Every spring, Campus Preview Weekend (CPW) provides a living snapshot of undergraduate life at MIT — even, it turns out, during a pandemic.
The traditional campus event follows a tried-and-true formula: academic departments, student services offices, residences, student groups, and many other teams offer hundreds of events — some serious (Academic Expo) and some not (liquid nitrogen ice cream making) — to showcase the magic of MIT to admitted students and their families.
This year’s program was no different except, in light of Covid-19, it was run in an entirely new way.
Getting CPW off the ground each year involves months of planning and coordination. But in March, typically the CPW home stretch, MIT announced that all campus events had to be virtualized. The change was a lot to take in, says Assistant Director of Admissions Trinidad Carney, who oversees the program along with Tim Hickey-LeClair, associate director of admissions for recruitment. Nonetheless, after absorbing the news for a day or so, it was a “no brainer” that CPW should still go forward.
“When we thought about what the motivations of CPW are and why it’s so successful, it’s all that extra stuff that happens, those meaningful conversations, the interactions and relationships and bonding,” Carney explains. “We knew we wanted to recreate the weekend. We just didn’t know how we were going to be able to do it.”
Creating virtual community
One of the ongoing challenges, says Hickey-LeClair, was that there was still a lot of incomplete information about the evolution of Covid-19 and how MIT, the nation, and the world were responding; the boundary conditions kept shifting, like a perpetual asterisk indicating “subject to change.”
So they dubbed the new, virtual event CP* (or CPWhat?), and the race was on to work with stakeholders across the campus to pull it off.
“We became experts on Zoom and virtual programming to support our partners,” says Carney. She managed the outreach to the community, rallying their participation and facilitating event coordination, while Hickey-LeClair worked on Zoom logistics, wrote training guides, and ran multiple training sessions for their campus partners.
Likewise, starting in March and continuing through April, student ambassadors, bloggers, and tour guides all pivoted to generate social media content, organize impromptu hangouts, host events during CP*, and provide tours of wherever they were — even if it was just showing their room at home and explaining how they do homework. The aim was to focus on “real” student stories that traditional attendees would have experienced by being on campus.
Another strategic move was the use of the CP* Discord server, a chat platform for admitted students, current students, and MIT staff. The idea was inspired by a vibrant and active Discord server created by students admitted via Early Action. Powered by students from the Student Information Processing Board, the CP* server had channels for everything, from those hosted by academic departments and student clubs to others focused on gaming, different geographic areas that students hail from, and even a Coping with Covid channel.
The MIT Parents Association beefed up their outreach during and after CP*, offering several info panels and hosting a virtual parent lounge throughout the weekend, where parents could drop in and ask questions. Parent volunteers made over 600 follow-up calls to prospective families after CP*, as well. “There were additional parent programs put together by other groups, like the residences,” says Amy Davis, manager of the parents association. “Everyone was trying to help each other out and make sure that parents and students were getting everything that we could give them.”
A strong finish
“All in all, CP* went really well,” says Stu Schmill, dean of MIT Admissions and Student Financial Services, who credits the MIT community for its success. “Much better than we thought it might have. It was really amazing to see the entire community come out in such force.” More than 400 events were offered throughout the weekend, with many more added during the remaining weeks of April.
Engagement was strong: About 1,200 admitted students and 840 family members used Pathable, the CP* event platform, and 560 admits joined Discord. Over 1,100 signed up for the MITPal program, which uses an algorithm to match each admit with a current MIT student “host” with similar interests.
Although harder to track, event attendance was also robust, notes Hickey-LeClair. “The amazing part of being on campus during CPW is that students can see and interact with the physical space, but the physical space is vast, so if another event is happening halfway across campus from the event you are at, there’s a good chance you may not be able to make both of them.” At CP*, however, attendees could pop into a session for a while and then visit another concurrent session.
“People appreciated what MIT did to run CP*,” says Isabella Salinas, a first-year student and admissions tour guide who co-hosted 10 events. “A few of them mentioned that they were impressed by the incredible level of support that there was for them, even from upperclassmen,” she says.
One space fits all
Now that the virtual dust has settled, some silver linings have emerged, particularly that by being virtual, CP* democratized access; admitted students and their families from anywhere could tune into anything, on almost any platform — all in the same space.
The international admitted student cohort is a case in point, since distance from campus and time-zone differences were no longer a barrier for participation. “That’s been really thrilling for us,” says Carney. They were very especially active on the Discord Coffee House Lounge channel. “All the international students would congregate late at night our time, where you could see conversations among students from China, Korea, Bulgaria, Romania, the UK, and more.”
CP* also provided an opportunity for the MIT community, especially current undergraduates who participated, to come together during a challenging time. Every year, Carney explains, CPW is “a great reminder for them of the spirit of our institution.” Given that students were at home this year, missing campus and their friends, CP* “really boosted their morale.”