Returning to campus in 2021 demands new ways of engaging, serving and protecting students. Though the pandemic has impacted every aspect of higher ed operations, one that’s left many university leaders scratching their heads is engagement. How do you foster rapport and relationships with students while limiting in-person experiences?
Though we're hopeful that pandemic threats will fade in the months ahead, chances are high that remote and hybrid interactions will remain a necessity (even a desired convenience) in the next normal. With that in mind, we’ve asked university leaders to share some of the ways they're creating compelling student experiences. Also joining our discussion are National Account Managers at FedEx Office, sharing what they’ve learned in consulting with colleges and universities across the country.
Countering technology burnout
The lightning-fast acceleration in remote access capabilities have delivered a slew of benefits to students, faculty and staff in recent months. And yet… We're all feeling a bit of whiplash.
Emerging studies warn of growing technology burnout as students juggle numerous online learning tools and always-on-screen routines. In response, university leaders should consider investing in print and physical tools to counter digital fatigue.
Erin Petrotta, Director of Marketing and Student Communications at Oklahoma State University (OSU), uses variable data to personalize mailings that reflect student academic and social interests, among other variables. Though direct mail and data-driven personalization aren’t groundbreaking innovations, custom content has made a notable difference, Petrotta reports: "In a time when students aren't able to have the in-person campus experiences they would like, we're able to provide one-on-one content that meets them where they are and delivers what they want to know."
Michael LaForge, Regional Account Manager with FedEx Office, agrees. "Students are more appreciative than you might realize to have something in their hands, whether it’s a printed coupon, personalized note, branded tchotchkes, or something else," he explains.
To that end, fellow FedEx Office Regional Account Manager Rob Munstis has seen a lot of creativity with custom boxes. "Leaders at one university learned that remote students missed the cookies served in the dining hall. They decided to offer care packages so students can order dining hall cookies when they’re not on campus. It was such a morale booster," he reports. The school has since expanded care packages to include movie popcorn kits and other goodies.
Physical resources are also ideal to convey information that might be overwhelming or impractical for students to consume on-screen. "At one university, we ship a box of basic engineering tools to remote students each semester," shares Munstis. "This toolkit would normally be handed out in-person. Without it, students can't complete required parts of the course," he explains. When mass mailings aren't feasible, students and staff can also access on-demand resources at on- or near-campus FedEx Office locations.
Creating safety-conscious, in-person interactions
Students are likely feeling isolated, and that could create a sense of isolation that may result in students dropping out or switching. In recent months, university leaders have experimented with a variety of hybrid and on-campus events, aiming to balance safety with students' cravings for in-person experiences.
Popular solutions include adapting temporary facilities such as tents, gyms, repurposed rooms, hotels and community properties, and spreading student groups across various dates or time slots to avoid crowding. Some schools have also centralized services into one-stop-shop stations where students can knock out various needs or interests at one time, or during a single event.
"Students want to see each other, spend time together and have that college experience," says Veronica Cohen, Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Jackson State University. "Campus experiences are so critical," chimes OSU's Petrotta at Oklahoma State University. "We know how students select a university is deeply impacted by the campus experience, so we’re spreading events over several days so that as many students as possible can experience our campus and current students, faculty and staff," she says.
At OSU, student organizations have also come up with ingenious solutions, such as converting traditionally large evening events into walk-by events. Another event — a virtual Iron Chef contest — had students pick up a mystery ingredient from the student union, which they’d cook into a dish at home and share virtually. "The winning student got a sweet potato and pineapples. They created sweet potato tacos and pineapple salsa, which sounds fantastic," shares Petrotta.
One common thread in successful on-campus experiences in the age of Covid is giving students a bigger voice. "We reach out to student leaders on a regular basis to find out how they're feeling, what's happening on campus, what they're worried or thinking about," says Petrotta. "This keeps us plugged in so we can respond appropriately."
"Where’s my stuff?" Tackling parcel management
If you didn’t have an online shopping habit before the pandemic, you probably do now. The same is true for students. Every university is dealing with an influx of shipments, from mom’s care packages to ecommerce deliveries, and more.
From students' perspectives, a package they can’t easily track or secure could potentially be a big source of anxiety. Maybe their package has been sitting somewhere for three days and no one told them about it. Maybe they have to repeatedly show up at an office to check on delivery status. Maybe they can't get a straight answer on what's happened to their parcel.
To counter that friction, many universities have aligned with FedEx Office to provide in-house parcel management. "In addition to automated tracking and notifications, we’ve refined processes over the years in hotels and convention sites. We bring those efficiencies to college campuses," says Munstis.
Many universities have also relied on FedEx Office to include shipping labels and coupons in student welcome packets to facilitate the move-in process, adds LaForge. "Students use those labels to ship boxes to school. When they get to their dorm room, it's all there," he says. "It helps tremendously in creating a winsome experience during move-ins."
Institutions that rely on FedEx Office have the option to create on-site print, parcel, and mail management services or to utilize their existing network for print and ship centers to support their community, both on campus and away from campus. Either option—or a mix of the two—helps institutions provide 24/7 access and support to students and staff through one trusted advisor. "In today’s fast-evolving landscape, that kind of flexibility is crucial," says Munstis.
As universities compete for the minds, hearts, and wallets of students, thriving in the next normal hinges on embracing experimentation, new patterns, and partnerships. To that end, student satisfaction might be your most meaningful investment in the weeks and months ahead.