S7E6: What is living on a college campus like in 2022?
There are about 3,500 students living on the University of Maine campus, many of whom have spent much of their high school or early college years learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the transition to in-person learning and socializing has been daunting to some first-year and returning students.
In recent years, the Division of Student Life has retooled and doubled down on their services to help students adjust to college life during the pandemic and preserve a sense of community on campus. According to the division, participation in on-campus activities has significantly increased this fall compared to years past, but so has the demand for mental health, socialization and other services.
In this episode of “The Maine Question” podcast, Ben Evans, assistant director of campus activities at UMaine, and Lauri Sidelko, assistant dean in student life, discuss what life on campus is like for students in 2022.
Ben Evans: One of the most incredible things that I usually witness, typically fall break or Thanksgiving time, is people go back to where they grew up. They go to their hometown. They tell their parents or their friends, “Yeah, I’m going home on Monday.” Meaning, I’m going back to Orono. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. That changes the student’s view on this campus.
Ron Lisnet: Leaving the comforts of home and moving on to campus to begin your college experience. It’s a milepost that millions of young people pass every year. In addition to doing well in classes, the goal is to begin forging an identity as an adult. To pursue passions, become independent.
When it clicks, as Ben Evans alluded to, the transition is quite profound. He’s the assistant director of campus activities at UMaine. I’m Ron Lisnet, and this is “The Maine Question” podcast. Almost 3,500 students call the UMaine campus home during the school year.
As these students adjust to the academic challenges of going to college, they’re also beginning the process of learning how to be on their own, make friends, do laundry, among many other tasks. It’s a cliché that happens to ring true that college is a time to reinvent yourself.
For many underclass students, the final years of high school were anything but normal with the pandemic forcing students to learn remotely. The on-campus student body at UMaine is trying to adjust to this new normal. This fall, they’ve shown an increased desire to engage with each other. Attendance for on-campus activities is up significantly.
Many have expressed a desire to have a sense of belonging to a community. Another trend that has surfaced is the need for increased support for mental health and socialization skills. We talked about these topics and more with Ben Evans and with Lauri Sidelko, an assistant dean in student life at UMaine, as we ponder our main question for this episode. What’s living on campus like in 2022?
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. We appreciate it. Maybe, let’s start with having you introduce yourself. Tell us what you do here at UMaine.
Ben: Hi. My name is Ben Evans. I’m the assistant director for campus activities. In my role, I oversee all of our late-night programmings. I oversee our large traditions as well as our e-sports program.
Lauri Sidelko: Hi there. I’m Lauri Sidelko. I’m an assistant dean in student life. I get to work with the folks who work in the Center for Student Involvement, which is campus activities — student organization and leader development, and fraternity and sorority life. I also get to work with the folks in student wellness.
Ron: We’re about seven or eight weeks into the fall semester, coming out of a pandemic and the COVID era, so to speak, and starting school. We’re well into it now, but it’s an anxiety-inducing time of year. What are you guys thinking about as this year started and you were hoping to sort of get back to as normal as possible? What was on your minds?
Ben: The big thing for us is making sure students can get connected to our campus and feel like they can find their people while they’re here. The classroom is why they’re here. They’re here to be students.
We are here to support them after hours and to support them from campus programming to finding organizations that they can be part of and making sure that they find their place, find their people, and can plug in.
There’s a lot of anxiety that comes with being a student, especially if you’re a first-year student, especially if most of your high school career was during the pandemic. You haven’t gotten to create yourself. We’re giving students that opportunity to invent who they are.
Ron: Lauri, there is more than 11,000 students here. I’m sure all kinds of issues, challenges come through your door. What has been top of mind for you as this fall semester has gotten underway?
Lauri: To tag onto what Ben said, students are nervous. A lot of students have just been by themselves for the last few years. We’re finding new ways to help them engage. They need some help with some of their social skills, finding friends, meeting new people. We’re trying to teach them or help them to learn about how to be more social, how to engage with others.
Where, in the past, we could have a student organization fair and people would go to the meetings, now it’s more that we’re trying to find some mentors for the students who they can meet with ahead of time. It’s not so scary to walk into a student organization meeting, to join that group. We’re trying to find some bridges so that the students don’t feel so nervous about engaging.
Ron: How close to “back to normal” are we? Are we ever going to get to what it was like pre-COVID?
Ben: Something that COVID did for us is it challenged us to think creatively and provide new opportunities and services for our students, and to do our programs in a new way. We talked about pre-COVID, but we are in a new normal is what I like to call it.
