How to Build Relationships with Students When You Can’t Meet in Person

After months of preparation and anticipation, the time has come. 

We are finally reunited with our students, and meeting new ones, too! The folks who give meaning to everything we do have returned, and they’re as eager as ever to reconnect with us. 

But perhaps they’re unsure of just how that might play out.

As they’re enduring a semester that seeks to prioritize space and safety, it’s important that we show them that we’re not solely working to keep everyone apart; We’re also committed to instilling a sense of closeness within and among our communities.

And how do we do that? By getting students excited for the plans we’ve made to create an environment that feels like we’re together, even when we have no choice but to be physically separate.

I’ve got some suggestions for how you can maintain close relationships with existing students and build connections with new students all semester long.

Maintaining Relationships

1. Free Lunch

In-person events might be off the table for now. That means the opportunity to catch up with students as they’re waiting in line for pizza may not be as feasible. You could join in on a virtual program, but those don’t exactly create space for small-talk.

So, instead of you going to the students, flip the script and have the students come to you.  Incentivize a monthly “Fun Friday” through which students get a small amount of your version of campus cash or a gift card to an off-campus shop to grab themselves a meal. Chat virtually over lunch with no goal in mind other than catching up. 

They get some free food, and you get to learn more about which TV shows they’re loving these days.

2. Letter Writing

gif that says 'pen pal, this one's for you'

Do you remember having a pen pal in grade school? Maybe you still have one today! The art of letter writing has been lost to email and direct messaging, but I’m hopeful that this season can prompt a comeback.

Partner with your campus mail department to facilitate a letter exchange. You can design a postcard on programs like Canva or InDesign and have them printed at a pretty low cost. 

Start the snail mail chain by sending cards to a handful of students and explaining your hope for the pen pal program. They can then send a note back to you or to someone else on campus by bringing it to the mail center and mentioning the campaign. 

The hope here is to spread the handwritten love across campus but also for you to maintain communication with your students in a tangible way.

3. Traveling Notebook

Let’s take the last idea just one step further. The magic of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants might not translate well to 2019 college students but a traveling notebook could!

You’ll need your staff to buy into this one. If they can each commit to writing a couple of entries per week, you could have a great story written in no time.

Grab a notebook and start off by sharing a story or two. Pass it on to another staff member who will read your entries, keep the notebook for a week, and record their own thoughts. This cycle should repeat until the notebook makes its way back to you. 

You can catch up on the happenings of your staff all at once, and you’ll be able to look back at the end of the semester to see how much has changed.

4. Marco Polo

Many SA Pros like to keep their social media profiles sacred. That’s totally justified but, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just Snapchat a funny moment or a quick hello to your students?

Marco Polo has joined the call.”

This app is a lot like having a conversation in real life with folks who are passing by. If I have a brilliant idea I want to share with my students but they’re not hanging around the office like usual, this app serves as a great resource. 

You can record videos live and if other folks in your group are free to chat, they can hop right into the call. If not, they can catch up later because the video recording will stay active in the chat. 

It’s like Facetime, except you never have to worry about missing out on the call!

Building New Relationships

5. Social Media Contests

gif of Michael Scott saying 'win win win'

We all know that social media is a powerful marketing tool and that it keeps students up to date on the happenings of your office. But it can also foster new, unlikely connections.

Start a social media campaign wherein you post a nondescript photo of your favorite place on campus. Challenge your followers to identify the location, snap their own picture at the spot, and tag you in it. Whoever completes the mission first can grab their prize from your office, or have it shipped to them.

This way, you’re limiting the number of students in your office, but you still get to meet someone new when they come to introduce themselves as a participant of your challenge!

As an additional tip, be sure that you’ve got some great prizes that will really motivate students to get engaged. Some good ideas are sweatshirt blankets for lounging on the quad, a pair of blue-light glasses to help with all that screen time, or Bluetooth speakers so they can enjoy music with others from a distance. You can also find additional suggestions here.

6. Shared Virtual Hobbies

When I was a hall director, we had to come up with a “FedEx Idea” — aka an idea you could deliver that would connect you to students in your hall. Hall directors would come up with programs that aligned with their own personal interests and used them to find commonalities with their new residents.

We can take this same approach virtually.

For example, I love crosswords. I do the free New York Times Mini every day. So, I might create an event for crossword lovers under my department’s Presence page. I’d then add those folks who indicate an interest to a GroupMe (with their approval, of course!), through which we could share our completion times with each other each day. Nothing like a friendly competition to really bring people together!

7. Volunteerism

Many of us are already stretched thin and being asked to assume non-traditional roles to support COVID-19 mitigation efforts across campus. But if you have some time to volunteer, lending a hand might give you a great opportunity to interact with new students.

Here are some avenues to consider: Many institutions are running COVID-19 testing facilities. Could you volunteer for an hour or two to swipe students in? Or, perhaps your institution is looking for offices that can distribute PPE to students as they arrive on campus. Can you volunteer your department to be a supply site? Might you be willing to pass out COVID-19 educational materials?

This is not a fun or glamorous way of connecting to new students, but building that initial trust with them as they enter the most unpredictable semester of their college lives will go a long way toward becoming the person they’ll turn to in times of need.

8. Snacks

You know what we’re all going to need a lot of going into this year? Joy. So, spread it!

Buy some individually wrapped snacks from a wholesale retailer or order some sweet treats from a local bakery. Hop on your golf cart (or invest in a bike with a basket) and hand out refreshments to students wearing masks and social distancing on campus.

Try to make this more than a grab-n-go situation by spending a few moments asking students how their semesters are going. And don’t forget to direct them to your office or to future programs you’ll be hosting so they know where to find you throughout the semester!

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There’s a lot that is daunting and unfamiliar about the upcoming year. But they don’t call us student affairs professionals for nothing! We have the skills and creativity to make our relationships with students more valuable and fulfilling than ever before.

This is a time that none of us will soon forget. Students will always look back and remember the time they went to college during a pandemic. Let’s be the light they remember. Let’s be the folks who kept them shining.

How else have you built or maintained new relationships with students recently? We’d love to hear your stories! Connect with us on Twitter @HelloPresence.

Chelsea Jordan

About the author: Chelsea Jordan is a student affairs jack-of-all-trades with a passion for women's leadership. She currently serves as the Assistant Director for Campus Operations at Tufts University, and if she could have dinner with anyone tomorrow, it would be with the woman who inspires her most: Brené Brown. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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