Since we were still off campus in the fall because of the pandemic, I wanted to provide virtual spaces where the honors students could connect both with the program and with each other. I assumed that Zoom would be the obvious choice since many faculty were using it in their classes and the students would be familiar with it.
I held the Honors Orientation using Zoom. Several new students and some students who had been in the program since last year attended. We reviewed program requirements, discussed publishing opportunities and upcoming events, and then mostly used the time to actually see and talk with one another. Zoom worked really well for this kind of event.
It also worked for the reading by New York Times bestselling author, Laurie Notaro. People registered in advance and received the Zoom link. Notaro read from her work and answered questions. Her humor was a welcome relief from the stress of the pandemic, civil unrest, and the wildfires that had devastated parts of Oregon.
When it came time to create a virtual honors lounge to substitute for the physical lounge space we had created on campus, I thought Zoom would be fine. The campus lounge served students from the Honors Program, Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and the Sigma Chi Eta National Communication Association. Groups held meetings there, PTK officers held office hours there, and people just dropped by to socialize or ask questions. When I suggested to the PTK officers that we use Zoom for a lounge space, however, Brian and Nadira recommended using Discord instead. Kyla, the Honors newsletter editor, also recommended Discord.
I knew about Discord, but I hadn’t really used it, and I only really understood why it worked better for a virtual lounge when a few of the students helped me set it up. Discord is an instant messaging and digital distribution platform. Everyone who joins the server can communicate in real time using video, voice, or text. It’s also easy to keep everything organized. Sigma Chi Eta didn’t participate in the lounge, but Honors and PTK did, so we set up text and voice channels for both groups. We also set up channels for the student lounge and for upcoming events.
We held PTK chapter meetings in the PTK voice channel. Student leaders in the Honors Program and PTK held two hours a week in the student lounge channel to answer questions and connect with other students. At Kyla’s recommendation, I made some of the student leaders monitors, as well, so that they could make sure the communications were appropriate and also move discussions out of one channel and into another if they were accidentally happening in the wrong space.
When someone joins Honors or PTK, I send them the link to join the Discord server. So many of the students were already using Discord for socializing and classes that they were already comfortable with it. We are continuing to use it this term, and I would like to find more ways to make it a place to create and support community. I can see Zoom continuing to be useful, as well.
I may draw on some of the ideas my colleagues at other honors programs have shared. At the National Collegiate Honors Council’s virtual conference, I participated on a panel about virtual honors spaces. Al Golden (Joliet Junior College, Illinois), Trista M. Merrill (Finger Lakes Community College, New York), Kathleen Sullivan Stephens (Dallas College, Richland Campus, Texas), and I recorded our session on Zoom in September. They offered activities including taking virtual tours of a city, using Smule for karaoke events, setting up honors penpals, and holding virtual dance parties. The session was shared with people who registered for the conference.
It is clear to me after my experiences this fall that we need to not only continue with virtual honors spaces but further develop them. They are obviously needed while we are still off campus, but they could also be beneficial as ways to connect students who are only taking online classes or have schedules that prevent them from coming to campus for events. It was a bit of a crash course in creating our first virtual honors spaces, but the benefits are clear and the possibilities are exciting.