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How Weber State attempts to engage students on campus

Photo credit: Aubree Eckhardt

Across the country, hundreds if not thousands of events occur on university campuses every week. Getting students involved in these events is one way to keep those living on campus constantly engaged at an intellectual or physical level. But for students who live off campus, it can be more difficult.

Students who live off campus will typically have to deal with limited student parking or public transportation. Often, time spent on campus is kept at a minimum with little regard for extracurricular activities.

According to U.S. News, Weber State University has about 28,250 students currently enrolled with only 4%, roughly 1,130 students, living on campus. Finding ways to improve student involvement at Weber State’s on-campus events, therefore, is about finding ways to adapt the advertisement and accommodations of said events for the commuter student majority.

We’ll start by looking at what has been done at some long-running events to see what has contributed to long-term success and attendance. This may provide clues as to what other event organizers can do in order to improve student involvement in their own events.

One example of a long-running event on campus is the Ralph Nye Lecture Series that is organized by the Goddard School of Business and Economics. This event, according to Weber State University Dean of the Goddard School of Business and Economics Matthew Mouritsen, has a long history of bringing “national business and government leaders” to speaking events on campus for students, faculty and the public.

Since the event’s inception, it has been held at noon every Thursday.

“For 20 or so years, the noon hour has been used for our guest speaker series. The timing allows many students to attend after most classes conclude but before they leave campus for their jobs,” Mouritsen said. “As we know, students are busy and don’t have time, or don’t make time, for these types of events. We created a one-credit hour course called ‘Executive Lectures’ and made it required for all upper-division business majors.”

Beyond the convenient timing, the date of the events themselves had an advantage when the series first began.

“Many years ago, there was actually an open hour on campus on Thursdays. No classes were scheduled so that events like the University’s Convocation could be held,” Mouritsen said. “In our school, we scheduled guest speakers during this time as an optional way for business students to engage with prominent members of the business community.”

The event itself also accommodates the lecturer and guests with fresh food and beverages, as well as holding Executive Lectures at 5:30 p.m. on Mondays if students are unable to attend.

“In the off-chance that students can’t attend on either Thursday at noon or Monday evenings, we grant a small group of students the opportunity to complete the course online by watching recordings of the guest speakers and submitting a brief summary,” Mouritsen said.

According to Mouritsen, because the event is a requirement for business students, more people attend compared to other on-campus events, and he believes word of mouth from students plays a role as well.

“Roughly 80-100 students participate each Thursday, with another 75 on Monday evenings, each semester. The engagement between students and the speaker is excellent,” Mouritsen said. “(On Feb. 26, 2020), as an example our guest speaker, Chase Saxton from Adobe, essentially had a dialog with students about digital marketing, entrepreneurship and life in tech. Our Executive Lectures course is a highlight for many students and offers them a chance to open new doors and engage opportunities”.

The Ralph Nye Lecture Series is not the only event to take advantage of what used to be the “Open Hour” on campus. In fact, during the fall and spring semesters in 2018, events that began at noon and 1 p.m. made up a large portion of events that occurred on campus.

This came from data compiled from the Events Calendar on the Weber State website and largely included events held on campus that were available to the public, including speaking events, workshops, petting animals during finals week and more.

Many other events held on campus reflect the days of the week when the Ralph Nye Lecture Series take place. According to both fall and spring semesters of 2018, the most common days of the week that events are held on campus are Wednesday and Thursday, most commonly held during either the first or second Wednesday or Thursday of the month.

Relatively fewer events are held during the first and last months of the semesters.

During both semesters, only nine events happened on the same day at the same time. A total of 95 events happened during the spring semester and 114 events were scheduled during the fall semester in 2018.

While some events, like the Ralph Nye Lecture Series, are assigned for a course, many others are recommended to students or offered as a way to earn extra credit by many course instructors and faculty members.

Cultural Anthropologist Professor Mark Stevenson is one of many faculty members on campus who believes in the importance of recommending and assigning extra credit when students attend events on campus, especially for students on campus to attend his offline courses.

“I typically, in fact, always make it extra credit because our students have really tough schedules sometimes. Most of them work; many of them can’t be here when events are taking place,” Stevenson said. “I don’t require them because some students can’t make it work with their schedules, so I make it extra credit.”

For Stevenson, he finds events that he can assign as extra credit the same way most people on campus do: spotting flyers or posters when walking around and speaking with other faculty and students to discover what events they’ve heard about.

From Stevenson’s experience, subscribing to the monthly email newsletter sent out from the eWeber Portal’s Announcements tab is another way to discover upcoming events.

“(Events are) one of the really advantageous aspects of being a part of an institution such as this that you have this opportunity to attend these wonderful different offerings from this university,” Stevenson said. “To me, it really enhances and enriches the whole student experience as not just going to class, going home, taking your test.”

To Stevenson, helping introduce his students to events on campus is often the most common way they hear about events. He believes that getting involved in the “intellectual life” of the university is a critical part of the educational experience.

