There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to adapt to our ever-changing environment and change the ways in which we worked. This was true for colleges and universities around the world, which had to modify courses, programs, and services in spring 2020 to meet the needs of students while prioritizing their health and safety. Staff across the Division of Student Affairs rose to this challenge by transitioning many programs and services to alternative virtual formats. Over a year later, as we prepared for a complete return to in-person learning in fall 2021, we were thrilled to resume some of our favorite on-campus traditions and experiences with continued modifications in place.

To plan for Welcome Week and Festival ISU during the pandemic, the Dean of Students Office staff spent countless hours benchmarking peer institutions, brainstorming with colleagues across the country, and researching technology designed to engage students virtually. Once decisions were made on how to deliver these programs, additional time was spent learning the platforms to effectively deliver and meet the intended outcomes.

When the University transitioned to a more traditional delivery this year, staff had to quickly rewire their thinking to determine how to effectively engage students while continuing to manage expectations for safety and socialization and ensuring students were comfortable with face-to-face interaction. While safety measures such as face coverings, physical distancing, and outdoor events had become the norm over time, additional factors were taken into consideration this year, such as the individual comfort level of students.

“As we returned to a more traditional format, consideration for how comfortable the individual would feel in specific venues, the types of events and activities that would be offered, and the current health guidelines were at the forefront of decision-making,” said Associate Dean of Students Michelle Whited. “We also considered how we could quickly alter events should new restrictions be put into place. Flexibility and the ability to pivot the delivery of our events was essential.”

Returning to these in-person experiences for incoming students has been crucial. Not only do these events help students form a solid foundation as they get acclimated to campus, but it’s also where they begin to form connections—which can be difficult to do virtually.

“Over the years, I’ve heard reflections from many alumni that they met their best friends by happenstance during their first few days on campus—by attending a Welcome Week event, standing in line for a giveaway, or through a conversation about a shared interest at Festival ISU. These informal interactions were limited with nontraditional formats last year,” said Associate Dean of Students Jill Benson. “Welcome Week and Festival ISU create environments that help students connect to each other and place them in comfortable settings that lets friendships develop organically.”

In some cases, the alternative versions of programs and services were so successful that we anticipate they will continue past the pandemic. Such services include Telehealth and Teletherapy appointments, which offer greater convenience and confidentiality for students. In addition, Move-In was extended over an entire week rather than the standard two-day process to allow for reduced capacity and greater physical distancing. Benefits of this modification included less traffic, shorter wait times for elevators, and more.

Another incredible example of an alternative event that will likely continue to be offered is Redbird Stage Crossing, a modified commencement experience. Traditional commencement ceremonies could not be held in 2020 due to restrictions on large gatherings that remained in place. Given a strong desire to offer graduates the opportunity to cross the stage, take pictures, and celebrate with their families, the Dean of Students Office planned and implemented Redbird Stage Crossing in spring 2021.

Once again, countless hours were spent creating a personalized graduation experience where there was no model to follow. Each element and message were carefully analyzed and crafted with the hope that such intentionality would create an experience worthy of recognizing the great accomplishments of the graduates. “The completion of a degree deserves symbolic recognition—not just for the graduate, but for their extended support circle. There is nothing quite like seeing the families and friends of graduates swell with pride at the recognition of their graduate and the pure joy that is shared in that moment,” Benson said.

“The grind of daily coursework and classes fades over time, but the memories shared by alumni often center around the relationships formed and hallmark events of their collegiate careers,” she said. “For many students, these campus traditions that mark the beginning and end of their collegiate careers are extremely meaningful and memorable. ‘Firsts’ and ‘lasts’ create impressions that continue long after the details of the actual events are recalled.”

“For many students, these campus traditions that mark the beginning and end of their collegiate careers are extremely meaningful and memorable. ‘Firsts’ and ‘lasts’ create impressions that continue long after the details of the actual events are recalled.”

Jill Benson, associate dean of students