ASU campus visits, new-student orientations pivot to virtual setup

Screenshot of a class schedule during a Zoom meeting

Sandra Voller (at top), the director of academic services for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, leads a virtual orientation session via Zoom with incoming fall 2020 Barrett, The Honors College students on March 26. Students pictured are, top to bottom: Kyra Miller of New River, Arizona, biomedical sciences; Leila Stewart of Houston, double-majoring in women and gender studies and psychology; and Aislinn Marek of Lake Oswego, Oregon, biological sciences.

Just like every spring, future Sun Devils are touring the ASU campus, attending New Student Orientation programs, meeting with academic advisers and signing up for their fall classes.

But this time around, they’re doing this from the comfort of their own homes. With the need for social distancing amid the spread of COVID-19, ASU’s orientation programs for incoming fall 2020 students and the Experience ASU campus tours for prospective students have transitioned to online at least through June 30.

On a recent morning, dozens of soon-to-be Barrett, The Honors College students peered into a Zoom screen on their laptops as ASU staff, academic college administrators and advisers guided them through an orientation program remotely. Beginning with live welcome messages from university and Barrett Honors deans and a video message from President Michael Crow, the program then delved into campus resources, ways to get involved and details about course requirements and registration.

Students and guests later followed a link to a separate virtual room, where academic advisers helped the incoming Sun Devils sign up for their fall classes.

For at least one family, the online orientation program offered a welcome break from social isolation and hope for brighter days ahead.

“It's been a disappointment for my senior to be stuck inside, and he was excited for his online orientation,” said Katrina Hallin, whose son attended the newly implemented virtual program. “It really gave him something to look forward to during this uncertain time. The adviser even emailed after his session to say 'thanks' and remind him he still had two classes to register for. He's all signed up for his classes and looking forward to moving to Tempe in August — cross your fingers.”

From March 20 through April 8, the New Student Orientation team hosted 10 virtual programs with 1,425 incoming students participating. Another 58 online programs are planned through the end of June.

In addition, separate orientation programs for families of incoming students are scheduled throughout the spring. These virtual sessions designed just for family members will introduce them to university resources and opportunities for involvement and engagement for Sun Devil families.

Experience ASU campus visit tours have gone virtual as well, also using the now-ubiquitous conferencing tool Zoom.

Matthew López, associate vice president for Enrollment Services, says, “We asked, what experience do our visitors have when they visit, and how can we reproduce as much of that experience as possible in a virtual setting?”

Turns out, quite a bit. The virtual visit tours consist of two ASU admission coordinators who live-host a 45-minute presentation, and a moderator who assists behind the scenes. The tour dives into a number of need-to-know topics including residential colleges, student involvement opportunities and admission requirements. Throughout the presentation, prospective students chime in with written questions, which a host answers live or the moderator immediately responds to in written form, making it a truly interactive experience.

Instead of taking days or weeks to conceptualize and design the virtual visit tours, the Admission Services team jumped right in. López says, “We were literally doing virtual visits the day after campus closed. It was pivot and execute.” 

And the fine-tuning started immediately. For example, after the first session with one host, the team realized they needed a two-host format so the virtual visits were more of a conversation. They also learned that unlike with in-person tours, they needed to account for different time zones when communicating tour start times.

Meeting with a prospective college or connecting with current students can be vital to helping a student make a good decision about where to attend college. And so a second component was added to the tours: an information session with one of the colleges or a Q&A with current ASU students, depending on which visit tour prospective students choose.

Mark Adaoag, associate director of recruitment and outreach for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says of his college’s information sessions, “The biggest challenge is not being able to interact with students in person and gauge their level of interest.” But they have been able to personalize the experiences for students, which has been a major pride point. Adaoag says, “We have the presentation set; however, we are able to switch pretty quickly to a one-on-one session and really focus on individual student interests and questions.”

As helpful as the virtual tours are, they are missing one noticeable component of an in-person visit — a campus walking tour led by an ASU student called a Devil's Advocate. The Enrollment Services Communications team got creative and quickly produced videos with a Devil’s Advocate giving an extended tour of each campus. The Tempe campus and Polytechnic campus tours are available online now; tours of the other Valley campuses are in production.

Between March 17 — the day of the first tour — and April 8, 844 students have taken a virtual visit. And the feedback has been encouraging — first-year recruitment and admission director Brad Baertsch says, “Students are thankful that we’ve been able to adapt to them and meet them in a variety of ways.”

As the virtual season progresses, the orientation team has been fine-tuning and working in new features. Student-to-student Q&A panels were recently added, giving incoming Sun Devils the opportunity to chat via Zoom with ASU Gold Guides, the student employees who would normally assist during in-person programs. The first few Q&As have been well-attended, and students asked a variety of questions about campus life and resources.  

Other new components of online orientation include soon-to-be-added virtual housing tours. ASU’s orientation website for first-year students provides details on registering for an online program, how to prepare for orientation and more. Future Sun Devils can download their student handbook from the website prior to the program.

Family members, meanwhile, will find digital copies of the Orientation Family Handbook and a commemorative ASU Family Calendar, along with other important links, on the Families and Guests webpage.

Learn more at the visit page, which has been retooled with information and registration forms.

Jim Brophy and Daniel Guerin contributed to this story.