One of the core pillars of the Campuswide Honors Collegium (CHC) at the University of California, Irvine is community. Our goal is to bring new and continuing honors students to a place where they feel they can express themselves, build friendships with their peers and connections with faculty, and further their education through research.
In the last year, the need for community has been more vital than ever before. Throughout the year, the Honors Peer Academic Advisors (PAA) have worked to establish the CHC community presence in the remote environment for honors students. Through numerous workshops such as the Course Planning Workshop, quarterly events such as the Welcome Back and Faculty Coffee Hour events, and communication platforms such as the CHChat and Piazza, the PAAs have taken great strides to make students feel welcome and supported.
In particular, Faculty Coffee Hour is one of the CHC’s most well-known quarterly events and has gone through quite the transformation as a virtual event. Faculty Coffee Hour provides CHC students with the opportunity to mingle with their fellow peers and faculty members, learn about the research projects that other students and faculty may be working on, and practice the important skill of networking with faculty in a casual, low-stakes environment.
The Honors PAAs have experimented with numerous community building platforms to keep Faculty Coffee Hour as close to its original mission as possible. In Winter 2021, the PAAs chose to use a resource called GatherTown, a web-conferencing tool that works to replicate in-person conversations and events. When participants first join the GatherTown, they are placed into a central room with all of the other participants. The participants can customize their avatar before exploring the space. There are tables, chairs, couches, plants, games, etc. placed in the room, allowing the host to design their space however they’d like. Additionally, rather than having to be put into separate breakout rooms, GatherTown allows participants to “walk” their online characters to the tables and chairs, up to different participants, and strike up a conversation on their own accord!
For Faculty Coffee Hour, GatherTown allows students and faculty members to join the virtual “Locus” and move around and have conversations with one another based on their location in the room, similar to how Faculty Coffee Hour is run in-person.
Many faculty and students shared that they thought “GatherTown was a great experience because it let [them] have those one-on-one interactions with one another, while still allowing them to enjoy the relaxed ambiance that came with seeing other participants in the room.” It had all of the benefits of Zoom, a platform that had been used for this event in the past, including its abilities to make announcements, use chats, and have individual conversations, yet, GatherTown provided the participants with much more freedom.
The offering of hallmark Honors PAA events like Faculty Coffee Hour through new and improved online platforms like GatherTown has provided CHC students with access to a community that values them and presents them with opportunities to further their education. Stay tuned as the Campuswide Honors students and staff continue to find new and innovative ways to build community in our changing world.