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A socially distant digital freshers week, so how did it go?

Foldout chairs lined up two meters apart

2020 has been a year of rapid change with unexpected twists and turns, and freshers week has not been immune to having to adapt with new digital initiatives. The formalities of freshers which we have come to expect; UV paint parties, bar crawls and club nights have all come to an end. This year has been about being creative within the constraints of a global pandemic. In this article, with my UWE Cycling Club President's hat on, I am going to be taking a retrospective look at the events that have passed.

Freshers week this year had to go virtual to comply with social distancing rules, and the events we'd come to know were just not possible. This novel idea of transferring traditional activities to online Zoom events became a mandatory staple for universities across the country. For Generation Z (the Generation of Sobriety) who tend to be less interested in drinking and clubbing, this will have come as a freshening experience. This presented a new opportunity for student societies and freshers alike, leading to creative ways of bonding with new friends.

What is freshers week?

Group photo of the UWE freshers fair
UWE 2019 Freshers Fair

Just in case you've never been to university, or have been living on another's the lowdown.

Freshers week traditionally consists of a one-day event called ‘The Freshers Fair’. This is when all the clubs, societies and employers gather together in a conference centre to show off and attract new members. It’s the biggest event of the year and a chance for curious freshers to communicate with committee members face to face in a casual setting.

Planning for a virtual freshers week

In the lead up to freshers week, I was aware of the narrative around some new students being hesitant to join university because of Covid-19. Furthermore, they would be less inclined to join societies and partake in social activities at university for the fear of contracting the virus. However, freshers this year were equally as eager to join societies and make new friends despite the constraints in place.

Our Students' Union at UWE were very communicative when explaining how clubs and societies should conduct themselves during freshers week. This was really helpful when it came to planning events. As a committee member of two sports societies, I experienced first hand the organisation that went into ensuring our sports were safe but remained as much fun as previous years.

Our digital freshers offering

screenshot of the whova platform
UWE Whova homepage

This year we transitioned to an events platform called ‘Whova’, a service that enabled us to replicate the traditional freshers experience. The platform has virtual meeting rooms for event attendees to join and speak to hosts, in our case society and club leaders. The Whova page also offers a chat box function where freshers and organisers can engage with each other in real-time, and ask a question about the exhibitions on offer. This year I operated the Cycling club stand where I held multiple Q and A sessions on Google Meet for freshers to come and be curious. This meant that instead of having to use the delayed chatbox function they could have a face to face meeting which added a fantastic casual element to the fair. Overall the sentiment from the freshers was positive, we had a total of 1,500 page views and in comparison to last year, the membership total increased by 80%.

The importance of social media

Instagram screenshot of a Q and A session

From an organisers perspective, the takeaway from digital freshers was that social media was key to maintaining engagement and excitement. During the main freshers event keeping active on all social media platforms was critical to building up the energy of the freshers event. On Facebook and Instagram (our main platforms) the cycling club created an active content calendar. Core to the content plan was event promotion and highlight how freshers could engage with the club's committee.

Our most successful content was regular question and answer sessions, and ‘day in the life’ stories. Both of these featured posts enabled our club to build a sense of community between current members and freshers.

Supporting student mental health

It would not be freshers without mentioning mental health. Lockdown measures across the campus meant that students movement was severely restricted. Students couldn't meet in groups of more than six and had to remain in their household bubbles. The freedom and flexibility that came after freshers was soon cut short but the introduction of the second lockdown. No more restaurants, pubs and meeting with sports clubs.

Embracing digital events has enabled new students to communicate with existing students, and take part in all the antics, albeit virtually. Our club has made sure to constantly engage with freshers to ensure that they will not miss out on social events or the student experience. We hope that the effort we have put in has gone some way to improving the mental health of our club members.

In summary

Overall, our digital freshers fair experience was positive. Freshers said they felt that although the event was digital they managed to make the most it. The Whova page was very intuitive, which made for a smooth experience and did not distract from the event. Our feedback on social media has been fantastic, as a club we have experienced significant growth with constant engagement from keen new freshers.

The committee members have said that they have managed to keep engaged with students by creating group chats where students can have casual conversations. We continue to post regularly on Instagram and Facebook messenger whilst and arranging sporting meet-ups when lockdown restrictions are lifted.

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