You’ve spent months preparing for an unpredictable fall, because in this unique moment, colleges and universities need to be adaptable to change at a moment’s notice. Thanks to all of the planning you and your team have done, you’re ready for anything — but how can you be sure your students will be ready, too?

Creating an environment of trust and transparency is the key to getting students on the same page as you, which is critical for ensuring a successful return to campus. Meaningful student engagement can be your secret weapon for building that type of culture at your institution. When you build authentic connections with your students through these uncertain times, you can help create a deeper sense of belonging and a more trusting relationship between students and your institution. That’s what makes it possible for students to adapt quickly to a shifting landscape — and succeed in the face of change. 

Mainstay recently hosted a webcast with “Inside Higher Ed” titled “Overcoming uncertainty with student engagement” to help institutions successfully prepare students for their return to campus. Mainstay’s CEO Drew Magliozzi was joined by higher education leaders Allison Calhoun-Brown of Georgia State University and Sue Maxam of Pace University — two of the nation’s most innovative institutions when it comes to student engagement. Sue and Allison shared real-life stories of how they use student engagement to adjust to shifting situations, forge meaningful connections with students, and spark positive student outcomes.  

If you missed this informative session, you can watch the recording below.

We also want to share some of the important topics that surfaced during this interactive discussion:

Connect with students when they need it most

Since the onset of COVID-19, many colleges and universities have grappled with questions about how to provide authentic, meaningful support for students that are digitally connected — but socially distanced. Recent shifts due to the Delta variant and evolving public health measures have once again forced universities to prepare to make adjustments in real-time. With so many questions still looming about how COVID-19 will impact this school year, changes may need to happen fast — while minimizing potential disruptions to students.

Here are some of the sentiments shared during the event that address how schools are approaching this year’s return to campus: 

“We are in one-day-at-a-time mode to see what happens.”  

“One of the expressions we’re starting to think about using is the ‘now normal’ — because it’s not the new normal, and it’s not what we had before. But we’re trying to show that we can be resilient — we can adapt. We’re trying to answer as many [student] questions directly, in a way that’s as relevant as possible.”

Institutions have had to make similar shifts in how they communicate with students over the past year. Many are finding new ways to listen to students while also amplifying students’ voices. Enabling trusting, two-way relationships empowers students to share their concerns and expectations during times of uncertainty. When we give students a voice, actively listen to their needs, and address their issues head-on, students become much more agile and capable of adapting to change at a moment’s notice

Support students’ health and wellness on campus 

When things are shifting quickly, it’s important to communicate in the most timely, effective way. During the initial months of the pandemic, many institutions turned to automated text messaging to share important health-related information instantly and around the clock. If there was a COVID outbreak in a dorm, a shift to remote classes, or an immunization policy change, real-time messages instantly altered students. This also enabled faculty and staff to stay focused on the crucial student interactions that required one-on-one attention.

As health and safety remain top of mind this fall, supporting vaccination efforts is a critical component of a successful fall semester. At Mainstay, we know from years of research and experience that timely nudges can make a big impact on immunization compliance. Sending quick text surveys and empathetic check-ins can keep students engaged throughout their academic journey — which makes them more receptive to the critical information you provide at key moments. 

Here are a few ways Mainstay’s partners use text messaging to support health and wellness on campus:

Address the unique challenges each class is facing 

Students, faculty, and staff are all excited to be on campus — but with so many unknown factors, higher education’s ‘new normal’ can change from one day to the next. Students at every stage of their educational journey are feeling the impact in their own way. How can you address the various needs of every class after this extended period of social and academic disruption? 

Many incoming freshmen were remote during last year of high school and still feeling the long-lasting social impact of the pandemic. They will have to work on developing the stamina it takes to be back in a classroom — and the additional new pressures that come with transitioning to higher education and living on their own. 

Meanwhile, many sophomores are arriving on campus in-person for the first time — but they understandably don’t want to be treated like freshmen. Colleges are tasked with ramping up engagement efforts to build student affinity quickly among members of this class to avoid a “sophomore slump.” 

Juniors and seniors also experienced disruptions that have left some feeling disconnected or even resentful. Colleges need to find ways to quickly rebuild those important relationships with upperclassmen and make up for lost time. Engaging these students will be key to keeping them on track to graduate and pursue successful careers — while reducing the potential for negative impacts on alumni relations

Why belonging matters

Students who are deeply engaged are more receptive to your communications because you’ve built a strong relationship with them and earned their trust. As a result, they are also much better equipped to adapt when major changes occur.

When it comes to the higher education experience, student engagement and belonging are inextricably linked. What’s more, a student’s sense of belonging can be a key indicator of their long-term student success. By creating an environment where students feel accepted, respected, valued, and happy, colleges can directly improve a variety of student outcomes. This is particularly important as schools find ways to prioritize students’ mental health.  

Grow engagement and cultivate belonging

Now more than ever, schools need to find ways to cut through the noise and support students in the ways that matter most. Watch “Overcoming uncertainty with student engagement” to learn how you can build trusting relationships with your students and empower them to persevere through challenging times.