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build-a-bear student activity

Students participate in a build-a-bear program

Building, Preserving Community on Campus During the Pandemic

WPI develops a multi-faceted approach to finding ways to improve student engagement

April 21, 2021

As more WPI students have been learning virtually and remotely during the pandemic, Associate Dean of Students Emily Perlow is one of many staff members who have been thinking about how to tailor programming to better engage students during this isolating time. 

“We as a WPI community have been fundamentally grounded in face-to-face community-building experiences. We take care of each other in that way,” Perlow said. “The pandemic is forcing us to think about how community is formed at WPI. Does it happen in different ways?”

Knowing that there were many parallel efforts happening on campus to help students connect—which is a testament to how well-aligned everyone is at WPI, Perlow said—she reached out to a few key partners, including the Student Activities office, the Undergraduate Studies office, the Career Development Center, to help focus efforts and give students more opportunities to engage despite restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Perlow contacted Riky Hanlan, an advisor in the Career Development Center, to discuss ways to improve student engagement. “Research says that the more engaged students are, the happier they are, and the more likely they are to be retained and graduate,” Perlow said.

Hanlan agreed to lead a new Student Engagement Committee, which is made up of staff members focused on better engaging students in non-academic experiences. The group doesn’t have one specific mission, Hanlan said. “It’s about having a space to explore what engagement can look like for the university” as well as across departments, she said.

Open space gatherings

One such example of cross-campus efforts is the recent series of Open Space gatherings, hosted by Undergraduate Studies, in which members of the campus community talk about issues that are important to them. A recent gathering focused on “how to make C-Term awesome.” 

According to Katie Elmes, director of Expanded Learning Opportunities, Undergraduate Studies, and an Open Space sponsor, these meetings “intentionally brought the community together across departments, divisions, ranks, and roles to share perspectives, listen to each other, and brainstorm small actions participants could take to solve problems or try exciting new ideas.” 

In a non-pandemic year, these conversations would happen naturally and informally as students, professors, and staff bumped into each other on campus, Elmes said. Open Space became a place that allowed these authentic and important non-classroom interactions to take place and help people feel connected to one another and to the WPI community. 

In addition to Elmes, other Open Space sponsors, champions, and facilitators include Art Heinricher (Undergraduate Studies), Rosana Pochat (WPI senior), Ryan Candy (WPI senior), Marc Trudeau (WPI alum), and Curtis Abel (I&E). 

After receiving “such positive feedback,” Elmes said, the group looks forward to continuing the gatherings and deepening “these conversations, community connections, and innovative problem solving” in a post-pandemic world.

Planning social programs

Other departments across campus have also been asked to plan more social programs, which number too many to list here and have catered to various interests, for example a virtual knitting night, networking programs centered around a topic of shared interest, WPI-themed coloring books, and handing out birthday cake every month, Perlow noted.

The Student Activities office has hosted a What's Poppin' Tuesday series to share information with students about what’s taking place on campus and to give out fun treats such as ring pops, soda pop, and more, according to Christine Sharry, assistant dean of Student Activities.

Being fully virtual has presented challenges for students, including feeling isolated, she said. The focus in Student Activities has been on how to support students, provide opportunities for them to connect, and have some fun. “This year more than ever the need to connect in a social or personal manner was and continues to be an important part of the student experience,” Sharry said. “We are excited to see the state expanding event capacities, more in-person programs being planned, and students enjoying the warm weather.” 

Fire tables, lawn games

SGA will be sponsoring fire tables on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, and Student Activities will offer lawn games to “encourage students to socialize in a safe, socially distant way that feels a little familiar to past academic years,” she said. 

The office also hosted virtual networking social programs, virtual coffeehouse performances, and more. 

The Career Development Center also hosted an in-person pop-up-style event, Hanlan said, where they informed students about a virtual career fair while offering them cocoa, cookies, and other free items.

“Students are deeply seeking community,” Perlow said. “Anything we can offer helps, and students are jumping at the chance to connect.” 

-Melanie Thibeault