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FSU goes the ‘virtual’ extra mile to recruit high-achieving students

The transition to a remote campus has been an "exciting challenge" for the Florida State University Honors Program. (FSU Photography Services)
The transition to a remote campus has been an "exciting challenge" for the Florida State University Honors Program. (FSU Photography Services)

While the novel coronavirus is causing disruption for enrolled college students, the pandemic is also affecting how prospective students interact with universities.

The transition to a remote campus has drastically impacted how the Florida State University Honors Program recruits potential students. Instead of bringing future students to campus, program staff have been hard at work scheduling phone conferences and Zoom sessions focused on specialized topics and answering questions via social media.

Though not the typical recruitment experience, Jeff Badger, associate director of the Honors Program, acknowledges that the goal remains student success.

“The location is different, and the technologies may be slightly different, but the messaging is still the same,” Badger said. “It’s student success at FSU and that message doesn’t change. It’s about emphasizing all the possibilities that are available to prospective students and all the support services that are put in place for an incoming student. That messaging is still FSU.”

Recruiting prospective students virtually is not an ideal situation, but it’s one that has forced the Honors Program to be more creative. Annette Schwabe, associate dean in Undergraduate Studies and director of the Honors Program, said they’ve had to make policy modifications in response to the pandemic and think about how to make experiences even more student-friendly.

“I think this has ignited some energy, and I’m pleased at how everybody is going the extra mile to help students,” Schwabe said. “The faculty and staff always do, but it’s just so evident that everybody is under pressure and they’re still going that extra mile for the students.”

Badger and Schwabe have been coordinating with the Academic Recruitment Organization (ARO), a registered student organization designed to recruit high-achieving students from high schools around the country and to maintain high-quality relations with potential students. Normally, ARO sets up some of the university’s top current students to visit high schools and give personalized tours of FSU’s campus, but social-distancing guidelines have changed the way the group approaches student-to-student style communication and outreach.

Senior Grace Manno, the current ARO president, said the organization had to cancel multiple visits to college fairs and high schools because of COVID-19. Despite these cancellations, Manno said that ARO is still finding ways to form meaningful interactions between current and prospective FSU students.

“At a time where students are unable to travel and have an on-campus experience, our role as student representatives of FSU becomes increasingly important,” Manno said. “Prospective students still need those opportunities to form relationships with current students and envision what their life would be like at this university. We believe that even in these challenging times, we can still give these students a feel for the FSU community and create connections virtually.”

ARO is offering one-on-one virtual meetings as a substitute for campus tours, still giving potential students the opportunity to speak with a current student in their desired major. Manno said that although many students have taken advantage of the opportunity, some have expressed concerns about not having the chance to go to colleges and see how students interact with each other.

“Although our first choice will always be having prospective students on campus to make face-to-face connections, these unique circumstances are giving us the opportunity to explore other avenues to reach students in ways we would not have attempted before,” Manno said. “I believe recruitment efforts will only improve from this situation, and we can continue to incorporate these large-scale outreach methods in the future.”

These innovative outreach methods were demonstrated during the Presidential Scholars interview weekend, which took place April 3-5. The Presidential Scholars is the premier undergraduate merit scholarship program at FSU. High school seniors who are admitted into the Honors Program are eligible to apply and after a strenuous round of application review, finalists are typically invited to campus for a weekend of tours and interviews. The unique circumstances of this year forced the program leadership to convert this weekend into a virtual format, which presented both advantages and challenges.

“We interviewed 90 students and hosted several other activities which we normally do with the applicants, including a faculty roundtable breakout session where the students speak with faculty from around campus,” said Craig Filar, associate dean and faculty director of the Presidential Scholars program. “We also created some new programming, specifically student-directed programming, where various current Presidential Scholars facilitated breakout rooms for the candidates to talk about different topics, such as being an out-of-state student, STEM student or art student and how to engage in international experiences and internships.”

Other than a few predicted technical difficulties, Filar described the weekend as an “exciting challenge.”

“With all of the planning that goes into an event of this magnitude, whether virtual or in person, once it is go time, it is all about troubleshooting,” he said. “Of course, there were little technical issues, but we had the contingencies in place and helped individual students as issues arose. The biggest challenge was the whole process of recreating this as a virtual event, and it was a very successful challenge at that.”

The virtual format of the Presidential Scholars interview weekend allowed a prospective student living in the Philippines to participate without them having to pay thousands of dollars to come to Tallahassee. Badger noted that as just one example of how this unprecedented experience can be used as an opportunity to broaden FSU’s message and reach.

“It allows us to think about when we do return to normalcy, is there a way to use both and take advantage of this opportunity to examine what a virtual outreach would look like while still providing that personalized individual touch that is FSU’s recruitment of high-end students,” Badger said.

Although a physical visit to FSU’s charming campus isn’t available during the pandemic, the essence of such a visit is being captured in the virtual space.

“We know FSU is a wonderful place, and time and time again it’s proven that when students come to campus they connect with the people and the things that we offer as a university,” Filar said. “The combined effort of faculty, students, staff, the current scholars and even the candidates have proven that we can, at least in great part, capture that FSU spirit in the virtual space and continue to do our jobs successfully until we can return to our main campus.”

Prospective students and their families can access a virtual campus tour at  visit.fsu.edu. For more information about the Honors Program at FSU, visit honors.fsu.edu. To learn more about the Presidential Scholars Program, visit presidentialscholars.fsu.edu.