The COVID-19 WUSA: My experience virtually welcoming students to campus
Every Washington University student’s college journey looks a little different, but there are a handful of experiences that are pretty universally shared. We’ve all called BD “Bear’s Den” at some point, we’ve all walked to the wrong Lopata and we’ve all been through orientation as newcomers to the University.
Whether a weary senior or a bright-eyed first year, we were all welcomed to the University through new student orientation. And within this scope of orientation falls the introduction to one’s Washington University Student Associate, or WUSA. I applied for the WUSA position this past spring because I wanted to support incoming students during their transition into college; now I am navigating what that looks like in practice.
Many of the key aspects of being a WUSA—leading orientation, having a designated floor of students and RAs, holding weekly community building hours—have been radically altered by COVID-19. Orientation moved online, cohorts were randomly assigned instead of grouped by residential floors and WUSA hours are projected to function as virtual drop-in hours.
Over the summer, the First Year Center gave WUSAs the opportunity to step down from our positions given the complexity of COVID-19 conditions. I’m glad that the option to opt-out was there for those who needed it, but honestly, I felt, and still feel like students need WUSAs this year more than ever. Everything from getting involved with clubs to learning about academic resources is simply more confusing now; we need to make these outreach efforts to let students know there are people rooting for them. Even though the execution of the WUSA role has changed, the core function of acting as a student leader has not.
I arrived in St. Louis August 31, two weeks before classes started. Despite campus kind of feeling like a ghost town, I was ecstatic to be back after almost six months away. During my first few days, I settled in, packed welcome bags in the First Year Center and complained about the limited dining hours. Starting September 2, whether present on campus or not, each member of the WUSA league went through a series of training sessions via Zoom meetings and Canvas modules. Our sessions technically began back in the spring semester, but the bulk of our preparation for orientation happened during the days of Camp WUSA. This “WUSA training camp” generally retained the same content as past years and took place the week preceding Bear Beginnings: Fall Welcome—the official six-day orientation for incoming Wash. U. students.
Despite being almost exclusively virtual, the Bear Beginnings schedule was packed with campus immersion and community engagement activities. As a WUSA, my primary responsibility featured acting as a facilitator during small group meetings with our individual cohorts. These meetings were once or twice daily, centering on everything from tips regarding online classes to compiling our most formative life events up to the present.
It was interesting—and initially very daunting—to be on the other side of a Zoom meeting. I would enter the meeting room 20 minutes early, play music as the students joined and review the agenda to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Acting as the host instead of just another participant felt like way too much responsibility, especially in the context of technical issues and awkward silences. If something went wrong, it was on me.
Thankfully though, none of my worst-case scenarios manifested. I was pretty nervous that I would be facilitating amongst a room full of blank stares, but I really lucked out with the best group (shoutout Spectacled Bears H!). Whether the conversation required reflecting on past experiences or elaborating on hopes for the future, my students were always enthusiastic about sharing their stories. Over the course of the week, connections strengthened as we played team-building games, shared items of personal significance and partook in loads of icebreaking banter. We also utilized the breakout rooms feature to split up into smaller, more intimate discussion groups before coming back together as a cohort. Even amidst the challenge of Zoom screens, we began forming a genuine community.
I must admit that I wish the class of 2024 could have had the same Bear Beginnings experience that I had. But I would like to think that we preserved as much of the inaugural spirit feasible under COVID-19 safety guidelines. Token orientation themes such as “Our Names, Our Stories,” RSVP Center’s The Date and Convocation transitioned to virtual—yet still meaningful—forms. Additionally, new students were invited to participate in socially distant activities such as self-guided tours, personalization of their own stuffed Washington University Bear and witnessing a lit-up Brookings Hall after Convocation.
With orientation and the first week of classes complete, new students’ routines are now gradually falling into place. I have even run into a bunch of my kids around campus. In terms of WUSA hours though, we are going to have to get a little creative. Proposals of online Pictionary, Wiki Races and Jackbox games have all been circulated, but the general trend appears to be drop-in Zoom hours where students can come to chill and ask questions if needed. As WUSAs, I think we are collectively a bit nervous that nobody will show up, so if you are a first-year reading this, please consider going to your WUSA’s hours—they really want you there!
COVID or no COVID, I am super excited to perform my WUSA duties throughout the year ahead. Although it seems like every day brings more uncertainty, Wash. U. is still home, and I want to do everything I can to make it feel that way for all the new members of our family.