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A Campus Away From Campus
A Campus Away From Campus

Penn State's San Diego–area online students needed a connection. Local alumni reached out. What resulted was an award-winning way to engage distance learners.

By Tara Laskowski



When David Strausser first enrolled as a student in Penn State University's distance learning program World Campus, he was excited but also felt isolated. He wanted a university that had a great global reputation, and Penn State fit the bill. But living in San Diego, he could have been on Mars for as far away as he was from the central Pennsylvania institution. "As a virtual student, sometimes you feel there's no real place to turn to for help in your courses. You don't have traditional options," he says.

Helping online students like Strausser feel connected to the institution is a major challenge for engagement professionals, says Roxanne Shiels, an alumni strategist at Penn State. A growing number of alumni have never set foot on campus: Of the nearly 6 million students enrolled in fall 2014 distance learning courses in the U.S., 2.85 million were taking all of their classes online, according to an annual report by Babson Survey Research. At Penn State, the World Campus continues to grow, enrolling 13,000 students in fall 2016. Alumni relations staff are exploring ways to welcome and engage distance learners, who will one day become alumni.

When Ted Vickey, former president of the Penn State San Diego alumni chapter, listened to a presentation about the World Campus and heard about the challenges of virtual students, he realized his chapter could do something. With the help of Shiels, the chapter in 2015 created an "adoption" program to engage the hundreds of virtual students in its neighborhood and make them feel part of the Penn State family.

"What's missing for online students is a sense of community," Shiels says. "Alumni can make that affinity more real. They are true assets given that they are all over the country and are the boots on the ground to be able to create those relationships."

The chapter assessed its ongoing programming to see how it could include and assist San Diego–area distance learners. It offered the students free membership, invited them to a networking event, sent encouraging notes during finals week, and hosted a family-friendly afternoon holiday party. "We think of the chapter as distance students' social and support campus, given they don't have any sort of physical location out there," Shiels says.

The chapter also expanded its scholarship program from one award given to a local student enrolling full-time at the Pennsylvania campus to include additional scholarships for World Campus students. The chapter offered three $500 awards to San Diego–area online learners in 2015 and four in 2016.

"Most of these students are trying to work full time and take courses, and $500 goes a long way toward paying for a semester's classes," says Vicki Geehan, scholarship chair for the San Diego chapter.

The outreach efforts have worked. More than 20 online students applied for the scholarships in 2016, and several students are active members of the chapter. The program garnered Gold in the 2016 CASE Circle of Excellence Awards in the creative strategies for engaging volunteers category.

For Strausser, the support network has made all the difference. He received one of the chapter's 2015 scholarships, which has helped him pursue a bachelor's degree in business. "The alumni group really changed how I felt about school. While it does not substitute for the true campus experience, it opened doors to vast knowledge and a great network of current students and alumni who have been there and done that," he says.

Now that San Diego started the movement, other alumni chapters are also reaching out to distance learners. In Washington, D.C., World Campus students were invited to a new student send-off in fall 2016, where they met with a director of student affairs to ask questions about enrollment and other concerns. Graduates of the online program also formed the World Campus Alumni Society, and volunteers are developing a guide to help other regional alumni groups adopt online students.

The benefit for alumni chapters to invest in students? New energy, Shiels says. Given that many of them have families and established careers, online students are more likely to stay in the area after they graduate. "They are the chapter's pipeline for local membership, for the leadership of tomorrow," Shiels says. One especially eager World Campus student has even become the vice president of the Baltimore alumni chapter.

About the Author Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski is a former senior editor for Currents.




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