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Creating a Sense of Student Community Online

By Jeff Doyle

student community online

Students crave personal connection. How can we leverage the power of propinquity in the COVID-19 era?

I graduated college in the early 1990s, and I remember thinking (or mourning) that almost all of my college friends were married within a few years after graduation. I’ve worked at universities since that time and my “everybody’s married” assessment remains much the same. Interestingly, my hypothesis was confirmed in 2013 by a Facebook study showing that almost 30 percent of couples find their spouses in college (and another 15 percent in high school). Even in the age of the smartphone and countless dating apps, almost half of all married couples meet their spouses in college or high school.

This fact illuminates the power of propinquity in finding friends. In other words, the people who we know the best are those with whom we share the closest physical proximity. And it follows that the more time we spend with those friends, the stronger the friendships. In a 2018 study, the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships documented research showing that “Casual friendships emerge around 30 hours, followed by friendships around 50 hours. Good friendships begin to emerge after 140 hours. Best friendships do not emerge until after 300 hours of time spent.”

By taking hundreds, if not thousands, of primarily late-teens and cramming them into residence halls, we have the catalyst for relationship formation. Colleges are literally friendship, marriage, and mentorship machines. This extensive time together building valuable relationships—and shared experiences—is one of the reasons “university life” has been so appealing over centuries. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the powerful impact dorm life makes on students’ sense of belonging and how that sense of belonging is strongly linked retention and graduation.

Now let’s have some math fun. The average undergraduate student is in class for approximately 15 hours per week. (And maybe some office hours, but anecdotal evidence shows that office hour use by students is rare and the majority of visits are less than 10 minutes.)

Outside of class, students are only studying approximately 15 hours per week. (Even though the federal definition of a credit hour explicitly states that students will spend two hours per week reading and studying for every one hour in class, 20 years of National Survey of Student Engagement data from over a million students has demonstrated that college students on average spend a little over one hour per week studying for each hour in class.) This means students have approximately 80 waking hours per week to hang out and build relationships that last, in many cases, a lifetime.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly suspended this transformational hallmark of the college experience, and students may not be willing to pay the premium unless colleges can create a sense of the physical campus in an online setting. The good news is there are several avenues for developing a student sense of connection to your institution over the internet—and increasing your yield and retention as a result.

I recently watched The Social Network, a movie that loosely chronicles the development of Facebook. While watching, I was reminded that pre-Facebook, there were many university “facebooks.” (I have a copy of my college’s 1988 The Faces Book, which included me and fellow first-year student Tina Fey.) In 2003, not many people were surprised to hear that Harvard’s online facebook was successful. (Within the 24 hours of Zuckerberg’s launch, around 1,500 students had started using it.)

If you watch the movie, one of the most important factors of Facebook’s popularity early on was its’ exclusivity. Only harvard.edu email addresses could join. The interface brought together all students and created a distinct community.

In 2010, when I arrived as the dean for student learning & engagement at Baylor University (TX), I became concerned with strengthening the deposit and yield rate of incoming students. I soon noticed that each year, one or two initiative-taking incoming students would create an incoming student Facebook group. I studied these groups, taking note of what high school seniors who were coming to Baylor were talking about—nine months before they even arrived!

In most years, the first wave of admitted students created and/or discovered the group in November or December. Routine topics emerged each year, along with introductions. Introductions lead to geographic connections and the exchange of group texts that allowed for smaller-scale connection. Many of these groups organized local hangouts so they could form friendships with their soon-to-be classmates.

In January, students in the group would start to talk about which dorms to live in and in February the conversations would center around specific living-learning centers (LLCs) (over half of Baylor’s freshman live in an LLC or residential college). In March, the topic of conversation became which of Baylor’s 10 orientation sessions or eight Line Camps (extended orientation experiences) students were attending. A group text for each session would result in further conversations. In April, students said goodbye to a few virtual friends who decided to enroll elsewhere… but most of those friends stayed in the group anyway, giving their peers a chance to beg them to come to Baylor. They would swear lifelong allegiance to each other, even though they had never met face-to-face.

