Virtually speaking: UAA’s New Student Orientation takes Howl Days online

by Catalina Myers  |   

UAA’s New Student Orientation hustled over the course of several months to transform the normally in-person, day-long New Student Orientation event known as Howl Days into 16 virtual tours, plus one self-guided online tour. (Photo courtesy, New Student Orientation)

 Recently UAA’s New Student Orientation got a major overhaul. The entire program was revamped with new tours, more interactive presentations and a morning breakfast so new students could connect before starting their orientation day. But right as New Student Orientation and the 2020 Wolfpack Leaders were gearing up for a busy summer, COVID-19 swept the nation and effectively nixed any possibility of hosting group tours on campus.

“We pivoted very quickly when we found out that we were going to be going virtual — at least for May and June,” said Cheryl Devenny, UAA’s New Student Orientation coordinator. Devenny herself was new to Alaska, having just moved to the state in January from Chicago to take the New Student Orientation coordinator position. She said she had just barely settled into life on campus and in the North when the world essentially “shut down” and had her and the rest of the team scrambling to update the virtual orientation, a component of New Student Orientation that had always existed, but was used more as a backup. “Our first step was to revamp the virtual orientation and make sure that it was as robust as possible.”

In the months following UAA’s closing campus to faculty, staff and students, Devenny said that she and her team spent countless hours, sometimes even on the weekends, overhauling New Student Orientation and preparing for “Virtual Howl Days.” 

Devenny said with the help of three veteran Wolfpack Leaders, Morrigan Kellen, a theater major with a concentration in performance and minoring in Spanish, Bao Her, also a theater major with a concentration in performance and Daphne Ang, a psychology major, the team was able to create 16 virtual tours, plus one self-guided tour. In addition to the virtual tours, the three students created a YouTube channel and Facebook group for incoming students to help them connect and feel a sense of community — something Devenny, Kellen, Her and Ang expressed concern over since most students won’t be returning to campus in the fall, and will be taking classes via alternate course delivery.

“Students have two options for New Student Orientation, they can either sign up for a day and time where they can meet with us via Zoom,” said Devenny. She said the Wolfpack does the heavy lifting for the presentations, doing activities like polls and small group chats. “They created a phenomenal virtual tour of campus where they walk them through every building and talk about the resources in each one. It’s a two-hour virtual orientation that the students go through.”

Devenny said once they realized they would need to be virtual beyond June, they added more sign-up dates to the calendar and despite all the drastic changes due to COVID-19, she said they’ve had an uptick in participation — some of the best they’ve seen in years.

“A virtual tour can’t replace an in-person tour, but to hear students’ excitement during their virtual tour, they will remember that,” Devenny said. “I think it’s great that we’re still able to have that peer connection.”

“Students need to be excited about UAA,” said Kellen. She said oftentimes joining New Student Orientation to be a Wolfpack Leader is the gateway to becoming more involved on campus and creating a sense of community, a big reason why she decided to apply for a position with New Student Orientation. “I wanted to join the Wolfpack because I wanted to get more involved on campus, I wanted to connect and join the UAA community through student employment and also introduce new students to campus.”

Ang and Her echoed Kellen’s statement. Her said that before applying to be a Wolfpack Leader with New Student Orientation, she didn’t know much about UAA and the diverse programs, clubs and events the university had to offer. 

“I always tell students that UAA feels like a family once you find where you belong,” Her said. “That’s an aspect I really want students to know, that once you really get involved, it’s really a small community and family that is a part of your life.”

That is something Kellen, Her and Ang hope they can foster through Howl Days this summer — a sense of community and belonging — despite New Student Orientation being completely online. They’re grateful for platforms like Zoom that offer a more interactive virtual experience and hope that they can pass on the positive experiences they’ve had so far as UAA students and impart some wisdom as more experienced students. Not only have the three women experienced life on campus, they now have an entire semester of alternate course delivery under their belts and have learned how to overcome the challenges of learning completely online, and they can forward on the tips they learned.

“It’s kind of a cliche to say the hardest thing about working from home is working from home,” said Kellen. “You just kind of lose that connection with students attending, but on the flip side, we’ve had higher rates of attendance to our orientations. So it’s been interesting — good and bad.”

Despite the challenges, New Student Orientation successfully took Howl Days online, creating a virtual tour of campus and creating a welcoming environment for new students attending UAA in the fall. Devenny said she is proud of her Wolfpack Leaders and their ability to go with the flow in the face of adversity, while also maintaining their own lives as students and student workers. 

“We’re professional multitaskers now,” said Devenny of her team.

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