Thank you to everyone who has contributed to and read our previous installments of Campus Perspectives. This week’s topic focuses on an issue that is crucial to schools both now and as we move forward into a changing world – communication with residents and their families. If you have any topics you would like us to pose to our panelists, or if you would like to contribute yourself, please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Question: In a recent national survey, college students highlighted the importance of effective communication from their institutions. How have you adapted to keep residents informed and stay connected?
Amir Baghdadchi, Senior Associate Director of University Housing
University of Michigan
You can labor over the most felicitously phrased communication in the world (and that’s a good thing to do), and you can make best-practices, data-driven decision about the right medium for that message, but what happens if students don’t respond? Therein lies one of the biggest lessons of the current time: good communication is layered communication. It is the same message delivered in multiple ways and not all at once but one volley after another, until it actually is heard. Where we might have simply emailed before, now we need to think, “Okay, let’s start with an email, but then we’ll call non-respondents, and then we’ll text the people who didn’t reply to the emails and calls, and then (keep going) we will try signage, or door knocking, or calling the third-party contact.” And none of this is excessive.
The burden of communication, especially in a crisis, is on the sender. At the best of times, students are inundated with messages. They will ignore your first attempt, assuming that if it’s important, you’ll show up again. So that’s the job: show up, again and again. Rather than bewail the amount of effort (“Does anyone read these days?”), we’re thinking of it as an act of consideration, and an act of service: students are stressed and need help, and because we know that, we are ready to do what it takes.
Dr. Evette Castillo Clark, Dean of Students
Saint Mary’s College of California
Typically, our Offices of Campus Housing and Residential Experience handle communication for residential student populations. With the onset of Covid-19 and the decision to move instruction online and close the residence halls, Incident Management and other senior leaders were added to the student communication vetting process. Communications included – moving out safely, requests to stay on-campus, packing and storage (or shipping) of belongings, and the potential of preparing halls for first responders. Covid-19 has landed on our residential population differently. Going home for some students is not as easy as it is for others. As we navigated these uncharted waters, our communication and decision-making worked with and considered individual student circumstances.
Current information and frequent updates are essential during disruption and crisis. We attempted to develop a communication strategy that was inclusive of the many modes and mediums of communication (e.g. email, phone contact or texts, FAQs, snazzy newsletter, canva flyers for Instagram, other social media, old-school hand-written signage, or Covid-19 response website, etc.). Given the fluid nature and rapid outbreak of the pandemic, we have had to learn to adapt, pivot, be flexible, nimble, and patient with our communications as we sought guidance and efficient responses to issued orders from county and state public health officials.
There are some lessons that we are learning about effectively communicating with our residents: (1) Communicate the Do Not’s as well as the Do’s (people respond differently with instructional information and need more clarity). (2) Resend messages to non-responsive students or call them directly. (3) When creating any interim policies or messages, have them triple checked by other eyes to discern how it affects the student experience. (4) Keep FERPA guidelines in mind when responding to others who inquire about a particular residential student. (5) Staff and faculty need information as well about what is sent to residential students. Students are reliant upon many campus community members for support at this time and may not always directly find the Offices of Campus Housing and Residential Experience as a first go-to.
Our Student Life Division immediately began to create Virtual Wellness and Engagement Programs for all of our students to stay connected. These include Counseling sponsored Zoom Groups, such as Covid’s impact on graduating seniors and grief and loss. Programs also included Netflix movie parties, snail mailed giveaways and prizes, online community circles, virtual Earth Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month events, a campus-wide exercise movement, Resident Advisors virtual check-ins with residents, and more. Finally, we also had to ensure that students had SRT captioned audio/video materials or presentations made accessible under the ADA & Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While we do not expect large participant numbers on Zoom as we would in-person, our priority is to provide the high touch student connection during remote times.
Our Lasallian core principles at Saint Mary’s College have been at the forefront of our decision-making during this crisis – social justice, quality education, respect for all persons, inclusive community, faith in the presence of God. These have been our guideposts for our campus community members during these challenging and uncertain times.
Jeff Novak, Associate Vice Chancellor
University of Wisconsin-Madison
We established an email address to direct all inquiries related to move-out, processes for residents who are still on campus, and other communications regarding residence hall residents during this time. As we have new information available (i.e., dates to return to campus, the need to pack up students’ belongings due to turning buildings over to the state, etc.), our marketing department coordinates those messages to students and other contacts they have identified in their Housing portal (i.e., parent contacts). Housing messages are also coordinated with campus messaging to ensure we work collaboratively with the larger campus community so messaging is consistent and rolls out in a logical and timely order. As students reach out with questions, we have a team of staff who manage that inbox, including evening and weekend hours as needed with coordinated messaging to provide consistent answers.
For residents that are remaining on campus currently (approximately 550), House Fellows are reaching out to each resident via email and phone to check in on them in an effort to provide individualized attention and still maintain relationships and contact while following guidance on social distancing. We have professional and student staff dedicated to those communities that still have residents.