“And the good news is, you don’t have to be a student to attend those,” Stevenson said. “Most of these events are open to the public as well. Don’t think you can’t come back and attend these events just because you graduated.”

Even when attending an event on campus will earn a student extra credit, typically a very small number from his class will take that opportunity. However, Stevenson believes it’s more to do with their availability than their willingness.

“Sometimes, where the event was recorded and is available later, I’ll tell them they can watch that, then the number will go up,” said Stevenson. “If the extra credit opportunity is available online, that number will go up again. It’s not a high percentage, I’d say.”

To better engage students through their portals, the monthly email’s infrastructure has recently been improved, as of March 9.

According to Executive Director of Marketing and Communications John Kowalewski, this new infrastructure allows a user to customize how often they receive emails and the content of them. In addition, all new faculty and student email accounts are subscribed by default in an effort to help bring about awareness and improve communication on campus.

This was in large part due to feedback the department received when asking faculty and teachers on campus for ways to improve communication back in 2016 and 2017. According to Kowalewski, chief among them was the issue of communication due to their shift to the eWeber portal in 2009.

“The announcements have been a part of Weber State in some form or another for close to, if not longer than, 20 years. When I was employed in 2001, I would receive an email every day with what was then called the ‘Bulletin Board,’ a predecessor to the Announcements,” Kowalewski said. “I would get an email of things that I would be interested in. Communication was sent to all employees, and you automatically received it by default when you began working at Weber State University.”

Once the eWeber Portal was introduced, many faculty still retained a regular email about events on campus on a regular basis, but newer faculty were no longer subscribed to this service by default and would have to do so manually in order to receive it.

This was because when the eWeber Portal was first introduced, the events list was already there when students and faculty logged in. It was years later that it was eventually minimized in importance before ultimately disappearing.

“When the announcements were no longer a featured item on the interface, that’s the point when, potentially, a lot of our campus audiences would not be aware of, or familiar with, the announcement resource,” Kowalewski said.

After receiving feedback from faculty and staff, a committee was involved in developing the new interface to replace the Announcement’s current infrastructure. Representation among the committee was influenced by the Student Affairs department, who believed the student population would also greatly benefit from this redevelopment of email subscriptions of events on campus.

“When we made the decision that the announcements would automatically default for all employees, the decision was made that, also, all students would have this sent to them on a weekly basis, rather than a daily basis,” Kowalewski said. “But, all recipients, students and staff, are subscribed by default and can go in and change the frequency of how they receive this email.”

Even with these changes, it can be very difficult for commuter students, or students who live off campus, to find the time to be able to attend classes and these events. One freshman student, Natalya Vega, often has her classes conflict with attending events on campus.

“I think the perfect way for me to find out about events would be through both fliers and the event calendar,” Vega said. “I think the reason I have not attended any events is because they are usually a bit later into the day. This is a problem for me as someone who rides the bus and spends a majority of their morning on campus.”

Before COVID-19 began affecting her student life and eventually transitioned all of her courses onto Canvas, one of her teachers taught the class about the Announcement tabs on their eWeber portal. Students were shown how they can still be engaged with virtual events, workshops and other resources on campus as they stay home.

“After COVID, many events that I wanted to attend were canceled, but I still know how to look for details about upcoming events,” Vega said. “Without the teachers telling me these things, I may have not been aware of many of the events or announcements that Weber State has had to offer.”

After Weber State University’s Ogden campus became closed to the public due to COVID-19, many events originally held on campus have also made the transition online. One such example was Weber State University’s Women’s Center Feminist Leadership virtual workshop.

According to Women’s Center Program Coordinator Alex Dutro-Maeda and Student Assistant Haylee Oyler, April 8 was their first virtual version of their workshop event about information sharing and promotion of gender equity.

“Aside from the workshop needing to be held over Zoom, one major difference between this week’s workshop and our usual programs was the discussion format. Many of our events’ learning processes are based on discussion; we enjoy creating the space for folks to discuss the issues that are important to them and try out new ideas in a place that feels accepting and relatively secure,” Dutro-Maeda said.

However, there are still drawbacks to hosting discussions on a virtual platform.

“Because of the limitations of the virtual space, we can’t have as many small-group discussions and participant feedback as we would usually like, so the workshop was much more of a one-way experience,” Dutro-Maeda said.

She also believes it can be more difficult to advertise the event online, as everyone else is doing the same, but is confident that more students, faculty and the larger public will be able to find out about their events in the future, as they slowly adjust to everyone’s technology issues and conducting all of their other events online in the near future.

It can be difficult to improve student involvement in a university where a majority of students are commuters. Adjusting the events email infrastructure was one step to engage students with campus events.

With everything moving online because of COVID-19, it may, in fact, be the perfect time to improve email subscription services. More and more Wildcats are checking their email and Canvas more often, but there are still new problems that arise.

As many events were scheduled during optimal times on campus, there may be a better window of time to schedule events since most students are staying home. In addition, this pandemic won’t last forever, so event planners will need to think ahead when it comes to planning future events.

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