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Giving Virtual Recruitment the Personal Touch

Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering adapts traditional recruitment and retention strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic

PITTSBURGH (April 22, 2020) -- During this time of year, the staff at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering would be busy welcoming prospective and admitted students and their families to campus. Calendars would be filled with tutoring and mentoring sessions, events like Admitted Student Day, tours of Benedum Hall and Q&A sessions about life as an engineering student.

Except this year, since the coronavirus pandemic has prevented those in-person events from taking place, the staff has shifted to using the technology at hand to welcome students virtually. While there has been an adjustment period, student support services are reporting positive results, and some are even considering keeping remote activities as an option for families and students who aren’t able to attend the in-person events.

From In-Person to Virtual-Person

Lauren Byland, associate director for the First-Year Engineering Program Office, has been organizing virtual information sessions for admitted students for about a month now, with between 40 and 80 students and their families joining each one. Despite the pandemic, recruitment numbers are approximately 50 percent ahead of where they were at this time last year.

“The virtual sessions have been going very well. They feature a professional recruitment team staff member such as myself or Beth Scott, the campus visit and recruitment coordinator for the Swanson School,” says Byland. “One of our senior-level Engineering Ambassadors presents, too, so they can get a student perspective.”

The team hosted its first virtual Admitted Student Day on April 13 on YouTube Live, and they’ve ramped up social media efforts to connect with students. The Pink Panthers Mentorship program, which started last year, is continuing to pair admitted female students with a mentor at the Swanson School. The group had conducted eight of the 12 scheduled events, and when asked if the admitted students would be interested in virtual events, 25 of 37 signed up.

“These events will be smaller and more personalized, and we are happy that technology allows us to make these connections. Nothing can replace a personalized on-campus visit, but these programs certainly help them see themselves as Pitt Panthers and feel connected to our School,” says Byland. “We were forced into this virtual recruitment world, but now that we are doing it, we plan to still do virtual sessions or meetings after we come back to campus for families that may not be able to visit us in person.“

Christopher Kirchhof, coordinator of transfer student services at the Swanson School, has also begun using virtual alternatives to the small, in-person meetings usually held at this time of year. A majority of transfer students come from within the University of Pittsburgh’s Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, but Kirchhof also spends time visiting other schools to meet with transfer students there in groups. Those group meetings have become one-on-one Skype calls.

“To me, I think students and families have been understanding that this is a pivot from the norm and have been appreciative of the one-on-one outreach. I keep going back to the quote, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention;’ we have had the technological capabilities to do virtual outreach, but this situation has forced us to rethink our practices,” says Kirchhof. “While nothing can replicate an on-campus or in-person meeting, I’m thinking that once we are back on campus, virtual advising for students at other campuses may become the norm, at least for the first interaction.”

Excelling in the Digital Space

Serving more than 250 undergraduate students, Pitt EXCEL is a diversity program that provides academic support, mentoring and career development for underrepresented minorities. More than that, they help students develop a community and professionally grow together. As campus closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, program staff had to quickly adapt these services to remote learning.

“The transition to remote learning has been quite difficult academically,” said Halima Morafa, a sophomore mechanical engineering student. “Many of my teachers have been quite accommodating; however, it is still a big change now that I’m back at home, and a lot of the resources that I would utilize at Pitt are not available.”

Yvette Moore, director of Pitt EXCEL, and the engineering student support staff have been developing new ways to implement their programs and services.

“I think the students realize what they had on campus was something special, and we’re collectively doing everything we can to recreate it,” said Moore. “Pitt EXCEL is having virtual one-on-one meetings, and the student organizations have jumped right in with tutoring and ‘lounges’ where they can meet as a group and discuss tips for working from home.”

Student groups like the National Society for Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers have held virtual elections, while DIVA and Brotherhood have continued to provide virtual workshops.

“It has been business not-as-usual, but it has been great,” said Moore. “At first I thought it was going to be hard for us to change everything to virtual so quickly, but it wasn’t. The students, to their credit, are resilient.”

The program has bolstered its presence on social media, where Moore holds weekly Instagram Live (@PittEXCEL) events called, “Fabulous Friday.” The virtual gatherings are a widely attended 15-minutes of motivation on subjects varying from “The What-ifs of Life” to “Flying Without Wings.” They have also planned an Instagram Live cooking show with alumni so that they can discuss healthy eating habits during the quarantine.

“One thing that has remained consistent is our alumni engagement,” said Moore. “They have great wisdom and advice to give our students about how they can navigate these uncertain times.”

Another recent development established by the undergraduate coordinators is an engineering hotline. Students can fill out an online form to discuss any topic, such as co-op, tutoring, or professional development, and they are paired up with someone who can help. Alumni are available to give advice and prepare students to enter the workforce, and upperclassmen are available to assist them with challenging coursework or discuss their personal experiences as an engineering student. The hotline is available from 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. on weekends.

“The Instagram Lives, the hotline, and Ms. Moore’s online advising sessions have been so helpful because it gives this scary time a nice sense of normality and stability,” said Anaya Joynes, a sophomore industrial engineering student. “She reminds me that I will still reach my goals and we are still a family, though we are far away.”

Moore said, “For some students, life looks different when they go home, but they know that they also have a home at Pitt, and we can provide that extra support and help them process all of this.”

Investing in Future Students

INVESTING NOW, a college preparatory program that welcomes and supports high school students from groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields, has shifted their operations online, as well. They have continued to offer advising, tutoring and workshops but have also added virtual meet-up groups with Pitt undergraduates who are also INVESTING NOW alumni.

When it was clear the University would be moving to online interactions, INVESTING NOW sent instructions for families on how to use Zoom, and advisors and students reached out to contact students individually to schedule sessions.

“Smaller group interactions are best, and relationships matter. Because our college student employees (both student coordinators and tutors) already had relationships with our pre-college students, it was easier to make the connection,” says Alaine Allen, PhD, director of Educational Outreach and Community Engagement at the Swanson School and a co-director of the Broadening Equity in STEM Center at Pitt. “These relationships that were built on trust make the connections stronger and allow our pre-college students to see interacting with the college students as a treat.”

In addition to the usual tutoring and mentoring activities, INVESTING NOW has also begun holding regular meet-up groups with Pitt students where they discuss topics like “quaren-things to do,” college planning, games, time management and more.

Yet, Allen has noticed a disparity in the students’ technological skills and preparation, which has presented additional challenges.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by how quickly our high school students and our undergraduate tutors and mentors adjusted to the virtual space,” says Allen. “However, we have been alarmed by the difference of experience our students are having based on the school they attend. Our biggest challenge has been the academic expectations of students, depending on their school and/or district.”

Luckily, Allen says most students have access to a computer or smartphone, and they’re in touch with community organizations who can support student technology needs if necessary. However, while some districts were prepared with online curricula, not all of them were able to immediately make a smooth transition.

“Because of the difference, not all of our students are as engaged as possible,” says Allen. “This experience has made us realize the importance of assessing students access to technology in advance. We are very concerned that various levels of access have only increased the educational inequity and challenges present.”

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Contact: Leah Russell

Author: Maggie Pavlick and Leah Russell