Faced with a pandemic, the UO courts applicants in new ways

For high school seniors, the spring of COVID-19 has meant no proms, no in-person graduation ceremonies or big family celebrations, and no final months of classes and sports with friends.

And for some, it even means choosing a college without ever setting foot on its campus.

With campuses closed to the public and visit days canceled, college-bound high school seniors face making their college choice with less information and personal connection than they hoped for. In this unfamiliar environment, the UO’s enrollment team has been working hard to find new ways to reach applicants and their families and to convey what it means to be a Duck.

“The Class of 2020 requires us to operate more uniquely than we ever have,” said Roger Thompson, UO vice president for student services and enrollment management. “We don’t have a lot that we can lean on for what these students’ senior year experience is like.”

For Thompson and his team, the response to that challenge has been to try to bring an authentic UO campus experience to students wherever they are and to provide them with information and content that could still be absorbable and meaningful during an attention-grabbing health crisis.

 “Our team had to position, maneuver and pivot very, very quickly, and we had to reach students in ways that were different from how we’ve done it in the past,” Thompson said.

The UO launched Virtual Visits, two 90-minute live events in April that featured a campus tour, student and staff panels directly answering 350 questions submitted by applicants, an introduction to classes by an adviser, and a segment targeted at parents and families, along with a few surprise guests. A replay of the event can be viewed on the UO’s YouTube channel.

Around 1,800 prospective students attended the Virtual Visits and other new events put on this month to replace the canceled Duck Days admissions events.

“Seeing a campus on video is always a bit different, but the Virtual Visit was so cool,” said Autumn Knox, a senior at Oceanview High in Huntington Beach, California. “Hearing good things about UO from real students was the most meaningful for me.”

The UO was always Knox’s first choice, she said, but she had to scrap her planned campus tour this spring. The Virtual Visit “really pushed my decision forward and made me more excited to get to campus,” she said.

The enrollment division also created a new, easy-to-use calendar for all applicants to schedule 15-minute chats with an admissions counselor, housing representative or student ambassador online. And the department leaned on its UO 360 virtual reality goggles to give applicants a taste of campus and on new social media tools to engage with them.

 “We challenged ourselves to be innovative in this unprecedented time and asked how do we communicate in a way that’s not just watching a bunch of canned videos?” he added. “We wanted to show how even a large school like the UO can be responsive and relatable to students.” 

Elizabeth Yost did get to visit Eugene during her college trip. But the senior from Overland Park in Kansas had planned another trip this spring once she was accepted to the UO’s Clark Honors College.

“It would have been nice to come back to see it being in the mindset of ‘This is actually where I’m going to school,’” she said.

Yost said she found the Virtual Visit event informative; she learned about UO facilities she didn’t know of, and she said university staff “covered all the bases” in answering applicants’ questions.

“You kind of look forward to this stage in your high school career for a long time, so it’s strange to not have it come to fruition,” she said. “But there’s no fixing it, right? You have to adapt and make the best of it.”  

After weeks of staying at home with a big family, Rick Klau said the Virtual Visit of the UO gave his son Robby, a senior from San Ramon, California, “something to look forward to.”

“There’s so much he’s not getting to have right now,” Klau said. “This was about the future. And a time when he won’t be trapped at home.”

The Klau family planned to visit UO for the first time this spring. Instead, Robby has tried to fill the gap in other ways, by talking friends and acquaintances with Oregon connections and watching videos on YouTube.

Rick Klau said their biggest takeaway from the Virtual Visit “was the sense of community among the students and staff.”

“It was neat to see how eager they were to pull him and the other students into that community,” he said. 

Universities across the country face a nervous summer as they wait to see how an unprecedented health crisis and economic disruption affects students’ and families’ decisions about college enrollment in the fall.

Thompson said it’s so hard to predict those decisions because there’s no event in modern history that the COVID-19 pandemic can be compared to. But he said he’s proud of the nimble work his team has done to reach high school seniors this spring and to put the UO in the best position possible for the next academic year.

“So many people contributed and stretched themselves to make this happen and create something the university should be proud of,” Thompson said. “Whatever that freshman class turns out to be, I know it will be much better than it would be if we hadn’t made these efforts. That much I know.” 

By Saul Hubbard, University Communications