KALAMAZOO, Mich.—To get a sense of how accommodating Western Michigan University’s Student Recreation Center is (Hint: it’s the largest in the Mid-American Conference), how sleek Western Heights Residence Hall suites are for first-year students or what the state-of-the-art the College of Health and Human Services learning spaces look like, you have to at least catch a glimpse of them. Even in an era of social distancing, to do so is a cinch, thanks to virtual campus tours featuring panoramic views of key campus components.
Other pandemic-related changes, such as more in-depth, lengthier and livelier phone and video conversations with admissions counselors and student ambassadors, mean WMU’s hardworking staffers charged with the challenging tasks of enticing and welcoming students to the University are having to improvise more creatively.
The pivot to all-virtual services “has a lot of moving pieces and we want it to be excellent; not having any precedent can be challenging,” says Office of Student Transitions—OST—Interim Director Adrienne Fraaza. The goal: to distinguish WMU from other institutions by showing what makes it special.
Such an objective isn’t easy when every other school in Michigan has had to move its admissions and orientations online too, but Fraaza points out the necessity to develop digital strategies “presents a lot of opportunity for growth and innovation.”
“Because there is no precedent, we can forge new paths, try new things, collaborate with new people and examine how to more intentionally connect with Gen Z students and their families, and that is exciting,” Fraaza says. “It’s exciting to think about how we can recreate ourselves so that students know WMU is the place for them.”
Quick on the Draw
When WMU transitioned entirely to distance learning in mid-March and closed campus in compliance with government orders, the admissions team transitioned to working remotely themselves while implementing initial virtual options in three days. The entire Office of Admissions visit team created virtual admitted student events in eight days, says Director of Admissions Alicia Kornowa.
"Lunchtime Live" interactive chats, Western Wednesday webinars, virtual college fairs, a live chat feature during admissions business hours, additional interactive opportunities and a live virtual tour with student ambassadors—who are answering questions—are currently being offered. Other online events are also being planned so that prospective and admitted students can gain a sense of belonging without having to leave home.
The “feels,” so to speak—that emotional currency that’s essential for each student to commit to attending a higher education institution—remain vital, even as schools more fully embrace distance recruiting due to COVID-19. Knowing that college is a large financial investment, WMU’s admissions counselors are also continuing to keep affordability at the forefront.
“People want to see campus in person, experience the energy and get a real feel for campus. That’s hard to do virtually,” says Kornowa.
“It’s hard, but this is a good opportunity to meet students/families where they are ‘at’ (in their homes) and interact in a way that students are accustomed in their day-to-day lives,” she says. “We’re offering so much that groups tend to be smaller than via traditional, on-campus visit options and we’re finding that students are more likely to have in-depth conversations. We’ve received a lot of feedback about how apparent it is that WMU cares.”
Virtually every college and university have had to make adjustments. At WMU, admissions and new student activities are continuing to show how tailored learning opportunities are enabling students to find their purpose by targeting, and even changing, their career interests and still graduate on time.
“We’ve implemented far more than any other institution I’ve seen,” Kornowa says.
“Due to two on-campus admitted student events being cancelled, we created a virtual version of the day, featuring academic colleges and key support services for this population, and four virtual ‘days’ are offered this spring,” says Kornowa. “Additionally, with the assistance and creativity of our student ambassador team, we have really amped up our social media presence, not only to promote all of the new virtual options, but we’ve also shared videos to provide advice to incoming students, created top 20 polls and now use TikTok to show our personality as an institution.”
Want to know about some of the more unusual student organizations on campus? Participate in the “Dear Future Broncos” series that connects current WMU students with high schoolers. Interested in a what a particular department or program has to offer? Keep your eyes peeled for activities such as the “The Art and Science of Engineering” free online class offered May 6, which featured Dr. Larry Mallak presenting about the role of design in engineering and technology disciplines, says Megan Anderson, associate director of admissions.
Staff are also using social media in more lighthearted ways, such as offering fun Facebook frames for accepted WMU students, and providing student ambassador information on their favorite books, songs and why they chose to attend Western Michigan University.
Kornowa emphasizes that WMU’s student ambassadors are key members of the University’s admissions “family,” and have worked just as exhaustively to make the transition from in-person recruitment to digital interaction a success.
“The virtual opportunities have allowed us to extend our reach further and get students’ and families’ personal questions answered,” says Sara Drabik, associate director of admissions. “While it may not be new information, it’s cool and informative because students and caregivers are getting the personalized attention to get their questions and interests addressed.
"The feedback we're receiving is, so many students feel Western Michigan University is right for them because of this personal touch" practiced by Admissions and Student Transitions workers, says Provost and V.P for Academic Affairs Jennifer Bott during a recent online town hall meeting hosted by President Edward Montgomery and University cabinet members.
New Student Necessities
Like admissions, the Office of Student Transitions, which welcomes and familiarizes new students to the WMU campus community, has had to move its activities online. Overnight summer orientation—featuring extensive tours, fall class scheduling and the popular cabaret show “The Bronco Way” that reflects life as a WMU student—has been put on hold.
Western’s goal is to stand out from other institutions and show what makes it special.
Online academic advising will loosely follow the traditional schedule, with three-hour on-demand learning modules available in early June; advising appointments and course registration in June; and virtual student community sessions spanning July and beyond.
“We really want to facilitate connections and feelings of belonging for new students,” says Fraaza. “The goal is to offer multiple asynchronous meetings, information sessions and meet-and-greets that include current students, faculty, staff, academic colleges, Registered Student Organization representatives, affinity groups and so on. Basically, any place a student can find to get involved, we want to bring them in.”
The OST highly values collaboration and personal experiences with students to ensure they feel excited about being a part of the community. Therefore, the team is reaching out to and collaborating with other WMU departments such as WMUx, the Office of Student Engagement, WMU Signature and more for optimal student onboarding experiences during the pandemic.
The virtual transitional offerings will provide “dozens and dozens of opportunities to find their place, to find their people, to figure out where they fit in,” says Fraaza. “I think, I hope, that students will start to make some of those connections during the summer and then can build upon them when they start in the fall. If they know that WMU is a place that values connections and is intentional about helping them build community, I hope that’s what makes them feel excited about being a student here.”
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