Major Takeaways:

  • To discard the notion and possibility of virtual programming alongside in-person gatherings, discards a great deal of what we learned in the last fifteen months – including who we can serve, and who wasn’t served well “before we went inside.”
  • A hybrid programming model can mean offering fully in-person programs alongside virtual events, or allowing speakers to join virtually and in-person events to be broadcasted or recorded to online participants.
  • Online students, commuter students, those still coping with our collective upheaval, and even vendors and performers will benefit from this approach.

I won’t sugarcoat it. The circumstances that drove us to explore online programming in the first place were, and continue to be, pretty grim. We were driven online by an inherent lack of safety that made face to face untenable for many…and in some cases, continues in its unsafe nature. We made the move because we had to do so.

But now, many are facing a choice: as it becomes safer (note the italics on the suffix) to gather again, do we abandon the capacity that online learning, programming, and gathering gave us? As the world opens in a way that makes what we used to do possible, do we have to abandon all that has been made possible?

I don’t think we do. And more to the point, there are populations who were better served at the moment when we felt like so much was lost. So while I’m not calling for a persistent retreat to the glaring glow of our screens, I think there is a case to be made for a hybrid approach. Please note: by hybrid approach, I mean both (a) an approach that blends fully online events and fully in-person events and (b) programs that allow for in-person sessions to be augmented by online participation, either by the performer or by the speaker/facilitator.

Now, let’s talk about who is best served when we do this.

Our Digital Counterparts: Online Students

I’ve been an online student on more than one occasion. In each instance, it was a dismay to feel as though the experience I was having didn’t have more to it beyond the logging on to discussion boards, commenting on peers’ posts, and exchanging emails with classmates and professors. For most online students, those are the options that are available – and they’re typically aware of that and okay with it as an option.

But when the rest of campus retreated to their homes, apartments, or residence halls, something was suddenly deemed possible: reimagining programming that could engage students in online spaces.

Here’s the trick: it’s been possible for a while. And it can be again. While you don’t have to have a full suite of programs available online, even a few a semester can help with the success and belonging of that segment of your campus population. As a bonus: the delivery of online programs can help in-person students who either can’t attend in person, or would like to be able to revisit an event (e.g. reviewing learnings from a leadership training, recalling a joke from a comedian) after the fact.

Come to Campus via The Couch: Commuter Students

In my on-campus days, I worked with a member of our Commuter Council who never made it to a single leadership training day. Her means for getting to and from campus wasn’t available to her on Sunday mornings, the set day and time for this particular training opportunity. The other members of her organization graciously covered for her each time, but that systemic inability to participate always stuck with me.

Students who commute to campus may choose to do so for several reasons: financial, medical, familial, or others that we may not be privy to. And the party line that campuses have parroted for decades is that “engagement should happen on campus.” It’s relatively recent that we’ve considered holding commuter events off campus, in their neighborhoods or the larger community. With the opportunity that hybrid programming presents, I ask: isn’t that just one extra step?

If a student is on campus for classes, wants to pick up a canvas and a paint set and participate in an event from home, can we accommodate that? Why shouldn’t we? If there’s a speaker on campus that night but their work schedule makes the return to campus too challenging, can they watch from home? Why shouldn’t they be able to? We have the capacity to bring the campus experience to students, even if they choose not to live there. With the forthcoming return to campus looming for many, we should still maintain that capacity – and use it where we can.

Motivated, Yet Mentally Spent: Those Just “Going Through It”

Even for the most extroverted among us, the gradual return to what I’m calling our “next normal” is testing our collective social endurance. That alone would be a formidable force for our programming to overcome. But it isn’t. Alone, that is.

Those who faced down depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress for the first time during the pandemic (or found existing conditions worsened by these added factors), the very public and painful racial reckoning that took place across the world, or any combination of those two events, might still be searching for what their next version of normal can or should look like.

Worries may linger for folks in your campus community, even as many might shrug off the imminent threats as “passed.” As I write this, COVID cases are rising in many states across the country and around the world – despite the presence and effectiveness of vaccines. For those impacted by racial tension or microaggressions, it may simply not be worthwhile or tenable to face those stressors day after day if it isn’t needed. And while we’d love for the necessary coping and processing that community members might need to take place with others, it might need its moments behind closed doors.

Students may be in need of the laughs or awe that a comedy show or magic event can provide, but might feel overwhelmed doing so in a highly public space. Staff members (this impacts them too, by the way!) urgently want to provide learning opportunities for students, but may wish to do so from home as they ease into a campus work schedule. Again, we have the capacity for this to be possible – it’d be doing a disservice to those who we work with, and on behalf of, to leave that capacity behind.

Creative, Capable, and Cautious Performers

For one performer I know, having a child in a high-risk category means her ability to travel is drastically limited. For several others, their own high-risk status prevents them from moving freely across the country. Still others – and I count myself in this group – simply aren’t up for the possible danger that moving between high and low risk areas might present to themselves and those around them.

Regardless of the reason, a programming philosophy that accounts for speakers, facilitators, and performers to join you from afar will broaden the pool of people your students and staff can learn from or be entertained by.

Of course, this won’t always be the case, nor does it apply across the board – many folks are back in a travel groove that allows them to move freely across the country with ease and comfort. But this isn’t the case for some – and to my earlier point, for some it was actually a hardship that was framed as having no alternative. I was reminded of this by author and activist Keah Brown, who shared her worry about the rush to get “back to normal” as a loss of tools, advocacy, and access for those in the disabled community – a community that includes valuable voices on a variety of topics who should have the opportunity to share their knowledge with students, faculty, and staff.

Simply put, when I talk about those who aren’t ready or able to fully resume a space in the world – it’s worth noting that this applies to the people who come to campuses as well.

The Bottom Line: Options help more people than they hurt. Let’s keep as many of them open as we can.

The past year and a half has been the most difficult in most professionals’ careers. Adaptations were made, quickly and with little guidance. I don’t want to underestimate or understate the incredible work that’s been done to keep a programming presence going in a profoundly difficult time. And frankly, I’m glad that an on-campus fall will make so many elements of this work easier.

At the same time, I don’t want the relief of that “return to normal” to mean a discarding of what we’ve learned – or who we served well during that difficult period. Remember: one major learning that came from the pandemic and our summer of racial reckoning? Normal didn’t work for a lot of people. An easing of restrictions is affording us an opportunity to re-examine what normal can look like. I’d like to submit that our “next normal” (so termed because it will, and should, continue to change) should include space for a wide range of programming modes and models. We’ll serve far more people in a more thoughtful way…yes, including those who I mentioned above, but also countless more than I may not even have mentioned explicitly.