The First Year Experience team at Guelph-Humber moved online to deliver its services for new students this fall and despite COVID-19 restrictions, is claiming engagement was high.

The FYE team is responsible for leading orientation and other group activities aimed at helping first-year students transition to university life.

This year, the FYE team was faced with the challenge of hosting an orientation program virtually because of COVID-19.

Trying to meet new people while attending university during a pandemic has changed the first-year experience for thousands of students.

Jessica Pilfold, a student life coordinator at Guelph-Humber said the FYE team has seen a high level of engagement from students through the online sessions they have hosted.

“So it tells us that students are looking for opportunities to connect and to a broader scheme of even beyond FYE I think we’re noticing this in our society events and activities so students are putting on programming for their peers and I think that students are responding to that,” said Pilfold.

The FYE team at Guelph-Humber recognized most classes would be virtual and immediately began to work on how to help first-year students.

“We had training in June because that’s when students kind of start getting acceptance letters, joining the Guelph-Humber community if you will and exploring all of our virtual offerings,” said Pilfold. “It was a mad dash to make sure students felt supported and that we were there to support them.”

Prior to the pandemic, the FYE team would establish Facebook groups and email students to relay information about in-person activities and deadlines.

“We’ve learned last year that most students or new students coming to Guelph-Humber are not on Facebook anymore, everyone’s on Instagram and Snapchat,” said Pilfold. “So because we knew that staff would be using Teams to connect with students to hold their meetings, we switched the program from facebook to Microsoft Teams.”

FYE leaders have also noticed greater engagement among students.

“We had a lot of students attend workshop sessions and I think our numbers were really high in this year compared to even other years,” said Rachel Oudit, a fourth-year justice studies student and FYE leader.

Ami Bishop-England, a second-year media studies student and FYE leader says it’s important to reassure first-year students that there is help available. She’s doing that by using individual messaging to connect with the students she mentors.

“It’s really about making that welcome environment for people and I found individually one-on-one definitely was a helpful tip to establish those connections with people and help them how I can,” said Bishop-England

Oudit, on the advice of senior FYE leaders, is making sure to let her students know where to find help.

“I think this year compared to other years was that they really push that aspect that we’re not in this alone we have each other we’re all going through the same thing,” said Oudit.

The switch to an online format has also led to greater flexibility in scheduling events.

“Students are already at home in front of their computers so some of the flexibility or the scheduling has been a little bit better virtually because students don’t have those commute times or asynchronous classes perhaps that give them more flexibility in their day,” said Pilfold.

For the winter 2021 semester the FYE is trying to create alternative activities that do not involve the use of a screen or computer.

“What student life would like to do for winter is move into activities that are not in front of a screen because we’ve all had screen fatigue, it’s been months now and so trying to get creative and how we increase student engagement and help students feel connected to one another and the university without making them sit in front of a screen for another hour,” said Pilfold.