Rising to the Occasion: Widener Continues to Expand Virtual Student Engagement Opportunities

Hilary Bentman, Assistant Director of Communications
Painting of a pumpkin surrounded by leaves and 'Widener University' and the shield in the center
'Take It Make It' events like paint night have been popular with students during fall semester.

Last March, Widener – and the world – pivoted to a COVID-imposed virtual life so fast that it felt like whiplash.

Living, learning, and connecting with others in an entirely remote fashion was, for many, completely new, and there was a distinct learning curve as the community navigated it all.

In the realm of student engagement, programs, get-togethers, and events had to quickly be revamped or, in some cases, postponed or canceled. Still, organizations like Pride Activities Council found ways to make it work, running virtual Bingos and salsa classes, social media initiatives, and more. 

But if spring 2020 was a time to dip one’s toe into the virtual environment, then fall 2020 has been a chance to dive in completely to refine and build upon the lessons learned.

A full slate of programs and events have been held this past fall semester, both sponsored by the Office of Student Engagement (OSE) and by individual clubs and organizations.

“It’s been perseverance and persistence. Students have been thinking about how to take an idea, how to retrain their brain, break out of the box, and find a new way,” said Jeanine Snow-Gephart, director of student involvement. “Our students have risen to the occasion.”

COVID has spurred incredible levels of creativity and innovation, leading to new and interesting ways to offer programming, and engaging new platforms to pull it off.

Zoom screen with 28 participants taking part in Dancing with the Deltas event
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated held a virtual 'Dancing with the Deltas' during fall semester

Some of the most popular events this fall have been a series of take-home activities in which students either picked up or were shipped supplies to participate in craft projects at home. These included painting, embroidery kit, coloring book kit, and even 500-piece Widener puzzles. For the painting activity, participants jumped on a Zoom call to make their creations together. 

“It’s been a nice way to feel united by doing something together, despite being miles and miles apart from each other,” said Megan Sharp ’23, who serves as a RSO (recognized student organization) specialist within the student engagement office.

Comedians, chefs, and other guests have also offered successful virtual programs, with the university able to access an even larger pool of people since everyone is remote.

The fall semester kicked off with a virtual Involvement Fair to help students learn about the different campus clubs and organizations. Students logged onto a special platform where they could take a “seat” at a virtual table to chat with club leaders. And students had access to a semester-long Involvement Fair where they could watch welcome videos from organizations at their leisure.    

“When we switched in spring 2020, people were not prepared for it. Now, more clubs are getting involved and creating more events,” said Marissa Camac ’22, ’24, vice president of Pride Activities Council.

This fall, Keepin’ It Trill, the university’s a capella group, offered a musical trivia event. Widener’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers chapter offered a cooking event. And a number of organizations have partnered with Active Minds to hold events focused on mental health.

A highlight for me is seeing a lot of student organizations doing stuff we’ve never seen before. — Megan Sharp '23

And that includes collaboration.

One positive effect of being almost entirely virtual this fall has been greater partnership between organizations as clubs have teamed up to offer programming. 

“Groups who never talked to each other are now working together,” said Victoria Dean, director of student organizations. 

Collaboration among the fraternities and sororities started before COVID but has expanded during the pandemic, with the three Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) councils partnering on initiatives, and FSL organizations partnering with each other and with non-FSL student groups.

“It’s a good change that needed to happen,” said Charity Williams ’21, FSL specialist in OSE, who also serves as president of the Intercultural Greek Council and secretary of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated

During fall semester, for example, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated partnered with the Black Student Union to host an educational event focused on career-readiness and goal setting. And all 11 active chapters of the FSL councils at Widener came together to host three interactive Speaker Series events, which offered advice on excelling in a virtual world and other topics.

FSL organizations began preparing for the semester over the summer and have had success this fall spurring interest and recruiting new members, or gearing up for spring recruitment. 

Armed with lessons learned from a semester-and-a-half of being virtual, OSE staff and student leaders are ready to move forward and expand opportunities in the new year. The hope is to offer more on-campus programming provided it is safe to do so.

Among the programs in the works is a drive-in movie on campus and drag queen Bingo featuring a star of RuPaul’s Drag Race show. 

The virtual world has allowed us to be so creative in figuring out how to do things for the community. It’s been a challenge but a good challenge. — Charity Williams '21
 

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