New Student Connections launches virtual summer programs

Although summer classes are online and on-campus events are canceled due to COVID-19, New Student Connections (NSC) is working toward engaging incoming and returning students through virtual events during the summer semester.

In partnership with over 30 departments across campuses, NSC launched the Onward Online Summer Experience as a way to connect students and help them learn about campus life as well as the resources offered by the university.

While all three campuses — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee — will have their own programming, the events will be open to all students, regardless of their home campus.

“This is the first time we’ve come together across all three campuses to put this series of programming together and things that are unique to a campus,” Director of New Student Connections Keri Riegler said.

With over 100 virtual events, the Onward Online Summer Experience will last from Monday until Aug. 10.

Most events will be hosted either through Microsoft Teams or Instagram Live, according to Riegler. Students can sign up and get the link to join each event through the Go Bulls Guide app.

“Students need to see and hear from people who look like them who potentially have similar experiences that our students are bringing in,” Assistant Director of NSC Michelle McNulty said. “And so, why not then showcase students from across all three campuses.”

With all the events being virtual, most of them will be targeted for incoming freshmen and transfer students. The activities are geared to connect students in the same way as if they were in person through virtual chats and peer-to-peer outreach, according to Riegler.

Through virtual chats, Riegler said students will have the opportunity to “engage at their own comfort level.”

“Going to an event with 200 people, a virtual chat allows them to keep their camera off and to be present and to engage in that face but not to be maybe seen quite yet,” Riegler said.

“I think we will create greater access for some students based on where they are in their comfort level of attending an event, so I do think that will feel different and be different for students.”

Although all events will be hosted online compared to years prior due to COVID-19, Riegler said it will be more personalized for each student.

“This is a little bit about person-to-person interaction and building community, meeting their peers and connecting with opportunity so I think that’s where it will feel a little different,” Riegler said. The communities will be smaller, because you may not have an event where 500 people are attending this summer, but you might be in a chat with 20 other people. So it feels a little bit more intimate, it feels a little bit more personal and we’re able to build those relationships.”

McNulty said 90 percent of the programs will be “social in nature.” There will also be esports events as well as educational programs to help students navigate through campus resources.

As a way to officially launch the Onward Online Summer Experience, NSC will host the Summer B Kickoff on Monday at 5:30 p.m. through Microsoft Teams. Featuring speeches from USF President Steven Currall and student leaders across all three campuses, the event will welcome new and returning students back to campus.

For Riegler, the kickoff will be an event where students can share their stories and find a personal connection to campus.

“These are students sharing their stories to other students to help them feel that sense of belonging to campus and so that they can know that maybe their story is representative of other students who are attending USF,” Riegler said.

“It’s not administrators welcoming you as the students have probably seen in a lot of the town halls. This will be students welcoming students to campus.”

Senate President Alliyah Edwards is among the five student leaders who will be sharing their stories and their experiences at USF. Edwards said she is excited to meet all new students as well as having the opportunity to be one of the first individuals they interact with.

In addition, Edwards highlighted the importance of sharing her story with incoming and returning students to help them find a safe space at the university.

“Students need to know that they are not alone, that there is a niche for everyone and regardless of your story, trials and tribulations, you belong here, and USF is one big family,” Edwards said. “Sharing your story shows vulnerability and students can relate to humility and vulnerability.”

While the experience might look different than previous years due to COVID-19, McNulty said this will be an opportunity to welcome students as well as normalize the virtual experience.

“Although it may not be [the current students’] preferential way of doing college, they at least had some type of experience prior to the hit of the global [pandemic] that pushed us all into working from home,” McNulty said. “In that way, it doesn’t feel anticlimactic.”

Over the next six weeks, NSC will be hosting virtual events ranging from escape rooms, dance parties, trivia game shows and a book club to engage students virtually.

Flash Forward Friday, for example, will give students the opportunity to connect with different student leaders across campuses. Every Friday, different organizations and departments rotate on Microsoft Teams to answer questions from students while connecting them with on-campus resources.

Besides NSC, other departments will also be hosting events as part of the Onward Online Summer Experience.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) is connecting students of similar backgrounds through heritage specific events, including the Black Student Mixer on July 1, from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

Assistant Director of OMA Tabitha Raj said the events were created to give students the proper resources to connect with those who have similar backgrounds on campus.

“The best thing we are known to do is to offer students communication, the information on how they can reach out after the event is over and the interaction during the Q&A. We don’t want to take away from the goal, which is to make sure that students are getting access and seeing all that the campus has to offer,” Raj said.

The writing studio will host sessions where students can learn more about the resources available as well as the services offered. In addition, the Academic Success Center will also host an event to showcase all the tutoring opportunities for incoming students.

Despite COVID-19 shifting events virtually, Riegler said this will be an opportunity to expand online events in the future as well.

“I think we will continue to offer some virtual experiences well beyond COVID-19 and when we’ve exited out of whatever the season may look like, I do think it provides greater access to our students regardless of where they are, to really feel connected and engaged with the campus,” Riegler said.

“We’re excited to be able to launch these and to get feedback from our students about what really is resonating for them and what they prefer to see and then what we feel like we should continue in the future.”

Additional reporting by Leda Alvim.