By: Kathy Matson, M.S.
Assistant Director of Student Life, Mount Wachusett Community College

In spring 2020, as the country seemed to shut down and many of us were forced to switch to virtual programming, we all thought it would only be a temporary situation and we would soon be back to normal. Well here we are, almost a year later and life is anything but normal. In the college world that means everyone from faculty and students, to administrators and student activities teams have had to rethink how and what they do.

In the student activities realm, where many of us had shrinking budgets already, we discovered that budgets were being cut even more and often we were a forgotten entity. Many college administrators thought that since students were not on campus we were not going to be doing any programming. Well think again, just because students were not attending in-person classes did not mean they didn’t want to stay connected; and so began the virtual programming journey.

If you were like me, most of what you did for spring 2020 was homegrown and not very elaborate. We had in-person, hands-on events that needed to be cancelled and finding comparable virtual options was a struggle. I quickly learned how to use Zoom and utilized my programming board to “test” out my virtual programming ideas. We tried virtual bingo, played Jack Box Games, and Kahoot! became my new best friend. For the remainder of the spring semester I offered a few drop in Zoom sessions where students could just connect and hangout and I set-up weekly asynchronous contests that students could access when convenient.

As we moved through the summer and it became clear that our students would remain primarily virtual, I delved deeper into the virtual programming world. My budget was cut in half and my first reaction was to create a homegrown slate of programs. This included purchasing an annual Kahoot! license for $720, finding a couple of college staff members that were gamers and were willing to oversee an intramural esports program, and scouring the web for sites that offered free access to virtual bingo, online puzzle creators, scavenger hunt ideas, and anything else that I could use.

After my initial budget panic I decided to review how my budget had been spent over the past several years to see where I could save some money. I soon realized that about half of my budget went to food for my events; then it hit me, food is not an option for virtual programming, so in reality my budget hadn’t really been cut all that much. Now I began to look at what types of virtual programming I could hire.

My fall 2020 semester was thrown together somewhat randomly as artists reached out to me with offers to perform or speak virtually, often at a reduced price. I began to hire speakers that I would never bring to campus because of travel costs, but could now perform virtually at a fraction of their in-person costs and I could reach more students that simply needed to click a link to attend and not need to be in-person on campus. I still offered many homegrown events such as bingo, and Zoom Halloween parties, along with my weekly asynchronous contests, but professional events began to form.

As I worked to build my spring 2021 calendar for my still virtual campus, the schedule looked very different than what I originally imagined. As I write this on the last day of 2020 I currently have 34 virtual events scheduled, with 20 of them being hired professionals. That works out to be just over 2 events per week and does not include the weekly asynchronous contests. Because my calendar is already locked in I am able to share it with the whole college community and look to get buy in from faculty for many of the events such as speakers on mental health awareness, social justice, alcohol and substance abuse, financial literacy, cultural awareness, and so much more.

So now that I have rambled a bit about my pandemic journey in student activities, let’s revisit the original question, Virtual Programming: When to make it homegrown and when to hire the pros. Homegrown events can be a great way to keep your programming board involved and give students an opportunity to simply meet together, hangout, and attend an event that allows flexibility to meet student needs. Some of my homegrown events are themed, such as the Snowman Social, DeStress Coloring Day, and Star Wars Day, but others such as my Chat with Student Life events allow me to go with the flow and meet the students where they’re at.

On the flip side, I’ve hired the pros to do what I can’t do. They are the experts on the topics I want to address and they provide students with a new lens  to see the world. I can offer virtual games such as bingo or trivia, but I let the pros run the TV themed gameshows. This spring I am offering “Event Boxes” with the supplies to do the hands-on projects for some of my programs. While much is homegrown, I’ve hired a pro to teach origami (I’ve discovered that I do not have that skill) using the origami paper in the box and instead of doing the DeStress Coloring Day using paper, I’ve included customized dry erase boards in the boxes so students can use them again and again.

We’ve all learned so much during this pandemic and I don’t foresee us ever returning to a completely in-person student activities world, so let’s use what we have learned and create a new and innovative experience for our students going forward.

Below are the list of resources I’ve used to build my spring calendar, both homegrown and professional, as well as a link to my spring 2021 calendar of events.

MWCC Spring 2021 Calendar –

Free or inexpensive resources

Professional Resources