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Affinity centers get creative with technology to keep students connected

Students zoomed-in for this fall semester open house hosted by Multicultural Student Services.

In many respects the COVID‑19 pandemic is revolutionizing the ways Washington State University Pullman’s affinity student centers are providing support and facilitating student engagement.

The affinity spaces, or identity-conscious centers as Matthew Jeffries often calls them, include Multicultural Student Services (MSS), the Women*s Center, the Access Center, and the Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center (GIESORC), for which Jeffries is the director.

With most classes taking place online this fall and many students staying home to study, staff members in each center have spent time fine-tuning and adding to their arsenal of virtual engagement strategies they began developing last spring when the pandemic hit.

Technology is king

Utilizing Zoom and Microsoft Teams will continue to provide the foundation for how staff conduct one-on-one and small group interactions with students. Each unit director emphasizes they and their staff are just an email or phone call away should students wish to set-up a virtual appointment. Staff are also discussing ways of holding virtual office hours and stepping-up their use of social media to connect with students.

Bischoff said virtual sessions are generally very effective, but they don’t come without some challenges that require his team to be ultra-attentive during those interactions. In the past, they could often sense issues students are facing through informal interactions in the student centers.

“Now students have to be more intentional about sharing their concerns with us,” Bischoff said. “They need to intentionally log-in and be thoughtful about what they want to share with us.”

Recognizing that many students are missing social interactions with their WSU friends, some of the centers have been utilizing different platforms to bring them together for games and other forms of entertainment. GIESORC has been hosting weekly hangout sessions and Netflix parties, for example.

Two students in a WSU English Literature class created a channel in the instant messaging app called Discord, that allows people to interact with the WSU queer community through chats, games, and even sharing their favorite memes.

Jeffries said such apps are valuable tools for facilitating student engagement, but staff need to be mindful that students are being asked to download a lot of new ones for classes and other groups.

“Students have to navigate all of these apps on top of using Zoom and Microsoft Teams,” Jeffries said. “For them to remember to manage everything on every platform can be challenging and weigh on students.”

Courtney Anderson, coordinator of student diversity and international student life at WSU Spokane, agrees that staff need to strike a balance when using technology. When strategically used, platforms like Discord can be a very effective tool for engaging students. For example, she likes how programming done on Discord can be live-streamed to other platforms, something that will enhance her Student Diversity Center’s Difficult Dialogue Series and other activities.

Anderson and her student team are preparing to provide WSU Spokane students with at least one virtual event or activity each month, including the campus’ first drag show.

“This time in our history requires innovation and we wanted to try something new to get students engaged,” Anderson said. “It takes some bravery and creativity on our part, but our mission is to make students feel like they are still on campus and part of this community.”

Faculty stepping-up

While the use of technology can’t fully replicate the feeling of in-person interactions, Meredyth Goodwin, director of the Access Center, is finding that the online learning environment better meet the needs of some students.

“If there is anything positive that has come out of COVID‑19, it is that faculty are teaching in ways and utilizing technology in ways that promote universal design,” Goodwin said. “This means students with many different types of learning styles can access their material.”

She also pointed out that apps like Zoom sometimes make students with disabilities feel a bit safer. They can join a group and not feel singled out and turn-off the video feature. Goodwin said in many respects it is empowering.

Still, online learning doesn’t work well for everyone. For example, some students have fine-motor limitations and need a scribe or a reader, things not typically available at home. Goodwin’s staff has focused more of their time facilitating discussions involving both students and faculty to identify strategies that support student success.

“Faculty are experts in their curriculum and know how their courses are structured,” Goodwin said. “They often come up with great ideas for resolving challenges. I always believe there is a way to make things work.”

In-person services limited

Students who want to visit the centers in-person have very limited options. Jeffries said space in GIESORC will remain closed in the interest of safety for his staff and students. The Access Center, Women*s Center and MSS student centers will be closed except for pre-arranged appointments with staff members.

Rosarios Place in the Women*s Center is currently closed to help support the food pantry in the Lighty Student Services building. The Cougar Safe Rides team will also provide support for the Lighty food pantry instead of offering rides this semester. They plan to update their training and processes for next year.

The Student Diversity Center at WSU Spokane and the MOSAIC Student Center for Inclusion at WSU Tri‑Cities are also closed to student foot traffic.

Pandemic spurs innovation

For students and staff in the Women*s Center, thinking about new ways to engage students in the COVID‑19 era spurred some innovative ideas.

The Women*s Center plans to launch a new online publication this fall called “Harpy*s Magazine”, named after a mythological winged creature. Sharp said The Harpy*s Magazine will serve a different purpose than the Center’s e-newsletter Crimzine, which staff created to share information about the center’s programs, services, and events.

“The magazine will be more about students sharing with us the work they are doing such as their writing, art, and research,” Sharp said. “This will be about hearing the student voices.”

An idea hatched by a student last spring has led to the creation of a new registered student organization called Fem Scouts. This group examines what it means to be a feminist and how you utilize a feminist lens during this era of COVID‑19.

In collaboration with the Fem Scouts, Women*s Center staff will help organize a series of online workshopsand projects. An example project might ask students to learn about their family history from their oldest female relative. Other projects may center around the Black Lives Matter movement. Students can earn badges for participating in projects and completing units of feminist understanding.

“We can advertise Fem Scouts as an opportunity for students to get to know what the center is about, how they can get involved in organizations, and learn what kinds of projects and programs they can get involved in,” Sharp said.

Kristine Cody, career and internship coordinator at WSU Tri‑Cities, currently manages the MOSAIC Center for Student Inclusion. When it comes to planning programs and activities, she said some of her team’s focus has shifted during the pandemic.

“Some would argue we actually have two pandemics—the health crisis we all know about as well as the racism and discrimination taking place across our country and world,” Cody said. “There is a lot of fear and anxiety tied to both of them and we are working to address those fears proactively and in ways students can access it.”

In Cody’s words, her team is trying to be strategically innovative with how they reach out to students. This has translated to using tactics such as centralizing information on the WSU Tri‑Cities website, using social media more, and utilizing the newly launched student newsletter.

“It has forced us to be very clear about our messaging and deliver it through multiple platforms,” Cody said.

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