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Did the College Experience Shut Down Too?

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Angel Martin, LSU Shreveport Director of Student Life and Recreational Sports, felt caught off-guard along with the rest of the world when the COVID-19 pandemic closed universities nationwide in early 2020. Responsible for creating the “college experience”, Martin ultimately had to push past her own fears and disorientation, and refused to let student traditions, engagement, and bonding opportunities that make up student life simply fall by the wayside.

“After we got out of that temporary paralysis of ‘What next? What can we do?’; we really started to plug into how the world was coming together in creating virtual opportunities.” Martin reflected. “I was really fearful that we were going to have to start over from scratch on all of our major traditional events like Week of Welcome, a weeklong celebration during the first week of classes, and Homecoming.”

In fact, the pandemic struck just as the LSUS Student Activities Board, which oversees student life on campus, was preparing for one of its largest student events—Spring Fling.

“We were really looking forward to and planning our annual Spring Fling. If you ask current and former students what one of their favorite on-campus memories is, they’ll often say ‘Spring Fling with the crawfish.’,” Martin said. “These opportunities are planned to create place bonding for students so that they have fond memories of the times they spend outside of the classroom at LSUS.”

Martin and her team quickly connected with vendors to create a “new normal” with virtual events and at-home activities. Students enjoyed mail-to-home kits, online trivia contests, virtual scavenger hunts, how-to videos, and more. Even though it looked different, the goal for the student experience was to maintain a sense of connection, positive university association, and skill building.

“Whether virtually or in person, we want students to come to events and have fun,” Martin said. “But usually there’s some kind of learning outcome woven in, and we always, through seminars and other activities, want them to grow their life skills.”

Students quickly adjusted to connecting virtually, particularly with the popular mail-to-home kits varying from painting and embroidery to creating a vision board. The LSUS Food Pantry even sponsored “Take and Make” meal kits. The variety of kits became widely popular, running out within an hour of them being made available online.

“I think they learned to have their fingers on the buttons at ‘go time,’” Martin chuckled.

“Since we couldn’t feed students in large groups, we did the ‘Take and Make’ meal kits through the LSUS Food Pantry. Students could take home recipe cards and raw ingredients to make their own meal. It’s fun, but you also learn a bit about cooking, measuring, and different spices and ingredients.”

Virtual activities erased the lines of scheduling and geography that previously minimized online student engagement opportunities. Martin hopes to continue to engage more online students and those who have limited time to be on campus even after the pandemic is over.

“We got a lot of positive feedback from online students because they had the opportunity to be involved in a greater capacity at LSUS, learn more about the university, and share the student life experience in a way that fit their schedule.”

In early 2021, it seemed the pandemic was slowing, but unfortunately a second surge hit on the verge of the fall semester. The majority of the planned fall activities are outdoors, virtual, or prioritizing social distancing to encourage health and safety. The fall semester opened with a virtual scavenger hunt via the GooseChase app— a platform that proved to be both fun and practical.

“You can see the feed of students doing the tasks [in the app], and other students can see it, so it’s a way that students are connecting, showing their personalities,” Martin said. “There’s also a little bit of incorporating what LSUS is about. One of my favorite tasks is that they write a Haiku about their first day or their first week of classes, and those are really interesting to read! It’s dynamic, it’s different, and it really lets the students’ personalities come through.”

One of Martin’s proudest moments amid the pandemic was virtually unveiling the Homecoming Court. Tradition is important at LSUS, and the show went on without a hitch or glitch.

“I was really proud that we were able to do a virtual unveiling of the Homecoming Court because that could have easily been a tradition that we just let go and pick up after COVID-19. But we still got to see that students were really excited to receive that honor. It kept me reminded that the traditions are still here and we haven’t lost touch with those.”

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