Texas A&M International University’s Associate Vice-President for Student Success and University Registrar shares strategies on supporting incoming freshmen during the COVID-19 season
Whether you have worked in higher education for five years or 30, no one has ever seen or experienced something quite like COVID-19. The economic downturn in 2008 forced us to work differently, but that crisis, in many ways, reinforced the value of higher education. Today, we are collectively navigating new waters — and so are our current (and prospective) students. To further complicate the challenge, we know our current crisis affects not only institutions differently, but also programs and services differently.
Supporting students effectively on campus and in person was difficult, and now, more of our services need to be adjusted for virtual or remote delivery. We may not know what this term holds, but as Plato said, necessity is the mother of invention. It is necessary that we meet our students where they are and deliver a meaningful, productive student experience during this time of continued uncertainty. As Juan Gilberto García, TAMIU Associate VP of Student Success/University Registrar, says — No one will tell you no, because now is the time to think — and work — differently!
One topic in particular that kept many student success professionals up at night was (and is) how to encourage new students to stay the course, despite the uncertainty. Here, García shares how his team rallied to help nearly 1,000 new students build their plan and register for the fall semester:
Q: What resources have allowed you to continue to interact with and pre-register incoming students in the current climate?
García: We wanted to facilitate the registration experience as much as possible and replicate the typical face-to-face advising session. We used tools our students had access to, like the phone and Skype. We also knew it was critical to show students what their life would look like — so ironing out details on their class schedule was paramount.
Here’s what these sessions looked like: On one screen she is working on the student’s plan in the solution and shares her screen so he can view any changes in real-time, while on the other, she has her video open to converse with the student.
Q: We know that you have tremendous pride in building student relationships on your campus, and meeting students where they are. How have you been able to continue this standard of service?
García: Since our transition to a virtual environment, we committed to not let our student relationships suffer. Although we expected to adapt to different (virtual) methods of communication, we also wanted to deliver the same quality of service as we have previously done in-person. To do so, we first took into consideration the challenges students are already facing. Their circumstances have changed – internet accessibility, childcare, employment, housing security and more. As such, we aimed to be a source of refreshment and delight for them. Students already have a lot going on; we don’t want this process to be an added stress.
Q: Have you seen any other areas on campus adapt their roles to help you reach this level of success with incoming students?
García: Because of our close-knit community, we all felt a sense of responsibility to come together and support each other — even if one area on campus doesn’t necessarily oversee another area on campus. Most of our student population are first-generation college students, and we have always had an intrusive approach towards recruiting and advising.
In regard to incoming students, we all became recruitment representatives, regardless of if it was in an official job title. We all began engaging with our friends, families, and social networks about their local higher education options. Some departments began to connect via video conferencing platforms to conduct advising sessions with future students. Other departments began to host live Q&A sessions with our recruitment officers to better prepare them for upcoming changes to academic programs.
Q: Any other tips are insights you would like to share around connecting with new or incoming students?
García: In a time when we are having almost 100% of our conversations via video conferencing platforms, don’t forget to place yourself on the other person’s side of the screen. What they were expecting for their senior year changed dramatically in a matter of days, and we must embrace that. At the same time, we must keep in mind that students are allowing us to be more intimate with them than ever. Before, we would communicate with students at their high school — a public setting. Now, we’re having conversations with them in their homes — a very private environment. We want to ensure we communicate with them our respect and understanding, and instill trust during a very uncertain time. Above all, we want to express that… we’re all experiencing this together. Students appreciate it when you show your humility, authenticity, and care.
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