NSFP adjusts spring training in light of remote learning, plans for Wildcat Welcome


Students participate in March Through The Arch. NSFP is operating under the assumption that Wildcat Welcome will be held on campus in the fall.

Daisy Conant, Assistant Campus Editor

Josh McKenzie, interim director for New Student and Family Programs, knew heading into this year that the office’s plans for 2020 would look different than in the past. Wildcat Welcome programming would have to be adjusted with consideration for Rosh Hashanah, which would fall over three days of orientation. A “perfect storm” of departures and transfers in January shrank the professional staff from four members to just one, himself, putting the bandwidth and capacity of NSFP into question.

Now, NSFP is faced with adapting to the unprecedented and challenging environment of training around 250 staff members amidst a global pandemic — all while developing Fall Quarter programs for new students and families adjusting to the unfamiliar and daunting environment of college.

“What’s been really challenging for everyone is, I mean, there’s so many question marks wrapped around so many things for students and for me, too,” McKenzie said. “We’re really trying to be as flexible, adaptable, creative as we can be, in the way in which we prepare people for this.”

Spring Quarter is a critical period for NSFP. With around 210 Peer Advisers, 14 Catalyst Facilitators and 20 to 30 Family Ambassadors joining the department, McKenzie said the “CORE team” — himself, the board of directors, CATalyst co-chairs and Family Coordinators — is tasked with delivering a series of training sessions, team-building activities and identity dialogues for the new and returning staffers.

A tenet of this quarter, McKenzie noted, is the facilitation of peer-to-peer interaction between the core team and its new staff. Now that the quarter is no longer taking place on campus, he said the team has had to reform their conception of what training will look like, which has included learning how to leverage platforms like Zoom and Snapchat to communicate.

“(The core team members) signed up for this type of role and look forward to being able to train and build good connections with our leaders. All of a sudden, that has to look really different,” McKenzie said. “They have each been so wonderful and pivoting so quickly and helping to brainstorm, ‘Okay, we can’t do these type of bonding activities, but here’s some really cool ways that we can do that online.’”

Maia Brown, a Medill junior and the director of staff training and curriculum, is one of the board members tasked with preparing the PAs for Wildcat Welcome. Although they’ve had to reduce the number of Spring Quarter training sessions and swap meetings in Kresge Hall for meetings over Zoom, Brown said they’ve started to supplement sessions with asynchronous assignments, such as videos and podcasts to listen to or comprehension quizzes, in an effort to keep the content engaging.

She added that they will likely extend the training into the summer and are attempting to extend the fall PA camp from three to four days, hoping to fit in more “community building and bonding” amongst the PAs. Brown said the board has also developed a subcommittee dedicated to reformatting the “fun” elements of training, throwing around ideas ranging from virtual competitions between “squads” — groups of three to four PAs — or board group TikToks.

“There’s less opportunity for that free form conversation that happens in before, after and in-between the trainings, and also on campus when you run into each other,” Brown said. “So we’re trying to figure out some fun ways to kind of make sure that social aspects still happen.”

Brown said the board isn’t putting the responsibility of discussing COVID-19 and its impact with incoming students on the PAs, as they’re just beginning training and haven’t been assigned specific groups of incoming students. Instead, she said those conversations have been in the form of direct communication from the board and Mckenzie to students via email, the Class of 2024 Facebook group and Instagram.

Allison Mo, a Weinberg junior and one of the Family Coordinators in NSFP’s core team, said conversations surrounding COVID-19 may come up in FA training sessions focused on identity, specifically discussing how certain identities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic and how to address people who experience the pandemic in different ways than the FAs may have. Mo added that they are developing a “Plan B” of creating a separate orientation to accommodate those impacted by COVID-19.

For now, Mo said the Family Coordinators’ main focus for this quarter is helping the FAs develop professionalism and leadership skills in addition to familiarizing them with Northwestern’s resources. Despite having to also transition to a Zoom format, Mo said she has continued to look forward to the training and Fall Quarter programming.

“I feel like there is bonding that is occurring, maybe not to the degree that we would have liked, but it’s still better than nothing, which is the best that we can hope for right now,” Mo said.
“I’m honestly really excited about working with this FA community, and I’m actually excited and feel okay about Wildcat Welcome.”

McKenzie noted that while a virtual orientation week may be a possibility if Fall Quarter is remote, NSFP is operating under the assumption that they’ll be on campus come September.
Despite the challenges, Brown said there have been multiple silver linings to the quarter’s change in format, highlighting that communication between the board and staff has actually improved and that NSFP has found new areas for growth.

“I was initially very stressed about the changes. But as we’ve gotten started with figuring things out, I’m actually very optimistic,” Brown said. “I think we have a really creative team of people who are really dedicated to trying to make sure that our students have the best experience possible. So I really believe in us and I think that we can make something that works for most people, if not everyone.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story quoted Maia Brown saying NSFP is attempting to extend the fall PA camp by three to four days. NSFP is attempting to extend the fall PA camp from three days to four days.The Daily regrets the error.