We are now hosting events four days a week instead of three days a week. We have students say, “There’s not enough for us to do around here.” By adding that additional day, COVID challenged us to do that.
When we left in March of 2020, we went from programming three days a week to programming six days a week to make sure that our students could stay connected back to campus whether they were in Portland or they were in San Diego. We wanted to make sure our students felt that connection.
When they’ve come back, we are creating that new normal of we’re going to have programming for you. We’re going to have opportunities for you. We might be new and improved following COVID, the ways that we’re connecting with our students, the ways we’re making our events more accessible and more broad for all of our students, not just the rut we were stuck in before COVID hit.
Lauri: We learned that we’re never going to be the same as we were before. We’re not trying to be anymore. We’re providing students opportunities that are a vast variety so that we can have some things in person, some things remote, and a little bit of both depending on what their comfort and where they’re at.
Ron: Did the pandemic force student life to think differently? Do you need to pay more attention to mental health these days?
Lauri: Absolutely. Mental health is key. We’re seeing that both with students and with parents. Honestly, we’ve heard so much from parents this year. They’re worried about their students. They want to be communicated with. Their students’ first call is generally to the parent when they’re worried about it. Then, we’ll hear from the parent that the student is worried.
Certainly, we have the support of the Counseling Center. We also have the support of the folks who work in Student Life. Any one of us can help students on their day-to-day problems. We like to. That’s what we enjoy doing. It’s Dr. Dana’s kind, caring, and compassionate mantra that we like to follow.
Ron: Resident assistants, better known as RAs, are a part of that, right?
Lauri: Huge part of it, yes. They’re highly trained. They know what they’re doing. They like to meet students and help them with whatever their day-to-day challenges are.
Ron: Academics are enough of a challenge. Then, you add on top of that being on your own, trying to find your way in this world, that kind of thing, how does engagement and interaction help that process?
Ben: We always talk about we are a co-curricular opportunity here for students. They get the curriculum in the classroom. When they come to us, we are adding on to that. We have students that are interested in agriculture and are interested in being outdoors.
We have so many student organizations that are perfect for that from the woodsman team to we’ve got a group that they go out into little field gardens, and they have picnics every week. Trying to find ways to get those students connected with other folks that can help reduce the stressors of being a college student.
Some of these organizations that students are part of help their careers. They are going to help them when they leave here. They are taking classes on becoming a nurse and they’re part of the Orono Nursing Student Association. They are part of a group that is out there doing good in the world. We also have the Esports club. That is a growing field in this generation of students.
Being part of the e-sports club now might be helping land $100,000 jobs when they leave here. Then we’ve got groups that are just funny groups like the hammock group that want to go hang out in the trees and relax and are backcountry squatters. All of our groups just want to go on hikes and help each other relax after the long day.
Ron: How many student clubs are there? You split them into stuff you do for fun, or intramurals, or what have you, and then the professional-oriented ones. About how many clubs are there these days?
Ben: Very fitting for Maine, we have 207 active organizations as we speak. That does include sports groups. That includes our fraternity and sorority life groups. That includes academic groups, honorary groups, religious groups.
Lauri: Religious clubs.
Ben: We’ve got about eight categories of groups that students can get involved in. The really nice piece about this year is we’ve been able to launch our new app which is called Campus Groups. That is a place for all students to go find organizations that they’re interested in.
Lauri: …and events. All events that we can find are posted on this app. We put out information about where, when, how. There are events every weekend. Every Wednesday through Sunday there are programs on campus for sure.
Ron: Lauri, you mentioned parents. Are parents more protective and involved in their college students’ lives these days? How can you tell them what the best ways are not to hover, and take over, let their child grow on their own but also be there as a safety net?
Lauri: We are hearing from a lot more parents this year than we have in years past. Parents are involved through the Facebook page. They’re also involved in making phone calls. We spend the summer orientation telling parents, “Feel free to call us if you have questions.” This year more than ever, they’ve taken us up on that offer. That’s fantastic.
We do spend quite a bit of time with the parents talking to them about how they can support and encourage their students. Some things are appropriate for a parent to call and talk about.
There are other things that, as we try to create adults in these students to help them develop that we try to talk to the parents about, “OK, well, can you put that back in your son’s lap to ask them if they can follow through with that and we can help them?
“They can come and meet with me. I’ll walk them through the process. This might be something that’s more appropriate for your child to do than for you to do.”
Ben: Lauri said it exactly right. We are helping them become adults. We need the parents’ support on that. There are certain things, like she mentioned, that the parent doesn’t need to be involved in. If they are, the student is never going to learn.
