As associate provost for strategic initiatives in the Office of Academic Affairs, Marcelle Haddix wants the work of her office to have an impact on the academic enterprise and the experiences of students—and to connect the University’s academic efforts with…
Keeping Students Engaged the Virtual Way
“It’s a whole new way of thinking about the virtual world,” states Dave Sargalski, director of student engagement in the Office of Student Activities in describing what it means to engage students in social activities when they are sheltering in their homes and far from campus.
It’s Sargalski’s job—and his passion—to lead a team that connects with students and provides them with more than 200 activities, programs, events and initiatives each year to connect students with each other outside of the classroom. “When students are on campus in that residential atmosphere, you take for granted how impactful a lot of the events are,” says Sargalski. “It’s easy to measure the interest by the turnout. You can genuinely feel the energy, engagement and excitement.”
With most students now separated physically from campus, the goals of the student activities team haven’t changed, but the ways to connect students certainly have. “Linking” students to each other has taken on a whole new meaning.
Through links and logins, students have access to team games (like Trivia Tuesdays and Play List Bingo) where the prizes involve (of course) food (GrubHub coupons). And they can join in virtual activities like Paint Night, where recently an artist guided them through the process of creative artistry using common household items (like coffee grounds) and a brush to create a landscape. “Workshop Wednesdays” offer wisdom useful wherever a student may be—like what it means to be a leader.
“At first, when it became clear that students would not be returning to campus after spring break, my team had to focus its efforts on canceling events and bookings,” says Sargalski. “That was tough, but then we had to flip a switch and start creating virtual programming. Some of our team work on graphic design, some on program content, some on booking artists and performers. We are learning as we go.”
And students are responding—in growing numbers and enthusiasm, with well over 100 students playing trivia with each other on a single game night, and real-time messages posted to express their gratitude and support: “Yes, to more paint nights!” “It was super fun!” One of the most engaging events so far was an Orange After Dark live virtual performance by impressionist Justin Rupple and an opportunity for students to request celebrity voices performing famous movie speeches or songs. The response was overwhelmingly positive: “That was awesome!!!” “That was amazing!!” “Wish you could hear us applauding.”
Sargalski gives the credit for successfully engaging students to “the ingenuity and creativity of my amazing staff. Each and every one of them are rock stars, and I’m blessed to have such a dedicated and passionate staff that will do anything to enhance the student experience.”
“When we are together on campus, it’s all students, all the time,” says Sargalski. “My energy is derived from the organized chaos that is Student Activities, from the minute we step on campus and into our suite to when we leave, sometimes at midnight. Now we are channeling that energy into keeping our students virtually engaged, connected, and feeling that Orange spirit.”
Sargalski says he also derives energy from his twin daughters, who had to leave their first year on a college campus to return home. “They look over my shoulder a lot when I’m participating in or observing games or activities and demonstrate their approval,” he laughs. “And we know not to plan any activities before 2 or 3 p.m. because, like many students, they are doing class work or sometimes even sleeping in!”
Students can easily find out about and access the wide array of events and activities as they are developed and posted by visiting Campus Labs and clicking on the events tab: syracuse.campuslabs.com/engage/.
Meanwhile, the Student Activities team remains hard at work, devising ways to keep the Orange spirit alive through the end of the semester for those students who are now home and for those approximately 700 students who remain sheltering in place in Syracuse because they could not return home.
“We will be planning more activities for Senior Week and other ways to virtually honor our students,” says Sargalski. “Stay tuned, stay online, stay engaged.”