Student engagement balances out college experience

Gina Lee-Olukoya poses for a professional headshot. Lee-Olukoya, working as director of Student Engagement, has had to create new methods of engaging students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo Courtesy of Gina Lee-Olukoya

Gina Lee-Olukoya poses for a professional headshot. Lee-Olukoya, working as director of Student Engagement, has had to create new methods of engaging students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Elizabeth Sayasane, Features Editor

As the director of student engagement, Gina Lee-Olukoya tackled the complications that arose with engaging a student body spread across the country. When the University announced everything would be moving online for the rest of the semester, Lee-Olukoya and her team got to work restructuring their approach to connecting the school community.

They have had to be creative in changing student programming, asking themselves how to have conversations with students to help them be successful and how to help their organizations be successful.

Lee-Olukoya said that Student Affairs continues to work this semester to keep students engaged whether they live in Champaign-Urbana or have moved back home. They have been trying to find the correct balance between in-person opportunities and virtual experiences. In the past several months, they have had to stay on their toes, ready to change plans as regulations and guidelines shift.

“I think that we are ever hopeful that our new normal won’t last that long,” Lee-Olukoya said. “But I think that we’re also ever hopeful that we’ll be able to continue to be nimble in addressing the guidelines like social distancing.”

They planned events such as the free movie and concert nights at Memorial Stadium where they could remain socially distanced while still being together. They also coordinated a new virtual Quad Day for this year to support the RSOs on campus.

One of the difficulties in Lee-Olukoya’s task of engaging students has been balance. She said she wants to ensure those students on campus have more to do than just walking up and down Green Street, while also attempting to bring a sense of the campus community to those in different cities, states and countries.

“All of us within the division are doing our best to work with students to ensure that the students who are here with us still have an experience that connects them to their peers and connects them to the brilliance of this institution,” she said. “For those students who are remote learners, we also try to make sure that we’re engaging them as well.”

While students attend college to obtain their degrees, many also choose large state schools like the University of Illinois for the experiences they can have on campus. COVID-19 has inhibited many of these opportunities.

Lee-Olukoya acknowledges that attending college for many students entails more than just going to class and doing homework. They want more than just to learn technical skills.

A significant benefit of attending a larger school is the opportunity to learn and reflect amidst one’s peers outside of the formal classroom setting. Students can grow and develop leadership opportunities from RSOs or involvement in social organizations.

She said the research backs this idea up and that engagement and involvement lead to better outcomes after graduation. This trick of the semester has been transitioning these same opportunities and benefits to virtual settings.

Freshmen in particular have been looking for chances where they can meet their peers and gain these extracurricular experiences.

“Those experiences matter, and they matter for the first-year student just like they matter for the senior,” she said. “There’s a whole body of knowledge about the first-year experience so we know a lot about what it takes for our first-year student to be successful.”

Responses from students as well as their parents have been mixed. While students, in general, are excited the University is offering experiences in person, many are asking for more. Some have been unhappy with the methods to move these experiences online, such as Virtual Quad Day.

Lee-Olukoya and her team have been working to address the needs and wants of the student community while keeping everyone safe.

“We want to give them an experience that aligns with our values as an institution,” she said. “We also want to give them an experience that aligns to help them be successful in the spaces out there.”

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