That is when they call and they say, “My child…” Yes, they’re your child, but they’re also 20 years old. We are trying to get them to the point where, in a year and a half, two years, three years, they’re going to be going out and getting a job in the world. You may need to have a hand in that. We need the parents to let us help them have a hand in that.
Ron: You talk about some new developments, the app. E-sports is a growing area. Living-learning communities, what’s that all about?
Lauri: Living-learning communities are through Residence Life. There are some that are education-based. There are some that are more socially based. We have an outdoor living-learning community. We also have some that are centered around academic majors.
A good academic engineering floor, for example, on a residence hall is going to help students to meet and greet with people in their major, get to know them, build a bond, and, hopefully, help them be more successful in their academic program, whereas some of the more socially based ones are clubs that live on your floor.
They’re people who have like-minded interests and can do some of those interests while they’re living and meeting people with similar interests.
Ron: A lot of us grew up with the time-honored traditions of going to football games, hockey games, basketball games, homecoming, and things like that. What is being done to revive, enhance, or update those traditional experiences?
Ben: One of the big things is we are putting very intentional time and effort into these programs. We just wrapped up Family and Friends Weekend, our largest one to date. Nearly 5,000 family members were on campus. We were able to focus a huge amount of time this summer saying, “What do our parents need? What do our students need?”
We’re listening to the parents from last year saying, “We need more intentional time with our students. We need more time just to learn about Orono.” That’s where our focus was for Family and Friends Weekend. Our goal for Homecoming this year was to start heading in the direction where it’s an event for undergraduate students as well as alumni.
We have this feeling of, why would you come back for homecoming if you don’t have a tie to homecoming specifically as an undergraduate? That is something that 20 years ago they did really well. We are working on building that back up in that student experience.
Students are different these days. Sometimes the football game is packed. Sometimes you’re pulling people’s teeth to get them there. We’re trying to work with athletics and with their fan engagement to determine, how can we make the best possible experience for our students.
At hockey games, we’ll have student organizations down on the ice and be able to host those games and everything that happens during the hockey game. Figuring out what our students want, figuring out how we can collaborate with other departments on this campus, and make sure that those experiences are out of this world.
Lauri: To add to that, Amy Vachon, the head coach of the women’s basketball team is bringing her team back to The Pit this year. She has come to everything, every club, and organization that we let her come to or that we can get her time to come into to encourage students to come back to the games in The Pit and to have a great fan base for women’s basketball this year. That’s huge.
This morning, student government who is in charge of all of the student activity fee, met with athletics to start talking to them about providing buses for our off-campus games. Games that are traveling, they want to start supporting buses for students to go to some of our away games, which is not something we’ve done in many, many years. It’s very exciting.
Ron: We mentioned some of the bigger events. You talked about programming four days a week. I’m doing the math. That’s 60 programs a semester. Talk about some of the weekly kinds of things that students…There’s games nights. There’s things that may be what they did at home with their families that you’re trying to replicate or duplicate, right?
Ben: Absolutely. We’ve got a system worked out for this year that is working really well. Our Wednesday nights are hosted by our campus activities board. That is completely student-run, student-driven programming. They love the craft nights. They love paint parties, anything to get hands-on succulent planting, pumpkin painting, pumpkin carving, those are the sorts of events that they host.
On Thursday nights, we have coined it Thirsty Thursdays. All of these events are in the on-campus pub. That is your karaoke nights, your open mic, your trivia nights. Those have been some of our largest turnouts for events. Students are excited to be in a new venue and a new chance to explore what this campus has to offer.
Friday night, we focus more on our games. This week, we’ve got board game night. We pull on our Esports Arena sometimes for our programs. Saturday night is our big, out-of-the-park event. We’ve had magicians on Saturday nights. We’ve had comedians. We’ve had performances. That’s what we focus on is ramping up.
On Wednesday, Thursday, you’re having some fun. Friday gets a little bigger. Saturday is the big event. We’ve had some incredible turnout, bigger than pre-COVID. A few weeks ago, we had 300 people at an event. The room could not hold any more people. We could not be more excited for what that means for our students.
We have an incredible student team that is leading the preparation, planning, and execution of the event. I could not be more proud of the team of students that are making these come to life.
Ron: All these events, do they come under the heading of you’re trying to get students to think of UMaine as home? That’s the overall goal.
Lauri: Absolutely. If you look at everything outside of the classroom, Residence Life, they work to build community so that they feel at home in their home. Dining works really hard to make sure that there’s food variety that’s comfortable, that makes people feel like they have what they want, and they need to eat.
