Masked and Engaged

Enhancing student experience during a pandemic, as seen through the eyes of Tom Ellett, the new chief experience officer at Quinnipiac University.

March 30, 2021
 
Anastasia Usenko/Getty Images
 

How does one enhance a campus culture while staying socially distant and wearing a mask? Arriving at Quinnipiac University as the school’s first chief experience officer last August, I learned just how challenging it can be to get to know a new campus, or just as importantly, for the campus to get to know me, amid a pandemic.

As I stood at the podium on my eighth day with 80 newly admitted faces looking up at me, I enthusiastically proclaimed, “Live from Hamden, Connecticut!” (a play on the Saturday Night Live opening from my time working in New York City) to introduce myself. As students sat masked, six feet apart, I was left unaware if my joke or anything I was about to say would make an impression.

That’s how my journey as the chief experience officer began. Now, as I wrap my head around the various needs of first-year students arriving to a new academic home, and my first academic year in the job, Inside Higher Ed’s Student Voice survey on student experiences during COVID shows that more than one-third of students are dissatisfied with their ability to connect with peers as well as with faculty and staff.

My approach, drawing from my background in theater, was to be animated and create multiple ways to get in front of students, which may have been frowned upon by Harvard professor Richard Light, who suggested in his 2001 book, Making the Most of College, that we should do the opposite. Light’s book has served as a framework for many student affairs professionals as a way to approach our work.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, being an active and engaged resource for students, whose anxiety has been significantly heightened, has been my primary goal.

A few weeks after my introduction, as students arrived to campus for the semester, I set out to meet as many of them as I could -- masked, gloved and carrying my Yeti cooler full of individually wrapped ice cream bars.

The evening was a success. I ran out of treats while quizzing students with the game Heads Up on my iPhone. One can go to great lengths to introduce a new role on a college campus. I like to think I amused many that evening while pulling others out of their comfort zones.

The overall goal was to instill a recollection of what my job was about, creating a memory of the early experience for students. I found some early takers to my informal introduction and have had a steady group of first-year students stay engaged throughout the year, meeting weekly as the university’s First-Year Advisory Board.

Most of those students joined as I handed out business cards while having some kind of giveaway during my nightly walks around campus. The group of 15 to 18, which has only grown since the first weeks of September, has served as a weekly barometer of what is happening in classes, residence halls and dining halls, plus about potential concerns related to keeping the campus safe. Many of their ideas have been acted upon by the university’s COVID-19 Task Force. They have learned -- and seen -- that their voice matters.

Connecting Students While Keeping Them Safe

The most recent Inside Higher Ed Student Voice survey notes that students overwhelmingly miss their friends. Finding ways to connect students, while also meeting social distancing measures, adds constraints to what can be offered; it was incumbent on those responsible for student engagement to do so, especially in a way with physical presence. Use of the physical environment, especially during warmer autumn days, was a critical effort that our campus attempted early and often.

Student Voice explores higher education from the perspective of students, providing unique insights on their attitudes and opinions. Kaplan provides funding and insights to support Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of student polling data from College Pulse. Inside Higher Ed maintains editorial independence and full discretion over its coverage.

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The academic quad was the playground for bringing the family pods together, playing cornhole and other outdoor games. We encouraged professors to bring their first-year seminars and writing courses outside for small group chats spread across the quad. We showed drive-in movies, played weekly games in our outdoor tent, had food trucks on campus and hosted outdoor scavenger hunts with prizes and wrapped treats to go.

We overcame many early challenges, including managing socially distant lines and seating in our dining facilities, at one point even removing all chairs from the dining area as students were not following our six-feet-apart seating instructions.

As the semester continued, we also had to suspend the town-bound shuttle service as cases spiked to more than a 10 percent positivity rate in the local community. We had to restrict recreation center usage to 10 percent capacity, limiting opportunities for students to maintain a key part of a healthy lifestyle.

Recognizing the importance of physical activity in reducing stress and anxiety levels, we incorporated more weekend self-competitions such as by setting up an obstacle course, purchasing knocker balls and hosting a 3-K. These activities brought students a sense of relief.

We also engaged our commuter population by offering a weekend scavenger hunt and a “virtual roommate” to connect with. This helped meet both the needs of commuter students who felt comfortable coming to campus and those who wanted to connect while staying safely away from the campus.

It takes a great deal of creativity and commitment to listen and respond to student needs, balancing the needs of those who want more social activities with the needs of those who feared that contact with others outside their pod could expose them and potentially their immune-compromised family members at home. The pandemic hasn’t stripped students of their desire to join a community. Instead it has forced those responsible for it to uncover the possibilities.

Bio

In his role as chief experience officer at Quinnipiac University since August 2020, Tom Ellett oversees all student-facing administrative and student engagement operations outside of academics. Previously, he held administrative positions at New York University.

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