Creating community on post-COVID campuses

A college campus is a community that includes students, faculty and staff. Change can affect that community in many ways. Changes can be transitory, such as the graduation and leaving of students or faculty, or far-reaching events that affect faculty, staff and both current and incoming students. The COVID-19 shutdown was one of those far-reaching events.

ASWCC Clubs set up tables to welcome new students into their communities.
Photo courtesy of WCC website

Campus communities suffered because of the COVID-19 shut down. The sense of community that came with being on campus and getting involved with intra and extra-curricular activities and events was difficult to maintain within the parameters of online classes and COVID restrictions.

In the aftermath, students, faculty and administration struggle to regain the sense of belonging that came with being connected and involved on campus. Providing opportunities for students to socialize and engage outside of classes has become a priority on campuses, including Whatcom Community College (WCC).

However, bringing students back on campus for extracurricular experiences has been difficult. While many classes at WCC have returned to in-person, many are still offered as online and hybrid classes. Enrollment for in-person and fully online classes typically fill first, with many hybrid classes experiencing low enrollment.

The convenience of online classes appeals to many students, yet students could be missing a vital part of their college experience when choosing exclusively online classes when in person or hybrid would fit their schedules.

In a survey of over 80,000 students around the world, the University of Texas College of Education’s Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) found that students taking classes exclusively online had less engagement with fellow students and instructors compared to students that took at least one in-person class.

Online-only students were less likely to collaborate with their peers, less likely to work outside of class with classmates and less likely to discuss grades and course materials with instructors.

Despite these statistics, higher education is made available to a wider range of students, especially for those that have time or structure constraints such as work and family responsibilities. Online classes also make higher education accessible for students that may have transportation or location issues.

The Discomfort Zone

The challenge lies in creating that sense of community and belonging across all educational experiences.

On-campus opportunities are available but don’t always occur at times that fit with a student’s schedule. Kaleb Ode, Associate Director for Student Life & Development, said many are still recovering from the effects of the COVID shutdown and are protective of themselves in both their time and their mental health.

Yet Ode sees students asking how to get involved and how to find on-campus job opportunities. He feels this should be encouraged, even if it is outside a student’s comfort level, and encourages students to push past their ‘discomfort zone,’ if only a little at first.

“When we push past discomfort and lean into discomfort,” assured Ode, “this is where growth happens.”

Katherine Burns, instructor of English Composition and Literature at WCC, also feels both students and faculty are still recovering from the effects of the COVID shut down and online only classes. This affects student interaction with each other and with faculty.

When asked how this affects student engagement in general, Burns replied, “I think folks are still tired. Students don’t want to stay on campus after classes as much.”

Another factor affecting extracurricular participation in activities and services at WCC is that many students are first generation college students and don’t often know what extracurricular and co-curricular activities and services are available for them. Not knowing where to find activities and services outside of class can limit that feeling of belonging and community.

Both Burns and Yusuke Okazaki, Associate Director for Intercultural Services, assert that “there is a community here to welcome them.”

Opportunities Abound

Hands on branch
Renewed efforts and new programs are helping to rebuild a sense of community at WCC. Photo courtesy of Shane Rounce

Renewed efforts and new programs are helping to rebuild a sense of community at WCC.

The Intercultural Center (IC) in the Syre Student Center is one such service that is working towards rebuilding community. Student unions are part of the IC experience and give students a greater sense of belonging where they can receive support from their peers and the staff at the IC. Students are given the opportunity to be seen and heard and to be themselves.

Okazaki explained there is such a level of comfort and acceptance at the IC that students often just come to hang out, even when there is not a planned activity or study session, because it is a space where they feel comfortable.

Student and ASWCC Senator Devin Luna said a lot of factors inform his sense of community and belonging. Luna defines community as the people you talk to the most, are the closest to and that know each other well.

“Community includes mutual respect and care and a genuine interest in each other,” declared Luna, “with a level of relatability and friendship, shared traits and mutual understanding.”

Student Marta Stephenson finds a sense of community and belonging at the Student Recreation Center (SRC). Although currently enrolled in online only classes, campus still provides a sense of community due to work and friends at the SRC.

“Community means something different for each individual,” Stephenson explained. “For me it is a group I can relate to and feel comfortable with.

Student clubs, ASWCC sponsored events and other campus events provide a wealth of opportunities for student engagement and community that foster a feeling of belonging.

“Clubs are an incredible way for students to get involved,” enthused Ode. “It is difficult to communicate the value of clubs. It is easy [for students] to feel it’s extra and doesn’t have any real benefit.”

But clubs provide opportunities students would not be able to do otherwise, such as travel, participate in events, and attend conferences, to name a few. Clubs also provide an opportunity to meet with like-minded people and people that share common interests.

“A sense of belonging can’t be assumed,” explained Ode.

Students can come to Student Life & Development in the Syre Student Center to see what is offered for clubs and events. Bulletin boards around campus also feature announcements of activities and club meetings.

Rebuilding Community

While perceived as things that are not vital to the academic experience, participation in clubs and activities builds community. Rebuilding the sense of community that existed pre-COVID will take time and finding ways to make everyone feel comfortable is important.

Aaron Basko, vice president for enrollment, marketing, and communications at the University of Lynchburg, cites the Gallup-Purdue Index when discussing student success: “We already know the experiences that are most critical for college students — the things that correlate with graduation and going on to healthy and happy lives….For students, the six key experiences are having a professor who makes them excited to learn, having a professor who cares about them as a person, having an encouraging mentor, working on a long-term project, doing an internship, and being “extremely active” in extracurriculars.”

These are all community-builders, with extracurriculars being an important part of the student experience and feeling of belonging.

Involvement in extracurricular activities has many benefits: socialization builds friendships and communication skills; people can find a community they didn’t know existed; connections are strengthened; and a sense of belonging is created, which can make the time spent at school feel worthwhile.

Connection, community and belonging are equally important to student success and a sense of well-being for all campus members.

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