Our traditions help anchor people so that they know what to expect in the future. Our advisors work really hard to help students feel like they know they can have somebody to count on. Whether they’re advisors for a club or for a class, we want students to know that we’re there for them.
I think even some things as little as voting. We try really hard to let students know that this is your home, you can vote here if you want to.
We have an election coming up and this is how you do it through are UMaine UVote program. Then Ben is working really hard to create the memorial union into the living room of campus so that students feel like this is a place where they can come and hang out even if they don’t have a plan.
Ben: One of the biggest things that we’ve been working with parents on is, don’t call UMaine your students’ home away from home. One of the most incredible things that I usually witness, typically fall break or Thanksgiving time, is people go back to where they grew up.
They go to their hometown. They tell their parents or their friends, “Yeah, I’m going home on Monday.” Meaning, I’m going back to Orono. I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it. That changes the student’s view on this campus.
When UMaine becomes their home, and we welcome them home, when we do Hearty Maine Hello, and we’re welcoming people back, that is what campus is about. That is about being home, about making Orono your home.
Ron: Talk about some trends. You guys are always looking into the future, seeing, hopefully, what’s coming around the corner. What are some things we might see for students coming and living on campus in the coming years? Any trends that come to mind?
Lauri: I can see that our students are going to outgrow the need for us to just do the basics in socialization and engagement. They’re really moving toward leadership. Our students are hungry to become leaders, to learn to be leaders and to bring our organizations to the next level. I hear it all the time.
People talk about goals before they’re even established as a group. [laughs] That’s great. That’s wonderful because that means that they have the ambition and the excitement to move forward. That’s one huge part, is that we’re going to see a huge leadership development and some growth in the caliber of organizations and events that we have available to students.
Ben: Going along that, our students have some really good ideas. They are very creative. We have students, both in our office and outside of our office, that are making TikToks. There’s a student here who has tens of thousands of views every week on his TikTok.
They’re just getting creative and taking life into their own hands a little bit. We talked about the parents. The parents are trying to be hands-on. These students, in a lot of ways, are taking their future into their hands. We get to help them do that, which is really exciting.
Students used to come to our office and say, “I’ve got an idea for an event, and you should run it.” Students are now coming in and saying, “I just need your help in making the logistics happen, but I know what I want to do and I’m going to bring it to life.” That is new to us.
I’m excited for what that means for our student body, and what that means for their futures. It’s been exciting to watch students come in as first-year students and then write their letters of recommendation when they leave because of all the incredible things they’ve done as they go out into this world.
Ron: It is a cliché but happens to be true. College is a time for — pick your term — exploration, taking chances, self-discovery. Lauri, I know you said this when we were talking about doing this podcast earlier. I thought it hit home. You want them to not be afraid to take the leap or the leaps that they’re going to take here but give them a nice, safe landing spot, right?
Lauri: Absolutely. That’s our job. The reason I work in student development is because college was a life-changing experience for me. I wanted to be a part of that.
What I say to students every year at orientation is, “You’re going to be nervous, but everybody is in the exact same position that you’re in. So, take a deep breath. And even though it’s scary, put your hand out, say hello, join the group. Everybody is in this situation. Because you will not regret it, if you just step forward, then you will be received.”
Ron: Ben, we’ll give you the final word.
Ben: I couldn’t go throughout this podcast without saying this. Our motto in the Center for Student Involvement is, “If it’s free, it’s for me.” We want students to take that to heart. If you see us with free shirts, free pizza, or free giveaways, take us up on the opportunity. Never in your life again unless you work in student affairs will you have an opportunity at so many…
Ron: To have that much pizza.
Ben: Have that much pizza, have that much added to your wardrobe, and an opportunity to try something new. When students come to college, they get to reinvent themselves. If you were Benjamin in high school, you can be Ben, or Benny, or Benjamin when you get here. Take that opportunity to decide who you want to be.
You have the opportunity to create yourself. That’s what I hope our students will hear. Whether they’re currently a first-year student or a senior, this is still your time to make a change in your life.
Ron: You guys are doing great work. We thank you so much for talking about it with us. Thanks a lot.
Lauri: Thank you.
Ben: Thank you.
Ron: Thanks, as always, for checking us out. You can catch all of our episodes on Apple and Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and SoundCloud, UMaine’s Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube pages, as well as Amazon and Audible. Drop us a note if you have a question or comment at email@example.com.
This is Ron Lisnet. We’ll catch you next time on The Maine Question.