How You Can Help Student Orgs Thrive Under Social Distancing Measures

Students’ co-curricular experiences will look very different under “the new normal” most institutions now find themselves in.

Student leaders may feel a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about how to safely provide the sense of community that their members are looking for. There are new policies to abide by, event logistics to reconfigure, and recruitment and retention strategies that have to be reimagined to conform to social distancing rules

If we want student organizations to thrive, advisors must prepare student leaders for the challenges that a social-distanced semester presents.

So, here are some tips to help you anticipate some potential issues and guide students through them.

New Policies

Guidance on how to safely repopulate campus has steadily streamed through from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, and state and local health officials. 

Based on all of this information, your institution will likely have developed policies for safely holding events in person. And now it’s your turn to explain these policies to students. Here are some smart ways to do so:

  1. Create a quick reference sheet: After students read over the policies in full, they may appreciate having a quick resource available to reference when they plan events. I recommend using easily digestible formats such as bullet points, tables, and FAQs to answer questions like “Can we have buffet catering?” and “What is the maximum number of people that we can have in a room at a time?” Here is a great example put together by the University of Florida.
  2. Post the policies everywhere: Publicize event planning policies as widely as possible by posting them on your website and in your office, sharing them during student leadership training sessions, and reminding students during advising meetings.
  3. Start with “why:” Students will be more likely to follow safety policies if they understand why they are in place to begin with. You don’t need to teach them a complex science lesson, but they do need to understand that these health policies are aimed at saving lives, not on needlessly inconveniencing students.
  4. Explain potential conduct issues: If your institution has integrated new health policies into the student code of conduct, reiterate what the consequences may be for individual students or student orgs as a whole if they violate these policies. Impress upon students that when it comes to safety, there will be no exceptions or compromises permitted.

Conversion Table

Student organizations should have backup plans in place for their programs in the event that your institution has to switch all of its operations to an online format mid-term.

One way to plan for this scenario is to create a conversion table. A conversion table lists out all of the aspects of an event (such as materials to buy, audio-visual needs, and volunteer roles) and identifies how they could be converted into a virtual format. For example, the organization may need a new system for checking people into the event or may be able to host more people on a virtual platform than in the original in-person plan. Handouts could be made available for download while some items may need to be shipped.

To effectively transition the event, students should revisit their goals and consider changing some core aspects of the event in order to meet them. For instance, if the goal of a charity dance is to raise money for a non-profit organization, a different fundraising activity could be chosen to accomplish the same goal. (Here are some virtual fundraising ideas.)

Presence’s Virtual Program Planner is a great place to start when considering how to convert an event into a virtual format. Additionally, these nine tips can help guide you and your students through the virtual planning process.

Hybrid Events

Some students may not feel safe attending in-person events no matter how many health precautions you take; that’s why it’s important to build in virtual components for all in-person events.

Live streaming is one smart step towards hybridizing an event. For a smaller event, using Facebook Live or Instagram Live offers a convenient way to notify viewers that the live stream has started. Because social media live streams usually run off of a mobile device, it won’t take much to get the live stream up and running the day of the event.

For a larger or more logistically complex event, check with your IT department to see what sort of live streaming support they can provide. This may include connecting a podium microphone to the live streaming audio, utilizing multiple camera angles during a broadcast, and setting up a captioning service.

In order to be truly included, students who aren’t there in person must be able to engage in the event like the students who are. If, for example, a speaker asks a question, someone should be monitoring the webinar chat feature and reading out virtual participants’ responses. And if in-person students are broken off into discussion groups, virtual students should also be able to use the breakout room feature to connect with their peers.

Recruitment Strategies

Recruitment is the lifeblood of every student organization. Student involvement fairs are normally an easy way for students to attract prospective new members, but with social distancing and the inability to safely hand out giveaways, student leaders will have to find innovative ways to get their peers’ attention. Here are some possibilities.

Marketing Pitches

If an in-person student involvement fair is occurring on your campus, remind students that they will have to use marketing tactics that work with social distancing. Having a 30 second (or shorter) marketing pitch will be useful. Work with students to craft one for their organization. 

“The Golden Circle” concept by Simon Sinek is a useful framework for developing this pitch. A successful pitch will answer these three questions:

  • Why do we do what we do? (What is our organizational mission?)
  • How do we accomplish this mission? (What is our strategy?)
  • What does our organization do? (What events do we host or resources do we offer?)

It will also include a call to action, such as “sign up for our newsletter”, “join us at our next event”, or “here’ how to run for an executive board position.”

Here are some examples of strong pitches a student leader might give:

  • “In the Outreach Association, we believe that everyone should look after their neighbor and provide support to anyone who needs a helping hand. We use the P.A.R.E model to guide the structure of our programs. P.A.R.E stands for Preparation, Action, Reflection, and Evaluation. Our members plan donation drives, community service trips, and educate peers on issues that impact our community. If you provide us your email we can keep you up to date on our upcoming opportunities for making a difference in our community.”
  • “In the Debate Society, we want to erase the stigma around the word ‘debate; and promote a society in which we can have “controversy with civility.” Our meetings provide a safe environment for our members to hone their rhetoric skills and, if they choose, debate the topics that are important to them. While our rhetoric workshops and moderated debates are fun, the highlight of being a member is attending the annual National Speech & Debate Association conference. Would you be interested in learning more about our upcoming workshops?”

Before crafting a marketing pitch with student leaders, watch the “Start with why” TED Talk to help them more fully understand the science behind this approach.

Presentation Boards

It’s also good practice to have materials available for potential members. Since handouts may be discouraged or prohibited for safety reasons, a tri-fold presentation board could be a way to provide information instead. The presentation board should answer the why, how, and what that the marketing pitch would, plus showcase some pictures.

Also, make sure that students understand how to create a presentation board that is accessible using the principles of universal design. Some examples to consider include:

  • The main body text should be 32 points or larger
  • Headings should be 48 points or larger
  • Use the highest possible contrast possible; use dark letters on a light background and vice versa
  • Use Arial, Verdana, Tahoma and other Sans Serif fonts that are easier to read

More information about designing accessible display boards can be found here.

The above examples are helpful for assisting many visually impaired students, but won’t work for students with more severe impairments. To address this, create a text document with the same information as the presentation board. Keep this file on a USB drive so that it can be plugged into an e-reader or other assistive device upon request.

Social Media

With fewer opportunities to connect in person, engaging with their members through social media will be even more important for student organizations. Used effectively, social media can be used as a great retention tool.

Besides posting reminders for upcoming meetings and events, student organizations can expand the scope of their social media content by brainstorming some additional ideas with their advisor. Here are a few examples:

  • Share news articles and blog posts that members might find interesting.
  • Share podcasts, videos, and other resources that members could be looking for.
  • Create polls for members to answer. Mix it up with both functional questions (such as choosing the next event) and fun questions (such as one of these icebreaker questions).
  • Ask open-ended questions and invite members to reply in the comments.
  • Host a live stream video to provide members with updates from the executive board about what projects they are working on.

The Student Activities Center at Iowa State University developed some best practices for social media use by student organizations.

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Advisors can reduce the uncertainty and anxiety of running a student organization by helping student leaders understand these precautions and best practices. Ultimately, the students and their professional advisors all need to work together to create a safe and developmental experience.

What additional tips do you have? What has worked well for your student orgs so far? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus and @justinterlisner.

Justin Terlisner

About the author: Justin Terlisner (he/him) is a student affairs professional who focuses on helping students thrive through dynamic leadership education and inclusive supervision practices. When not writing curriculum or working with students, you’ll find him enjoying a book, hiking or baking. Learn how we can help get your students involved.