Back to my marriage analogy. While we know almost 50 percent of married people develop their relationship in person, the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science of the USA found that at least one-third of marriages today are the result of online relationships (broken down—online dating (45 percent), social networking (21 percent), and chat rooms (10 percent)). This shows that serious, lasting relationships are fairly likely to start online.

On the first day of June orientation, I saw groups of students gathering. This wasn’t unusual—lots of students reconnect with students who attended the same high school. While this still happens, I learned that many of the groups were students who had met online and were meeting each other in person for the first time. In one memorable instance, at the start of the opening session of one of the orientation sessions, there was a group of fathers in the front row high-fiving and hugging each other. From the stage, the university chaplain asked them if they had gone to Baylor together and they responded by telling him they were all meeting for the first time in person—they had become friends through the incoming parent Facebook group!

After several years of watching groups of incoming students form online, I noticed two things:
First, I wasn’t the only person who realized these groups were incredible opportunities for influence. The race to establish the first and best incoming student Facebook group became very competitive. A number of companies focused on college students started hiring staff and training them to initiate incoming student Facebook groups at colleges across the country.

It took me a while to realize this was happening. I kept getting confused as to why various “new Baylor” students were trying to sell so many things to their peers. It took a savvy social media colleague to help me understand that there was no university oversight for these groups. They were businesses taking advantage of the new students’ trust in what they thought were their fellow students telling them what they needed to buy to succeed in college.

Second, after learning about this trend, I asked the admission team to formally take the lead in overseeing new student Facebook groups. While admission was supportive of the idea, they said they already had social media accounts and had discovered that university-sponsored social media is a platform for pushing out great content, but it doesn’t result in quality interactions between students and college reps.

My staff and I realized we needed help communicating effectively to this generation of students. It was 2015. How were we supposed to reach anyone? Landlines were disconnected, cell numbers weren’t accessible, emails went to the junk folder, flyers were useless, campus radio stations were relics, and an incredibly small percentage of students read the student newspaper. (Funnily enough, local apartment complexes, in an effort to maintain occupancy, hired planes or trucks to travel over or through campus for hours with their transports emblazoned with apartment deals.)

Our solution was to create a student outreach and engagement coordinator position. In November 2016, the person hired for that job created the first Baylor University Class of 2021 (Official University Sponsored) Facebook group. He worked with the admission office for ensure every admitted student’s offer letter included a link to the group. Soon, thousands of students were using it. To maintain distance between potential recruits and our staff, we hired an upperclassman to monitor the page to periodically post Baylor happenings and correct any misinformation.

Of course, these groups wind down once students arrive on campus. But in the era of COVID-19, they may be all the more important for students trying to create and maintain connection. In fact, I recommend replicating the process not only for fall 2020 new students, but for the entire student body.

I encourage you to take the lessons we learned at Baylor and explore how your school’s virtual communities could help students connect, bond, and build memories. If you chose to give this a go, the following questions may help you get started:

  1. What are your primary goals and what will be your measure(s) of success?
  2. Who will oversee the group (this person won’t post much but needs to follow the thread)?
  3. Will the admission office help the group form by messaging new admits? Will the student life office help by messaging all students?
  4. Will students be admitted to the group based on some university identifier (e.g., ID#)? Will they be removed if they say something inappropriate or you discover they aren’t an incoming student?
  5. Where will the group be housed? Facebook? Instagram? Twitter? An emerging friend-making platform/app?
  6. Do you have current undergraduate students who will help with this project (ideally, through a paid position)?
  7. What are a few good open-ended prompt questions that could be posed to students in this group? What would result in stronger interpersonal connections?
  8. How often will the group be checked, and who will remove any inappropriate posts (rare, but possible)?
  9. Could your marketing team come up with an attractive logo/profile image to use on the site?
  10. How might you incorporate video sharing?

Remember, almost all universities are trying to learn how to get students to come in the fall—it’s time to step out of the box and try some new things. This may be one.

Jeff Doyle is the associate director for planning and assessment at Baylor University (TX).

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