Post Best Practices: Leading Student Chapters During the Age of COVID


he restrictions on in-person gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic created challenges at all levels in SAME, but proved particularly disruptive for student members. Along with the prospect of multiple completely online semesters, Student Chapters faced a steep uphill climb with recruitment and engagement during the last year.

Overcoming these challenges required creativity, innovation, and dedication from the students and their mentors. Bricks & Clicks recently chatted with Thomas McCarty of the University of Cincinnati Student Chapter on the unique issues faced during the pandemic and lessons learned to apply forward for future organizational planning.

Bricks & Clicks: What sort of challenges did the pandemic present for a Student Chapter in particular?

McCarty: The coronavirus presented us with multiple challenges that required adapting everything from recruitment and leadership meetings to speaker events and tours. Recruitment quickly became a struggle due to a prohibition on all in-person activities. Leadership meetings needed to be shifted to online venues that allowed for the same level of collaboration we were used to. Our semester events schedule had to be rebuilt from the ground up, and required us to source new speakers and events for everything that could not be brought to online venues.

Team coordination through leadership meetings was a unique issue, in that we have never had to deal with losing all in-person contact before. Our immediate reaction was to use the conference calls we periodically utilized in the past, combined with WebEx meetings, to help facilitate our normal leadership activity and planning for the semester. This not only restored some of our “face to face” interaction but also gave us a new platform to use for sharing presentations and meeting materials on the fly without having to preemptively coordinate.

Looking forward, I plan to utilize WebEx and other video sharing more frequently when in-person meetings are not feasible. The convenience of presenting remotely will be of great use in the future as both myself and future chapter leaders may have internships that are not local and we must lead from afar.

Bricks & Clicks: You mentioned recruitment was a challenge without being able to meet in person—how did you address this?

This expanded recruitment effort will be the new standard going forward, as we saw not only an increase in attendance at our virtual events, but also had additional people become interested in joining our organization throughout the semester.

McCarty: Our ability to recruit new members was greatly hampered due to the lack of in-person advertising and recruitment events. As with the vast majority of student organizations, we rely heavily on in-person tabling events and fairs where we can get our name out and show off the speaker events and tours we have scheduled for the semester.

The university did the best it could to facilitate virtual replacements for these events; however, they simply did not replicate the same environment or attract the same amount of students. In response, we leaned on email-based advertising for both our chapter and our event alerts as a way to attract new members. Virtual events were key in this effort as we chose to market them to the entire engineering college and treated them not only as their advertised event purpose, but also as recruitment opportunities, showing people what we do in real time.

This expanded recruitment effort will be the new standard going forward, as we saw not only an increase in attendance at our virtual events, but also had additional people become interested in joining our organization throughout the semester.

Bricks & Clicks: What kind of events did you find you could carry out successfully in the virtual environment?

McCarty: The ban on in-person activities required us to completely revamp our events schedule. This forced us to organize multiple events on a much tighter timeframe than we usually did. To our leadership team’s credit, we were able to successfully host three different speaker and virtual tour events with high attendee counts each time. Each event was hosted on WebEx, with virtual flyers linking to the event emailed out to the entire engineering college about a week in advance. Additional advertising in the form of group chats and emails to professors and other interested parties was also used.

The first of the three events we hosted was a presentation on USACE Chicago District’s COVID response efforts, which provided incredible insight on how treatment centers were constructed and a new perspective on engineering and project management issues during the pandemic.

The second event we hosted was a CO-OP and career information session with the Corps of Engineers, where students were provided with a plethora of material on working for the federal government, the benefits and opportunities involved, and options for applying and working after graduation.

The final event we hosted was a virtual tour of the Center Hill Lake and Dam, where we were treated to an in-depth look at both dam safety and hydropower at the facility. As permitted by some presenters, we also recorded and uploaded presentations to our YouTube channel to begin building a repository of previous speaker events for potential future use and recruitment purposes. As we return to in-person presentations, we will provide additional ways to virtually attend our events and record them when permitted in order to be as inclusive as possible.

Bricks & Clicks: As we return to in-person events, what are the next steps for your program, and what changes do you anticipate?

McCarty: Ultimately, I am very proud of what our team was capable of in conjunction with our speakers, who were able to build competent and engaging presentations for the online environment. Both myself and other chapter leaders are very excited to return to in-person activities and hosting social events, beginning with our year-opening cookout.

As we set forth into a semester of in-person engagement and learning, my top priority is integrating the lessons we have learned from a virtual environment with the in-person routines we have developed for many years. Whether it is utilizing WebEx for meetings when possible, expanding recruitment through advertising in email and digital flyer campaigns, or providing virtual attendance options and YouTube uploads, our goal will be providing a more inclusive and modernized platform, and ensure the chapter sustains its momentum moving forward.