Karla was asked by the WACAC Communications Committee to share her thoughts, experiences, and advice on working from home during these uncertain times. Karla is the Assistant Director of Admissions and Coordinator of Prefrosh Experience at California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, CA.


Are virtual college student events the new normal?

Covid-19. Covid-what? In an instant, the world turned upside down. As the pandemic quickly evolved, many industries were forced to switch from traditional in-office work to virtual work-from-home. This included university admissions offices across the country. We quickly realized that if prospective and admitted students could not attend campus programs in-person, we would need to bring the campus to students virtually.

Although not by choice, this change also presents our industry with the opportunity to innovate and grow our virtual programs. By viewing this as an opportunity, the Caltech Admissions office realized that going virtual increases accessibility of our programs. In addition, virtual programs can increase the amount of information and value the student receives, and also allow us to bring in more faculty members to participate in discussions and presentations; all while giving us the opportunity to personalize interactions and create personal connections to admitted students.

This is the story of how the Caltech Admissions team took our admitted student program virtual during Covid-19.

I was ecstatic when presented with the opportunity to coordinate our annual admitted student program last summer. If you had told me that I was going to be planning a fully online program, I would have been hesitant to believe it — and I am sure I would not have been the only skeptic on the team. However, that became my reality in March. In the span of one week, just as many other admissions offices, we had to quickly transition from our typical in-office work days to working from home, and in between that, retract all previous plans we had been working on for the admitted student program (since November!) and start from scratch.

Our annual admitted student program, Prefrosh Experience (PFE), is one of the most anticipated events of the year where about 300 admitted students and their families come together for three days of on-campus activities. COVID-19 changed it all, and we were confronted with the challenge of reimagining the entire program. Due to the uncertainty of the situation, I went from sitting down with our campus events manager for hours at a time coming up with a long list of ideas, only to have the majority of the ideas shut down by the next morning. The constant COVID-19 updates kept us on our toes, but also gave us the space for innovation. Not only did we have to reimagine the program for our admitted students (prefrosh); but we also had to consider how program changes affected our student ambassadors who serve an integral part of our Prefrosh Experience activities. Our current students were dealing with a quick turnover of events — ending the instruction term early, having to leave campus, and all the other common stressors brought by this unprecedented situation.

How could we devise a successful program and highlight our campus community while being cognizant of what our current students were experiencing? There was a possibility that we would not be able to provide prefrosh with the opportunity to connect with current students — that was an overwhelming thought. I had two choices — break down or take this challenge by the horns. I chose the latter, but not by myself. I am fortunate to work with a team of talented and resilient people that supported me through the entire process of coordinating this program. We went full steam ahead and transitioned from a three-day in-person program to a two-week virtual program. Our community partners agreed to assist us in every possible way without hesitation. We were able to count on a full list of faculty and partners across campus who were both willing and thrilled to lead different online sessions. Most importantly, we succeeded in providing prefrosh with the opportunity to make connections with current students. We are very fortunate to have amazing and passionate student ambassadors working in our office. Once they all got back home and settled down, they began to reach out to us, eager to connect with the prefrosh students.

Having strong relationships with people across campus, including our current students, helped me coordinate a successful spring admitted student program. I am proud to say that despite the setbacks and changes caused by COVID-19, we maintained our main objective of providing admitted students and their families with a program that highlighted all that Caltech has to offer.

A question that is currently being asked is if programs like these have the same impact as the typical in-person programs. For us, it did this year. Together with our cross-campus colleagues, we managed to reach our targeted matriculated students and we are excited to welcome the Caltech Class of 2024. Admission offices often discuss making changes to their events; this is the time to do it. We have been given the opportunity to reimagine the way we work with prospective students. Let’s run with it and remember that our priority is providing students with the best possible support we can. This is also the time for admission offices to invest and improve on virtual events, because that is the direction the world seems to be taking.