Speak Your Mind: Wildcat Welcomer Wellness

Ilana Arougheti, Reporter

ILANA AROUGHETI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ilana Arougheti. Welcome to Speak Your Mind, a podcast dedicated to discussing mental health and self-care on Northwestern’s campus. Our goal is to facilitate conversation about mental health that goes deep into student experiences and tries to shatter stigmas surrounding mental health.
As Northwestern’s second remote quarter kicked into gear two weeks ago, incoming first-year students and transfers began to explore the reality of a completely virtual campus. On the other side of the computer screen, hundreds of student leaders were responsible for preparing Wildcat Welcome. They had to get NU’s newest Wildcats started off on the right foot and build up their own community and confidence in the process.

MAIA BROWN: I’ve been a PA for two years. I thought it was a really important job because I really want to support new students. But I also saw firsthand how much it takes to be a PA. And I really wanted to make sure that the PAs had a good support system as well, and that’s a big part of what the job is.

ILANA AROUGHETI: This is Medill senior Maia Brown, who served as the director for staff training and curriculum for Wildcat Welcome 2020. Brown was one of 10 student board members who coordinated Wildcat Welcome under the direction of Interim Director of New Student and Family Programs Josh McKenzie. Board members, who are former Peer Advisers, or PAs, themselves, work to develop bonding activities and curriculum for their PAs to present to freshmen. They then train PAs in board groups of around 20.

This year’s Wildcat Welcome presented a host of unprecedented challenges from the start; between the selection of board members in December and the selection of PAs in early March, the NSFP office downsized from four full-sized staffers to just Josh McKenzie.

JOSH MCKENZIE: Whatever we want to spin it as, I think it’s been challenging to think about not only how do we do all of the work with fewer staff members, but also, you know, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.

ILANA AROUGHETI: When Northwestern announced that remote classes would extend through Spring Quarter, the board realized that not only would PA training be virtual, but Wildcat Welcome would likely be as well. Medill senior and former Daily staffer Natalie Chun, the 2020 director for transfer student experience, found this early caution essential in the face of COVID-19.

NATALIE CHUN: From pretty early on, we had two thought processes. We were kind of planning for two different Wildcat Welcomes thinking that maybe it was going to be completely virtual or maybe it was going to be mostly in person, but there are definitely going to have to be some online elements. I think as the pandemic continued and the spread was worse and people were dying, I was realizing there is absolutely no way we can do any of this in person safely. So when the University decided to not have freshmen and sophomores come back, I think — obviously it was disappointing for us, but it was more than anything, at least for me, really a relief because I felt like any sort of in-person element would have been unsafe and would have been really hard for us to manage.

ILANA AROUGHETI: NSFP had to prepare for a significant emotional adjustment when PA training was moved to a completely virtual format. In previous years, a strong PA community was one of the biggest draws of the program, and gave some PAs the nurturing space necessary to confidently lead their incoming students in vulnerable discussions. Going into their first Peer Adviser Leadership Training Course, or PALTC, the 2020 board thought hard about how to replicate their own board group bonding experiences in the format of Zoom.

JOSH MCKENZIE: So for that, I know there were spaces built outside of just those 60-minute training periods, to build group community or like, “Hey, here’s our informal group chat channels that we can do this.” However, in a lot of ways, when you’re in a remote space, what’s most front and center for you? Are you really willing to — in the same way that you would be as if you were on campus and surrounded by people — are you willing to log into an extra Zoom, even if it’s just for fun? It’s not what gives everyone energy. It’s not what gives everyone even joy in the same way as if it was building community in-person.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Communication sophomore Caroline Bates found group interactions awkward when she first sat in front of the camera.

CAROLINE BATES: It’s hard enough to interact with people on Zoom, let alone people you don’t know. So like, here I am in this board group space with all these people that I’ve never met before, but I’m like, they seem cool, I don’t know. And it was hard at first to really bond as a board group because so much of Zoom is like, “Three, two, one, bond!”

MAIA BROWN: I think it’s hard when people have only met through Zoom, to create the kind of intimacy that typically those kind of conversations do warrant. But at the same time, those who are Zooming in from home were Zooming in from a familiar space to them. So there was also an added level of comfort. I think that those both came into play. One thing that we tried to do with each one was get to the root of PAs’ fears with leading discussions about topics and facilitating when they may not have experience, and just giving them the emotional space to process what being a PA means, as well as giving them the general tools that they can rely on. They got really close despite the Zoom barrier. And that was just really, really heartwarming to watch.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Weinberg sophomore Eleanor Pope found her board group’s attempt at virtual bonding quite successful.

ELEANOR POPE: I love my board group so much. We were the Kangadrews — we would name all the board groups — and they are just 20 of the best people I’ve ever met in my life. I feel like if I met any one of them in person, we would be really great friends, which is actually something that kind of made me feel a little better about a virtual Wildcat Welcome. Because we were able to build that space with our board group, it gave me a little more hope that I might be able to build it with the new students during Wildcat Welcome.

ILANA AROUGHETI: In addition to replicating the close relationships that usually sustain PAs through the constant excitement of Wildcat Welcome, the PA training process had to be condensed to cut down on Zoom fatigue.

