By Jeff Willadsen, WSU Academic Outreach and Innovation

Since 2012, Washington State University Global Campus’ Global Connections program has been providing online WSU students around the world with engaging virtual programing to connect them to their online Cougar community and diversify their learning experiences. In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused all WSU campuses to switch to virtual learning, the dedicated WSU employees behind the Global Connections program recognized the need for virtual engagement and community-building opportunities among Cougs across the university system.

For the next year and a half, the Global Connections team worked to fill those needs—with very successful results.

“We saw the switch to virtual instruction as an opportunity to provide more engagement opportunities to more Cougs. Whether you were an online student or not, we were all in the same boat during the pandemic, and building engagement and a sense of Cougar community became even more important,” said Andria Donnenwerth, Global Connections’ student involvement manager. “As a result, we saw a huge rise in our attendance numbers, and received a lot of positive feedback in our post-event surveys.”

Among the most popular new additions to Global Connections programming were virtual game nights. The idea was to create a fun and relaxed environment for students to enjoy a virtual version of a classic party game while giving them an opportunity to socialize with each other.

Game nights featured Bingo, Pictionary, and Family Feud. The games were optimized by the Global Connections team to be played over Zoom with a large number of participants.

“Students really seemed to enjoy the game nights, and a lot of people showed up,” said Andrea Jimenez, Global Connections Program coordinator. “You could feel a real sense of community—something that we all needed at that time.”

Bingo proved to be one of the most popular game night events and drew the largest audiences.

“People from all WSU campuses joined and we all had a great time. Game nights are still one of our most popular virtual events, and we plan to continue offering them on a permanent basis,” said Jimenez.

“Some of my favorite events I attended from Global Connections were the Game Nights,” said Aaron Rhinehart, and current Global Campus student and student ambassador. “They were always fun, engaging, and a great way to spend an evening.”

Another popular event that started as a result of the pandemic was the Virtual Gameday Lounge, an online tailgating event designed to celebrate the Cougar football games played during the 2020 season.

“Since we couldn’t tailgate together in person that season, we decided to celebrate virtually. And we wanted Cougs from all campuses to join us,” said Donnenwerth. “We hoped to replicate the experience of community and Cougar spirit that people normally have while rooting on their Cougs in person. It was refreshing to see that kind of enthusiasm online.”

The Global Connections team plans to continue Virtual Gameday Lounge events into the 2021 football season.

Virtual events were also created in parallel with other important events being recognized throughout the year, including the MLK Virtual Jeopardy event,  the Great Ramen Cook-off contest for Family Day, and the Retro Virtual Dance Party for Week of Welcome.

“We tried to get as creative as possible and provide new and fun ways to build engagement and community. Our partners across the broader university system helped us a lot in this regard.,” said Donnenwerth. “University Recreation (UREC), ASWSU Global, and other student wellness organizations and clubs have done a great job sponsoring our events and providing content ideas. We really appreciate their support and hope to work with even more organizations across the university system in the future.”

Along with community-building, Global Connections also has sought to provide educational opportunities to help students succeed. These include webinars related to study skills, mental health and resiliency, career tips, and job search techniques.

The new event series, Cougs Chatting with Cougs, is an open forum for virtual discussion centered around topics of interest. One example is a forum revolving around seeking jobs during the pandemic.

“Whether it’s providing tools for success, a place to talk to other Cougs, or just a way to have fun and let off some steam, we want to provide a wide spectrum of events,” said Donnenwerth.

From his own experience as a student, Rhinehart believes this effort to engage with online students was a success.

“The Global Connections events have provided me with a way to stay connected while working and learning from home,” he said. “Having outlets to connect with other students and faculty is important when you don’t learn on campus.”

“We’ve seen a lot of growth and success in online engagement in the past year and a half,” said Debbie O’Donnell, WSU Global Campus’ vice chancellor for student affairs. “Our outstanding Global Connections team has done a fantastic job of meeting the needs of both our online and on-campus students. Looking to the future, we plan to continue adding more creative and engaging virtual programing available to Cougs both in Washington State and around the world. In other words, stay tuned for more.”