Baylor Family Groups: Helping new students stay connected this semester
This fall, Baylor welcomed more than 3,500 new students from across the world to campus. While summer campus traditions such as Line Camp and Welcome Week had to be altered due to COVID-19, Baylor staff worked miracles in creating online versions that brought much of the same experience to students outside Waco.
That said, university leaders from President Livingstone on down have recognized that some students may be missing out on the personal contact one would normally experience at college, outside of a pandemic. Toward that end, the university has created Baylor Family Groups — purposeful environments where students can get to know their peers, make friendships, and grow in their connections to the Baylor community.
“In an effort to keep students safe, Baylor had to set some necessary guidelines that limited student gatherings to much smaller numbers,” says Sean Strehlow, Transfer Student Success graduate apprentice. “New Student Programs implemented Family Groups as an innovative avenue for fostering community among students while honoring Baylor’s policies and looking after students’ safety.”
To help Baylor feel like home away from home, new students were grouped among their peers and paired with Family Group student leaders — much like an ongoing Welcome Week group. Family Group leaders host virtual or socially distanced events, help students navigate Baylor, and serve as a source of emotional, spiritual and academic encouragement.
“We really want to facilitate a community in which they become friends with each other, so they feel at home at Baylor,” says Megan Lockhart, an Oceanside, Calif., senior. In addition to hosting in-person get-togethers, “I have office hours over Zoom, and I think that helps students be able to come because no matter where they are, they can still log on and ask questions or just talk about their week.”
“Each family group has a family group leader who provides support and initiates programming for their family groups,” says Strehlow. “Additionally, our leaders put on intentional programming such as a game night or a coffee hour. We are also looking at matching students from different family groups who share the same major so that they can meet others outside their family group and have opportunities for meaningful academic engagement.”
Most family groups also connect students within their residence halls and Campus Living & Learning communities. While COVID-19 has presented challenges for Living & Learning communities, many — such as the Transfer Year Experience (TYE) community — have turned these challenges into an opportunity to build relationships and support their students now more than ever.
“The pandemic has certainly complicated some of the logistics, hence the need for family groups,” says Strehlow. “It has forced us to come up with creative solutions, but it hasn’t changed our commitment to provide a strong sense of community. Our TYE council is working harder than ever to make sure our residents feel connected to others in the community.”
Some of the first experiences and friendships new students make at Baylor involve New Student Programs and residence communities. Family Groups combine the benefits of programs like Welcome Week and the year-round support of residence communities into small group settings.
“I honestly felt at home at Baylor through the TYE,” says Lockhart. “I met most of my closest friends through that organization, especially in the beginning weeks when I first came here.”
Although Family Groups were made to be a resource for students during the pandemic, Strehlow says they have a lot of value and may be continued in future years, regardless of COVID-19.
“One silver lining has been that COVID-19 has forced us to pilot this concept, and we are certainly learning that they can be done and done well,” says Strehlow. “I think it is definitely possible that some version of these Family Groups may become a permanent part of our community.”
Sic ’em, Baylor Family Groups!