In spring 2020, the Office of Student Life at Columbia SPS was busy as usual. They were planning a host of summer activities for students—baseball games, Broadway shows, museum trips, on-campus mixers, and many other landmark activities. Then the New York State on Pause Order was issued and everything changed. Spring Break unexpectedly turned into months of working from home.
“We’re Student Life. From orientation to graduation, we’re the hospitality, the welcomers, the celebration folks. Moving everything virtual was a transition and shift in our energies. We’ve now held two fully virtual graduations. The challenge was keeping up morale and assuring students we were doing all we could. That in-person community and face-to-face interaction were really missed,” said Rollie Carencia, Director of Student Life. The Student Life team would go on to host two fully virtual graduations for more than 1,700 graduates, initiate talks for students to meet the new Interim Dean, execute 45 events and support another 190 student club events, and even coordinate hundreds of students getting their IDs to access campus.
We talked to the Student Life team, Rollie Carencia, Laura Graffitti, and John Brunner, about the challenges and the unexpected benefits of moving university life online as well as what they’re most looking forward to in fall 2021 (hint: they just launched a new site for students to sign up for co-curricular activities).
The Office of Student Life was one of the first teams to return to campus. When did you start going back and what did you miss the most about campus life?
Laura Graffitti, Assistant Director of Student Life: I started going back to campus about once a week around early June 2020. We house Columbia IDs and with the pandemic came the need to have an ID to access campus, so we needed to figure out ways to get them to students. I was coordinating times to be there for sporadic pickups. Luckily we had terrific advisors on campus as well who were a tremendous help.
Every time I’ve been back, there’s progressively more and more life on campus. That “college quad feel” that everyone loves is finally coming back, and I’m excited for students particularly.
We’ll always make sure there are opportunities for all students to be part of the community—whether they’re full-time professionals, international, or remote. We have 30+ clubs and organizations that are academic program or identity-based, and events that range from online cooking classes, virtual tours, and trivia nights to Broadway shows, happy hours, and free food giveaways.”
Rollie Carencia, Director of Student Life: We’re the team that will run to campus. If we have to troubleshoot, we’ll be there. As stressful as the IDs were, our team figured out how to do it well. Students in programs like the Columbia HBCU Fellowship Program had a very different experience this year. Usually, we’d take them to Broadway shows or out to dinner to give them that New York City experience. During the pandemic, however, we were instead packing gift bags, giving them branded planners, and other little things to make them feel part of a community. We were doing everything we could to spread joy and spirit in the environment. For me, working from home started to feel like “Groundhog Day,” so being able to see colleagues again eventually was actually emotional. Whether it was laughing together or just making sure everyone was okay, it felt like a dream come true in a sense.
John Brunner, Student Life Coordinator: My first time back on campus last year felt like the first day of school; there was that kind of excitement. It was on a warm day in September. I got a little dressed up. I was excited to see my colleagues in the same way you get excited to see school friends after summer vacation.
Laura: Plus, the Korean food and hot dog vendors are back as well as the farmer’s market! Everything on Broadway was closed when I first went back last year. Now, it’s alive and well again. They’ve expanded that outdoor seating and are utilizing Broadway for everything it has to offer!
The Student Leader Awards was my favorite virtual event… It translated incredibly well over Zoom. People had family and friends from around the world attend and it resulted in such a special event.”
What were the unexpected opportunities that came with operating during a pandemic?
Rollie: Access is key. We started an event called Talking With Troy, which gave students the opportunity to meet with our Interim Dean, Troy Eggers. No matter where they were in the world, or if they were working a full-time job or had competing priorities, they were able to connect with him. We were able to reach different populations across the board, which was really gratifying.
Laura: Of course, online students and programming existed before the pandemic, but the full transition to virtual set higher expectations for the quality of online learning. It made us push ourselves to get better at creating engagement online. For example, we’ve hosted speakers we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to because of travel and location. There’s more flexibility which allows us to still give students great event experiences.
The Student Leader Awards was my favorite virtual event. That traditionally happens in late April, so when COVID-19 happened, it was our first large-scale, cornerstone event. We just hosted it virtually again this past year, and it’s amazing how much it has improved. It translated incredibly well over Zoom. People had family and friends come in and it resulted in such a special event. We were so nervous the first time around, so watching that event come full circle and be so successful was really rewarding.
Don’t forget we have the new SPS Engage! It’s a one-stop-shop for students looking for events, student clubs or other ways to get involved on campus this year.”
John: Many Columbia SPS students are working professionals. They have classes at varying times across many time zones, and a lot of our students are parents or take care of someone. Even if they’re technically enrolled as in-person students, we want to continue to provide flexible ways for them to get involved and gain co-curricular experiences. Some things are easier to attend when you can be at home with a child on your lap, as opposed to having to get to campus on a weekday night for an in-person event. We’re also going to revive the SPS Gets Out the Vote speaker series this fall. It’s a new mainstay of our programming that we might not have taken on before.
Any sneak previews for the fall 2021 semester?
John: We’re reaching out to all our vendor contacts—Yankees, Mets, everything—they’re all coming back to life again. In addition, we have big Weeks of Welcome planned for September. We have Broadway tickets, Mets tickets, great wellness, and library resource workshops planned as well. And don’t forget we have the new SPS Engage! It’s a one-stop shop for students looking for events, student clubs or other ways to get involved on campus this year.
Rollie: If any students feel distant or disconnected as a result of not being on campus, there are still ways to engage and connect. We’ll always make sure there are opportunities for all students to be part of the community, whether they’re full-time professionals, international, or remote. We have 30+ clubs and organizations that are academic program or identity based, and events that range from online cooking classes, virtual tours, and trivia nights to Broadway shows, happy hours, and free food giveaways. We work hard to make sure we have options for every student’s schedule and situation. We also work closely with the Columbia University Office of University Life, which provides multiple ways for graduate students to get involved as well.
Who would you like to thank for their partnership and support for the last year and a half?
Laura: Big shout-out to Elizabeth Pickard, the Events Coordinator. We haven’t been a full-sized team since 2019 and she’s been helping us with events through most of COVID-19. Truly, I don’t know how we would’ve done half of what we did without her help and support.
John: Our student leaders have done a lot during this time as well. It’s been a joy to work with them and the SPS Student Government. They’ve also had to be creative and provide great feedback. They put their heads down, got to work, and came up with fantastic ideas.
Rollie: I’m such a proud manager. I don’t know where we’d be without these people. Our team works continuously to make sure the students have a valuable experience. They will drop anything to fix things and I’m truly grateful. It’s a team that really works hard.
Any insights or advice for returning to campus for those of us who haven’t been in quite some time?
Rollie: My advice is take it easy on yourself and your colleagues. We learned the importance of personal wellness from this pandemic. If you need to reacclimate to your commute or need to adjust your desk and in-person set up, take it step by step. If you feel sick, don’t go to work. It’s something we need to practice and learn from. Take care of yourself!