to hear what you’re working on and how I can support you!