Student Involvement Fairs Go Virtual: A Q&A With Minnesota–Mankato's Emi Menk

The state of the fall semester for higher education changes daily, even hourly. Will classes be held in-person, virtually, or in a hybrid format? Will student unions and centers open their doors for in-person activities and networking? And what’s the future for student involvement fairs, events that have historically involved large groups of students mulling over information about student organizations and opportunities to get involved on campus?

Universities across North America are preparing for a new normal in student involvement fairs this fall, creating video portraits of student groups who are marketing their successes and membership opportunities from campus websites. The University of New Mexico is organizing its new student orientation completely virtually, and Minnesota State University–Mankato put out a video highlighting the experiences planned by the student events team at the school.

To learn more about the formation, planning, and challenges of a virtual student involvement fair, The Bulletin spoke with Emi Menk (pictured at right), assistant director of student activities, recognized student organizations, leadership, and nontraditional Students, at Minnesota–Mankato, about how they organized this new event.Emi Menk

What has the process been like for planning a virtual student involvement fair? How does it differ from planning an in-person fair?

For us, planning a virtual involvement fair has involved thinking outside the box. Because the format is virtual, we have more flexibility with when fairs can happen, how they are accessed, and how student organizations can contribute. Even within the virtual format, there are also so many different presentation options, whether it’s setting up virtual “tables” through videoconferencing that students get the links to visit (with each table hosted by the organization) or having a page where students can go and watch a short video about the group and request additional information. There isn’t necessarily one perfect format for hosting a virtual fair, and what works best for one campus may not be ideal for another. While some companies are coming out with programs meant specifically for hosting virtual fairs, there are also other ways to take what we already have access to and build virtual fairs, which allows for quite a bit of customization.

When planning an in-person fair, we have to consider the time the fair takes place for multiple reasons: ensuring groups will have students available to table, making sure students who want to attend are on campus but not in class, and checking that the spaces where we could host fairs aren’t full. With virtual fairs, there are some options that would allow for flexibility, especially if the fair is asynchronous. Another major consideration for in-person fairs is space availability. We normally have to put a cap on how many groups can be involved because we don’t have enough space, but with virtual fairs that’s no longer a consideration. 

I think another thing that’s different is the overall feel of the event. When we do our big involvement fair to kick off the year, we try to make it feel really fun and festive with music, food, prizes, and other unique ways to draw students in. With a virtual fair, it’s much harder to get the same festive feeling. 

What do you think are the best practices for organizing a virtual student involvement fair?

Be mindful of who your student population is and what technology they use. Different fair formats work best with different student populations. For example, if you have a small campus that really values the in-person aspect of connecting, doing a synchronous event where students get to meet with groups through video conferencing may work best. But if you have a campus with a lot of nontraditional students or students who may want to access the information later, looking at something asynchronous where groups can upload introduction videos and then having the fair available for an extended period of time may be the best option. Additionally, while it’s easy to assume that everyone has access to a webcam, a microphone, and consistent internet (even through their smartphones), our campus realized this spring that not everyone has access to the necessary equipment, so we needed to find a way for these students to stay connected.

What are some of the challenges you've encountered in virtual event planning?

For involvement fairs in particular, our challenges were first figuring out where to begin; after all, this was a relatively new area! The options for hosting virtual fairs have really grown since March when we first started thinking about what this might look like, so trying to decide on a method when we knew other options would be available was a bit of a challenge. 

Another challenge with involvement fairs was helping the student organizations involved understand and visualize what their participation would look like. It’s one thing to show them the benefits, but some of our groups are very centered around the in-person experience, so it’s difficult for them to imagine recruiting virtually for their organizations. 

Along those lines, another challenge was making sure student organizations had the resources to be able to participate. This meant going back to students and technology access; some student organizations may have a lot of comfort making and sharing videos or using video conferencing, but others may not be at the same level. So finding a way to ensure that the online format doesn’t unintentionally exclude some organizations is also important.

For both involvement fairs and general virtual events, another challenge was adjusting expectations. Our student boards who help plan events on campus originally signed on with the expectation of planning events that looked very different from what they are planning now, and that was definitely a tough reality. As staff, we had to not only help them come to terms with the changes, but also help them realize that this offered them a great opportunity to innovate and try new ideas. It was a balance of letting them know it was okay to be upset and mourn the loss of the second half of spring semester, helping them see a path forward, and modeling how to make the best of a not great situation. 

Even as we go into the upcoming year, we’ve had to work with students to continue adjusting expectations and to be honest that while we are planning to offer a hybrid model of classes and events, things could change and we do need to be prepared and nimble enough to make transitions. Those changes may be as simple as changes to participant caps for hybrid events, or they may involve a total transition to all online programming. We don’t know what the fall holds!

How have you noticed student response and engagement? How have you gotten students involved in the creation and messaging?

Back in March when things first went online, we noticed that there was a period of time where students were very disengaged—they were more focused on trying to find a new normal after things were pretty much flipped upside down. Once they had a little time to work through that transition, then we definitely noticed an uptick in engagement. Students were missing the social aspect of college and were trying to find ways to feel connected. All of our big campus events are completely planned by students—we advise and help with logistics, but they come up with the ideas, they handle the logistics, they promote everything. 

I think part of the reason we’ve been able to have students continue feeling connected despite remote learning is because our programming is by students, for students. We’re not trying to figure out what the students want, we’re empowering students to create the programs they want. We may help with getting some initial ideas or we may help them take an idea and think through what needs to take place for the idea to become a reality.

What are some unique ideas you've had for your virtual student involvement fair?

We’re looking at a mix of synchronous and asynchronous fair opportunities for fall. For our synchronous fairs, we’re encouraging student organizations to put together a quick activity that might demonstrate what they do in their student organization meetings so prospective members can get a feel for the organization beyond just a quick chat. We’re also planning to spread out the synchronous fairs and stagger times so that students and student organizations can find times that work best for them. 

If student organizations do choose to develop and host a virtual activity, we’re encouraging them to record it, send it to us, and then we’ll host it on our asynchronous fair so students can access the activity on-demand. Groups that don’t want to do an activity but want to be featured in the asynchronous fair will be able to upload photos or record a welcome video instead. We’re also looking into developing an interest survey so we can send targeted registered student organizations (RSOs) recommendations to incoming students. Instead of having to sort through over 250 RSOs, they have a more personalized list to start checking out.

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