During a normal year, new students to the NIU College of Education are invited to a Sunday-before-classes picnic each August where they meet new people, make new friends and match names-and-faces of some of the faculty and staff who will guide them to graduation.
But 2020 is not a normal year.
Enter Brittany Wereminski and the power of Zoom.
Wereminski, the college’s coordinator of Recruitment, organized an electronic reception held Aug. 21 for new Huskies. Nearly three dozen freshmen and transfers logged in.
“I still wanted to incorporate a Sunday event, outside with physical distancing, but to be as safe as possible, we decided to stick with the virtual,” Wereminski says. “I think it worked out really well.”
The online session began with friendly and encouraging words of welcome from Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and associate deans David Walker and Bill Pitney, all of whom spoke of new beginnings and the opportunities that come with those.
“We are all here to support you. We are all invested in your success,” Elish-Piper told the group. “You should expect high quality instruction and engaged, hands-on learning from professors informed by research who know what the best practices are.”
From Walker and Pitney, the students heard about programs such as the college’s Educate and Engage and the university’s Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning.
Students also were reminded to follow the guidelines of Protecting the Pack, which include wearing face masks, practicing physical distancing and washing hands. “We want to stay cool and ‘Protect the Pack’ by making sure we are mindful of our health and safety initiatives on campus,” Pitney said.
New members of “the Pack” then entered virtual break-out rooms in small groups, led by current College of Education students Peytonn Weaver and Jesus Bahena, to introduce themselves, participate in team-building activities, hear advice from current students, offer a virtual high-five and “pose” for a group photo.
Those conversations were “important because students were able to make connections with other students in similar majors and situations as them,” says Weaver, a senior Elementary Education major.
“Each of the new students seemed excited for the new school year and relieved that they knew that they were not alone,” Weaver says.
“Personally, I know that my first year was quite difficult. However, once I found people to lean on for support, I was in a much better mindset for the school year,” she adds. “I discussed my time in Houston, Texas, during the Educate U.S. trip. I also promoted Educators Rising and had one girl contact me about joining this semester!”
Finally, the new Huskies could return to the main chat room to ask questions of Student Services staff.
The session accomplished Wereminski’s main goal: to provide students with a network.
“That sense of belonging is really important. When you feel that connection to anything, it helps you to be more of your best self. That starts with making some friendships and establishing who you are in this new setting,” she says.
“I think back to how I was freshman year: I was very shy and sometimes afraid to approach these larger groups if I didn’t know anyone,” she adds. “For students who are kind of on their own, or more independent, this was a good alternative, if they felt more comfortable logging in virtually versus having to go to an event where maybe they didn’t know anyone.”
And although it might seem like Wereminski had already completed her job by enrolling the students she had recruited to NIU, she was happy to organize and lead the online welcome event.
“Since I was a college student, welcoming new students to campus has always been something that I’ve just enjoyed. I was an Orientation leader at NIU back in the day,” she says. “Keeping students here – keeping them enrolled at NIU – and helping them find those connections is still something that’s really important to me.”