What Students Are Saying about Returning to Campus: Challenges and Hopes for Building Connections

By Adam Petersen, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Academic Success, CSU San Marcos

February 2022

This blog is based on interviews with incoming second-year CSU students who attended college virtually during their first year. Highlights of the interviews are enlightening, and they contributed to a lively discussion with a panel of CSU faculty and staff during the CSU Student Success Network Conference in October 2021. The panel focused on what we can learn from students as we reframe our approaches to student engagement during the pandemic.  

Every fall, the CSU welcomes tens of thousands of new students who are beginning their college journeys or continuing via transfer. Each of the 23 campuses works hard to provide these students with comfortable transitions to their new environments. Fall 2021, however, saw two entire cohorts of students starting fresh on campus: those for fall 2020 (most of whom spent their first year in virtual learning environments due to the pandemic) and for fall 2021. 

Before the start of this academic year, I interviewed a handful of the second-year students from across California, and these students shared their hopes and concerns as they prepared to set foot on their respective CSU campuses for the first time. With CSU’s spring term 2022 starting virtually and then shifting to in-person teaching, this is a perfect time for all of us in the CSU to reflect on the honest insights that the students shared about building in-person connections with each other, with faculty, and with their campus. 

Concerns about engagement with peers. Regarding their first-year experiences away from campus, every student I interviewed described the difficulty of building and sustaining lasting friendships with other students virtually. Many spoke of the peer relationships they did create as strictly transactional, often based around particular courses. We should recognize that fall 2021 might not have provided these students with adequate opportunities to build the kinds of meaningful relationships with peers that they are looking for. In particular, students said they were anxious about returning to the social experiences and expectations associated with physical spaces, with two students describing these prospects as “nerve-wracking.” As campuses return to in-person instruction this spring, faculty and staff need to remind ourselves that some students may not feel comfortable re-engaging right away. We might consider structured activities, both inside and outside the classroom, that can help students readjust to participating in physical communities.

Concerns about engagement with faculty. The students also said they had not been able to develop meaningful connections with faculty virtually. Engagement with faculty is cited across the higher education literature (for example, here and here) as among the most important for a student’s learning, development, and success. As with their peer connections, the students described transactional relationships with their instructors and bemoaned the lack of opportunity to meet with and develop relationships with faculty in their major. One student described her struggle to complete an application for a summer research program because she didn’t have any faculty who could provide letters of recommendation. This is likely to be a common refrain from first-year students who spent fall 2021 bouncing in and out of their respective campuses, but this is of critical importance for the second-years, who should be finishing lower-division courses and entering into their major coursework. Intentionally creating opportunities for these students to connect to faculty in their major (for example, as part of introductory courses in the discipline, early research methods courses, and extracurricular events) will be vital to their continued success.

Need for flexibility and compassion. In the interviews, students also emphasized how much it means to them when their instructors recognize the impacts of the pandemic and offer flexibility in terms of teaching modalities, assignments, and grading policies. Many CSU campuses offered in-person instruction in the fall, but students said that their schedules also included hybrid or virtual classes, and this variety created some confusion in terms of expectations for attendance, discussions, assignments, and grading. In light of these challenges, students asked for understanding and flexibility. During a spring term that is already turbulent, our students are looking to us for a kind of stability that is rooted in compassion, not rigidity.

Listening to students and adjusting engagement practices. CSU staff and faculty are not used to explaining the value of what we call “the college experience,” and yet we should not take it for granted that our first- and second-year students fully understand the importance of academic and social engagement in college. These students have had unique and complicated transitions from high school to college, and their association with “school” is different from any cohort that has come before. We need to acknowledge this and work with them to understand their experiences and perspectives. 

Foremost, this means listening to our students to understand the kinds of engagement that they find comfortable and meaningful, both inside the classroom and in other spaces. For example, some of our standard recruiting practices, such as sending out flyers, may no longer suffice. In our conversations with students, we need to be proactive in helping them understand why the engagement experiences that we consider to be universally positive really do make a difference for student learning and success. This means not just posting office hours, but welcoming students and making the case for why they need to attend. The same goes for other high-impact practices such as joining a club on campus and participating in research experiences and service learning. As we develop intentional strategies to engage students upon their return to campus, we will likely need to adjust them during the term and in preparation for next year.

Spring 2022 is likely to be as chaotic as the fall term was, and much of that chaos is outside of our control. What we can do, however, is listen to our students and be intentional about creating meaningful experiences for them inside and outside the classroom. Given what our students have been through, many of them are understandably concerned about engaging socially and intellectually on campus, but they are also excited to create lasting connections with each other and with faculty and staff. We can facilitate their transitions on campus by remaining flexible and compassionate, by taking time to articulate the value of authentic engagement in both the academic and social life of the campus, and by creating welcoming opportunities for our students throughout the year. 

See what students are saying. View a short video of student testimonials from the 2021 CSU Student Success Network Conference session, “Student Engagement in the CSU Knowledge Exchange: A Community Conversation” here