How the NYU Welcome Team Went Virtual

Wrapping up its last few events earlier this week, NYU Welcome’s entirely virtual program set out to give incoming students a campus feel despite the coronavirus.

NYU Welcome 2020 signs deck the stairs at NYU's Kimmel Center for University Life during Welcome Week. Although all Welcome Week events have been virtual, Welcome Week leaders found ways to modify the traditional in-person events into a virtual experience for students. (Staff Photo by Jake Capriotti)

When first-year Cassidy Kohler applied to be a fall Welcome Week leader in February of last semester, she did so to give incoming students the unique campus feel she had found during her own Welcome experience.

“When you first come to the NYU campus, it’s a scary, big place, and it kind of feels disconnected when you don’t have that main campus,” the now CAS sophomore said. “NYU Welcome was what made me feel like, ‘Oh, this is a real school and not just a bunch of people scattered around New York City.’ That was really important to me, and I wanted to be a part of that as well.”

Shortly after being accepted, Kohler, and the approximately 200 other Welcome leaders, realized that an in-person experience was out of the question. Determined to find some alternative for new and returning students, the Welcome team, headed by 13 captains and three chairs, set out to complete the daunting task of welcoming students to a school that, now more so than ever before, lacks a campus.

“We’re basically trying to recreate Welcome from the ground up because we didn’t have any other choices, and we’re all virtual,” Welcome chair and Tisch junior Eric Carrera said. “Welcome Week does not exist. It’s now called NYU Welcome because we had to expand it over the course of two months.”

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Though the entirely virtual experience operated very differently than Welcomes in years past, NYU Welcome’s structures and purpose are similar to its predecessors. The staff looked through their list of Welcome Week events to determine what could translate to a virtual Welcome and what they would need to cut.

Some events, like affinity group discussions or Bob Ross paint night were easier to adapt while the Welcome Week Ball proved too difficult to pull off. 

“We were gonna market it as a living room dance party, and it was just like, this is not gonna go well for a multitude of reasons,” Carrera said.

Some even found that, to their surprise, the virtual version of previously in-person events had an added layer of engagement. For Kohler, this is best exemplified in the student favorite, Drag Bingo.

“It obviously is not the same as the in-person experience, but there was almost a greater level of interaction between individuals with the virtual walkway versus the in-person,” she said. “So there was more time to spend answering each individual question and being able to interact directly with the drag queens, which I thought, really interesting. I wasn’t expecting that.”

Alongside those previous Welcome Week favorites, the team had to add new events to fill the two-month-long Welcome. These events had the added benefit of being designed explicitly to engage students wherever they may be.

“We played a game where, for example, we would bring three objects if you were being attacked by aliens,” Welcome leader and Steinhardt sophomore Bella Park said. “So I literally ran to my kitchen and grabbed a knife, an umbrella, and a sanitizing spray, and explained and showed it to them.”

The process of redesigning old events and creating new ones was partly about which events would be the most worthwhile for the time commitment. More importantly, these events were the answer to a question the Welcome team had been asking themselves: what do students need right now?

“So what we came up with is that students need to connect,” Carrera said. “Because a lot of incoming students, they had their senior years destroyed, like no prom or graduation, nothing. So we wanted to help them make as many connections as possible.”

With no precedent for a virtual Welcome, and thus no metric against which the team could measure a good event, the team started determining what works and what doesn’t based on the connections they saw develop among event participants.

“Instead of focusing so much on data, which we should never be doing anyways, it’s student oriented,” Carrera said. “We knew we were succeeding when we had students keep coming back to our events, they were having banter.”

Though the Welcome team was able to forge those connections between new students, that doesn’t mean NYU Welcome wasn’t without its challenges. On top of the inevitable technical difficulties that come with hosting hundreds of events over Zoom, some found that students were more hesitant to speak in a virtual setting.

“It doesn’t feel like a group setting where you’re just sitting around in the circle and talking,” Kohler said. “So there’s a little bit about overcoming that fear of communicating in a virtual space.”

Furthermore, the NYU Welcome struggled to get all their leaders, located across the world and multiple time zones, trained. The three consecutive days of training, taking place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, was hard on students, such as Park, who are operating at different times.

Currently living in South Korea, Park had to miss her summer classes to attend the seven-hour training that started at 11 p.m KST for her. Gabin Lee, a Liberal Studies sophomore also taking remote classes from South Korea, faced similar challenges with the time difference and summer classes.

“I remember there were going to be recordings of morning sessions or afternoon sessions for people who didn’t make it,” Lee said. “That never came around. I’m not quite sure why. I guess things were busy or like Zoom malfunctioned or something. But I think it would have been nice if there was a separate training at a different time.”

Through many trials and several errors, NYU Welcome wrapped up its last few events earlier this week. For the most part, Lee, Park, Kohler and Carrera believe they were able to accomplish what they set out to do in creating a campus for the incoming students.

“We’re proud of our work and we keep doing it no matter what,” Carrera said.

When asked if they would do it again, all four Welcome staff members replied with a resounding yes.

“Always,” Carrera said.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 14, e-print edition. Email Paul Kim at [email protected]

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