JOSH MCKENZIE: You literally cannot be in training all day, on a Zoom. No one wants that. Especially because when it was a packed schedule and in person, throughout the day, there were a lot of different energizers, group community building, programming that helps break it up, so that you weren’t just taking in information all day. You were interacting, you’re building those relationships or whatnot. And again, that’s not something that you can just repeat fully in a Zoom space.

ILANA AROUGHETI: PALTCs were an hour a week during Spring Quarter, and during PA Camp — the week leading up to Wildcat Welcome — PAs met in their board groups on Zoom from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. CT, and then again from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. This meant five hours of Zoom a day for PAs, and closer to eight for their board members, who also participated in a socially distanced work week directly before PA Camp. During this time, the board tried to break up informational dumps with short breaks, icebreakers and social calls for PAs to just hang out.

MAIA BROWN: I tried whenever there was space to give people the option to leave early if we finished early. I don’t know how much that actually did with combating Zoom fatigue. But I do think that when people know that you’re trying your best to be respectful with their time — and you’re openly acknowledging the effort that it takes for them to be on Zoom with you — they’re more receptive to how long they may have to be on there because they know that you’re basically only keeping them there as long as they have to.

ILANA AROUGHETI: These efforts to combat Zoom fatigue had mixed results.

ELEANOR POPE: I think these meetings were more engaging than my classes, which made it a little bit easier to focus. And also, when you’re in charge of leading a meeting, you know, you kind of just have to push through it. But I always thought our board group meetings were very refreshing because they were more fun. We would usually just go over our plans for the next day of Wildcat Welcome. And then just play games and stuff and chat. So those ones definitely weren’t as Zoom-heavy as some of my classes were. But you definitely get Zoom fatigue. It’s definitely a thing.

CAROLINE BATES: I was expecting Wildcat Welcome virtual to be like Wildcat Welcome in real life, which was exhausting. And you were constantly with your PA group, constant activities. I was expecting like 10 hours a day on Zoom, but it ended up just being like three meetings a day.

NATALIE CHUN: In the past when Wildcat Welcome and PA Camp is all in-person, it tends to be very physically tiring. And I definitely started the past two Fall Quarters already very physically tired. So I mean, it’s a different kind of tired, and I’m getting used to it and learning how to adjust to it better. But it’s nothing new, I guess.

ILANA AROUGHETI: As McKenzie and the 2020 board strove to preserve the mental wellness of their PAs during the abridged virtual training process, they also tried to build in moments of self-care, address their own Zoom fatigue and lean on each other as colleagues and friends.

MAIA BROWN: I definitely took some naps in the office when I had time. I think we as a board tried a lot to have some time where we were together but not working. We definitely spent a couple nights on the Lakefill just like talking and hanging out. We did yoga a couple times during the week where we would all just put down what we were doing and go out to the courtyard and follow a yoga video. Just like little things like that, where we try to help each other relax as well as relaxing ourselves.

NATALIE CHUN: I kind of realized like, if I’m going to be on the computer this long that I have to, then other time needs to be spent doing something else. I spent a lot of time just like outside or playing cards or whatever I had to do that just like wasn’t in front of the screen.

JOSH MCKENZIE: I will be the first to say I was not a model in a space that we were trying to create for the board in taking care of themselves and pulling back or for our PAs. This has been a really challenging time, super challenging for everyone involved.

ILANA AROUGHETI: Though virtual Wildcat Welcome presented its own sets of mental challenges for student leaders, many felt revitalized seeing how much their first-year students accepted the weirdness of virtual Wildcat Welcome and leaned into the new experience.

ELEANOR POPE: I was, like, really focused on these first-year students — I think they had the worst end of the stick, you know? All their friends are gone and now they’re at home alone and they’re seeing all their friends leave for college and, like, start these new experiences. So for me, I think less of it was focused on myself and more of it, like focused on trying to make it the best experience for them.

NATALIE CHUN: At least for me, it’s been really easy to be hopeless about the situation and kind of complain about the loss of my senior year or the loss of my time on campus, or whatever it may be. But I think it was actually really healthy to kind of see the incoming students and their energy and their positivity that they were bringing into our community and realizing how much bigger everything is. And also how much this pandemic has really touched everyone’s lives in a different way, I think it was very grounding for me to kind of recognize going into the school year.

ILANA AROUGHETI: There’s no way of knowing at this point how Wildcat Welcome 2021 will look, though Caroline and Eleanor both plan to reapply to be PAs again. Nonetheless, Josh McKenzie and his team hope that having a little prior knowledge about how student leaders kept themselves centered through the orientation will help the community prepare better for any future challenges.

JOSH MCKENZIE: In past years, we’ve been able to lean into, here’s what’s worked in the past, here’s what hasn’t. As we think about next year, in particular, if we were to have to do this again, we at the very least have a baseline to work from.

ILANA AROUGHETI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ilana Arougheti. Thank you for listening to another episode of Speak Your Mind. This episode was reported on and produced by me, Ilana Arougheti. The audio editor of The Daily is Alex Chun. The digital managing editors are Jacob Ohara and Molly Lubbers. The editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]

Related Stories:
NU Declassified: Zoom Thru the Arch
“Dub Dub Love”: Wildcat Welcome reimagined for virtual format
Members of the Class of 2024 and transfers recap their Wildcat Welcome experience