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Keeping Community Strong in the Pandemic

How do you build community over Zoom?

For the Oregon State University Honors College, community is the foundation for the student experience. All of the academic, research and creative work builds on students finding a home in honors and creating lasting friendships and connections with faculty and staff.

And for the past year, almost all of that community building has had to be done through a screen.

It’s not ideal, but it can be done. Successfully.

Students take the lead in running events

For some traditional Honors College activities, like trivia nights, the transition to a remote format was straightforward, and they continue to be popular events. Other virtual hits included Bob Ross paint nights (with art supplies sent out to participants in advance), video game tournaments complete with brackets and a talent show, where music videos, art and photography were shared over social media. Sukhjot Sal, a sophomore English major, had joined an Honors College book club the summer before her first year began in 2019, and she has continued to participate in a book club over Zoom each term while she’s studying remotely from her home in Beaverton.

Emily Garcia

Emily Garcia, who was hired as the Honors College engagement coordinator in fall 2020, says the goal is to provide students with at least one event or activity each week, either through the Honors College or in partnership with other campus organizations like the cultural centers. And while she may provide some behind-the-scenes support, students typically take the lead.

“Students want to go to student-run events,” Garcia says. “When a student says an event is important, it’s 10 times more effective.”



Remote events have some advantages

Patrick Callagy, a senior biology major from Foster City, California, has organized several remote events as the professional development chair of the Honors College Student Association. About 80 students joined a Zoom call with two representatives from Dell Technologies in Austin, Texas, which included information about internship opportunities, as well as what Dell sees as valuable skills in the workplace.

Patrick Callagy

Patrick has also organized alumni panels with about 30 to 50 students attending. One panel in fall 2020 included five alumni, some working in their field and others in graduate school. The remote format turned out to be an advantage, since none of the alumni, who were scattered across the country, had to travel to Corvallis. This also creates an opportunity for honors students from OSU-Cascades in Bend to join in.

“I was able to get a lot of alumni that couldn’t always come to campus,” Patrick says. “Most people can’t take a trip to do a talk for 30 minutes, but getting a Zoom link and not having to worry about it until five minutes before is pretty easy.”

The same circumstances have allowed the Honors College’s “Dean and Friends” conversation series to feature alumni from across the country, bringing students into contact with people who are not usually in reach. One session even featured a guest Zooming in from London.

Students also find benefits from remote professional development sessions, including mixers with faculty researchers looking for students to join their labs or research projects, says LeeAnn Baker, director of student success and engagement. Offered remotely since spring 2020, the mixers are easier for faculty to join and can be less intimidating for students, she says. The format has been so successful that at least some faculty mixers will continue to be hosted on Zoom going forward.

Conversation clusters fill a gap

Baker estimates that about 65 to 70% of Honors College students are in Corvallis, and the two honors residence halls, West and Sackett, were at about 65% capacity for winter term. The SLUG, the honors lounge on the third floor of the Learning Innovation Center, remains open with capacity limited to 40 students, and at least 100 students take advantage of this resource every week. Still, students say they miss seeing their friends while walking across campus or getting coffee between classes.

Maja Engler

“All of those small interactions that you didn’t think about that much before, those are the ones that I miss the most now,” says Maja Engler, a senior biochemistry and molecular biology major from Sandy.

To fill in for those missing interactions, the Honors College created Conversation Clusters, groups of eight students who meet on Zoom for at least 30 minutes a week. There is a weekly prompt or activity to help get the conversation going, as well as small prizes that serve as an incentive. Baker says the Conversation Clusters have been especially important for first-year students who haven’t had all of the usual opportunities to make friends and find connections in the honors community.

There are about 200 clusters of varying compositions depending on students’ preferences. For Maja, it has been an opportunity to reconnect with some old friends and make new ones.

“I’ve been enjoying it. We’re all in different majors, which is fun,” she says. “The nice part is getting to meet people who otherwise I would not normally be able to meet.”

At OSU-Cascades, Kira Corbett, a senior computer science major from Portland, is in a conversation cluster with students mostly from her major. It has a flexible schedule, so some members will exchange messages or check in outside of their regular meetings. Kira has found the conversations have helped her make connections with students in Bend and Corvallis.

“It’s just nice to have that interaction with each other,” she says. “I met some new students I didn’t even know were in the Honors College.”

Food Drive goes virtual too

Even community programs that typically depend on in-person events have been adapted. Maja, who’s president of the Honors College Student Association, says it’s long been a source of pride for HCSA to raise money and collect food for the month-long OSU Food Drive every February.

“Traditionally the Honors College has won our category for the amount of food donated and money raised,” she says. “Our students are very competitive, so we came together and came up with ideas for how we could fundraise remotely.”

Unable to do their traditional bake sale on campus or at grocery stores in Corvallis, the HCSA set up an online fundraiser selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a raffle for a Dutch Bros. gift card. A team of students managed sales, trips to Portland to pick up doughnuts and advertising on social media. As of mid-February, Maja says they had raised more than $1,000 and were on track to meet their fundraising total for the year. By the end of the food drive, the HCSA had raised $1,641 from the Krispy Kreme fundraiser, an Honors College sticker fundraiser and staff contributions.

Get up, get out to fight Zoom fatigue

After nearly a year with remote learning, honors students have developed several strategies to combat Zoom fatigue. The most common is to get away from the screen for a little while, even if it’s just walking around their rooms a bit during or between classes. Patrick, Maja, Sukhjot and Kira all mention doing something active — stretching, exercising, going for a walk or in Maja’s case, playing with her roommate’s new puppy.

“I like to exercise a lot. I try to get out at least once a day,” Patrick says. “And I always make sure to stay out for at least an hour every day.”

Students make their home in honors

Although the delivery methods have changed over the past year, creating community has remained essential to the Honors College experience.

“We see the research that a sense of belonging is so important to students. It affects their grades, their mental health, physical health, all of that,” Garcia says. “Students are craving community, a sense of belonging, a place to feel at home.”

The Honors College provides the structure for community, but it’s driven by students, Baker says. “The students have saved us. They’ve had energy around specific ideas and will say ‘Yeah, I can do that,’ which has been great.”

Patrick will graduate at the end of spring term. While he’s missed the casual opportunities to meet people, he’s adjusted, and he already knows three friends who will also be entering the Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine this fall.

Sukhjot Sal

“What stick’s out for me is the adaptability of college students,” he says. “You can throw anything at them, and they’ll probably find a way to deal with it.”

Sukhjot had completed only two terms in the Honors College before everything went remote, but she’s continued to maintain friendships, make new connections with advisors and faculty and build up her confidence.

“One of the things the pandemic showed is that people are really nice,” she says. “There are a lot of people who are making an effort to make everyone feel included and not forgotten. It’s really heartwarming to see how much effort is being put into keeping the community the same way. And I don’t take it for granted.”

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