Manuela Hill-Muñoz got a text from a student on the last weekday of spring break that read, “I really miss your hugs.”

For that student and so many other Tommies, the lack of physical connection is one of the hardest aspects about mostly shifting the St. Thomas experience online. Beyond the heartache of being unable to deliver that hug, the sentiment reinforced to Hill-Muñoz and fellow staff on campus the need to maintain our community’s connectedness even as we’re physically apart.

“The community aspects of our university are so important to keep alive, even if it’s now through more virtual touch points,” Hill-Muñoz said.

“That personal connection is what makes the St. Thomas experience fantastic and what students come to St. Thomas for,” added Margaret Cahill, director of Campus Life. “It’s our opportunity and privilege to make sure we provide that for them in a digital, online experience.”

Stepping up to provide that meant a huge amount of work in recent weeks by Student Affairs staff members across many departments – from Student Diversity and Inclusion Services, to Campus Ministry, to the Center for Student Achievement – as they have shifted all manners of cocurricular opportunities, programming and student support services online. The underlying message of all that effort was reinforced in a March 30 Instagram video from Dean of Students Linda Baughman welcoming students back from spring break: “We’re here for you.”

Opportunities to engage and flexibility

It’s difficult to grasp just how much programming, events and meetings take place with students on campus every day.

“Our university is so community-driven and so tightly held together by those connections,” Hill-Muñoz said. “What does that look like in a digital world?”

The immediate answer requires a shift of opportunities to engage online; a quick stop into TommieLink and OneStThomas – the university’s online information hubs for events and organizational programming – shows the massive migration of opportunities online, from Thursday Night Live musical performances and events like bingo, to Career Development Center programming, to virtual therapy pets. There’s been a huge increase in social media engagement, as well, with themes like Motivation Mondays and Thankful Thursdays sharing gratitude across the St. Thomas community.

”We quickly moved our resources online and are looking to engage the students,” said Patricia Conde-Brooks, executive director for campus inclusion and community. “Now we’re just doing it in a different space, but it’s doing what we know how to do: Providing opportunities for our students … and doing it in an inclusive way.”

Conde-Brooks and Hill-Muñoz both said the key going forward will be dialogue with students on what kinds of programming and support are needed, how often, and when. Conde-Brooks and other staff members will continue meeting every other week with Undergraduate Student Government to help understand and meet student needs, as well.

“Because Student Affairs has so much contact with students, we can ask if this particular thing is a good idea, if they’re liking this, or what else they might need,” Hill-Muñoz added. “The goal is to remain flexible and be where they need us to be.”

Many student clubs and academic department programs have shifted online, as well. Justice and Peace Studies associate professor Mike Klein said the department’s weekly Zoom meetings have covered discussions about the pandemic and its consequences; a book club about Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer’s new murder mystery novel; guest speaker Kyle Tran Myhre (Guante) talking about community safety and policing; and a visit on April 23 with activist Ricardo Levins Morales, along with Art History and American Culture and Difference students.

A full range of support and opportunities to engage is such a huge part of the St. Thomas experience for students, and community members like Cahill, Conde-Brooks, Hill-Muñoz and countless others are dedicated to ensuring it remains that way throughout the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our students aren’t with us in person any more, but the need to be engaged is still there and more important than ever,” Cahill said. “We’re going to keep doing everything we can to provide that.”

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