Community Is the Secret to Successfully Enrolling Students in the Fall

Re-creating the space in between classes is necessary to keep university communities alive.

April 29, 2020
 

In a recent interview with James Corden, the best-selling Israeli philosopher Yuval Harari bemoaned the loss of interaction between students taking classes on Zoom. “When I went to university,” he reminisced, “the most interesting and important things happened in the breaks [between lectures].”

Harari is absolutely right: time spent in class is just the beginning of a university education. Some of the most generative interactions happen in dorm room hallways or over coffee or with a stranger seated next to you at a public lecture. It is the in-between moments and spaces that bind diverse groups of students and faculty, and it is the community that gives a university its distinct character.

But Harari may also be shortsighted on this issue. There is no reason that universities can’t create virtual spaces and foster experiences that encourage interaction beyond class meetings and inclusion in the school’s broader community.

These obviously won’t be the same as experiences on quads, in the library stacks and in student unions. But we can approximate virtually what is impossible to achieve physically during a global pandemic: encounters between students in far-flung places, between professors in quarantine and between clubs, teams, marching bands, study groups, hall mates, strangers and friends scattered across time zones.

As we prepare for next year’s incoming class and returning students, it may now be imperative for universities to create virtual communities in addition to virtual classes -- to make sure that the most interesting and important things continue to happen in the in-between times and spaces on our campuses. We’ve all heard rumors of gap years and leaves of absence if the fall semester is online like the spring. No one knows yet what the fall will hold. Classes may be held on campus, in hybrid models, online or in some combination.

But the answer to making the fall more than the spring requires creating a community that students want to belong to -- and we should be prepared to do this online. Universities now face the challenge of stitching together a social fabric that is as compelling to students as our traditional communities have been, with athletic events, parties and the unique rites of passage that make our students feel part of something larger and more enduring.

First, we will need to figure out what virtual hallways, cafes and lecture halls look like. Students already hack social media and learning platforms to create their own communities, having drinks on Zoom after an exam, holding band practice on the social gaming platform Discord or bringing club discussions to Facebook. Some companies are trying to fill the gap, too. Facebook itself has been rumored to be returning to its roots, developing walled-off school communities within its network. Other companies, like the Boston-based Ambi, seek to be the social network for universities. DevPost and its competitors manage online student hackathons. And People Grove has been adopted widely to connect students with alumni. Whatever software we use -- and we may want to build our own virtual campuses -- our online communities will have to be as distinctive as our campuses.

Then we need to let the students bring their own creativity to the task at hand. If there was ever a time for a truly collaborative effort between the university and its students, this is it. Building an intelligent and highly differentiated virtual community that reflects and reinforces our students’ collective identity is a team endeavor. We need our students to make this new community their own, and we need to respect their ways of doing so.

Looking to the past can provide helpful insight for today’s administration. On many campuses, students have long held club fairs in the fall, they collectively scream before end-of-term exams and they hold large music events in the spring, forging their own rituals.

Healthy academic communities also allow for students to react against the university’s attempts to reform its community. In the mid-1950s, Rice University students were concerned that their required affiliation with newly built residential colleges would destroy the rich traditions and rituals they had developed around freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes. Within a month of the residential college openings, they responded by creating new trans-college traditions like beer bike -- a combination of intramural bicycle race and drinking competition -- which continues over half a century later to be a distinctive feature of Rice campus life.

At the University of Pennsylvania, when the university banned alcohol from football games, students responded by toasting after games’ third quarter with actual toast -- the bread kind. What was originally a rebuke to the institution became one of its cherished conventions, and today as many as 30,000 pieces of toast can be cleaned up by the “toast zamboni” after a home game.

Sometimes, the traditions that bind the community together the most are the ones that leave student marks on the campus, both literally and figuratively. MIT students have a long tradition of “hacking” the campus, remaking rooms, hallways and buildings when no one is looking. Many of the most famous MIT hacks involve its Great Dome building, which has been transformed into R2D2 and had a simulated campus police car placed atop its eponymous, Parthenon-like dome. Students, faculty and even the MIT administration celebrate students’ triumphs over the laws of physics and campus law enforcement.

Looking to the present and future is equally important. This spring, students are already telling us a lot about what matters to them in building community: making friends by showing up to virtual trivia nights, addressing professional development needs by logging on to alumni career development events in record numbers, offering weekly online department seminars to advance both student and faculty research, scheduling Netflix parties where students can find their friends and make new ones, and backchanneling with direct messages during classes. Perhaps Harari’s students are already passing virtual notes in class under his nose.

It won’t be easy to figure out how to engage in all of these activities online, and we will certainly miss their on-campus prototypes until we can return to them. But in the short term, re-creating the space in between classes is necessary to keep university communities alive. Looking to the future, academic communities will only remain more valuable and inclusive if they can mix on-campus and online communities.

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