NACA BLOG - Advising Student Government and Managing Transitions as We Make Our Way Through COVID-19 - 4/6/2020

NACA Board and executive director

April 6, 2020
Jaime Ingrisano
University of Colorado Denver

Moving Student Government Meetings Online

As many of us have moved most of our work exclusively to the internet, I’ve seen recurring posts in Facebook groups and other online communities by student government advisors concerned about how they will support their students through this time. I try to give students a menu of options or possible pathways to help them discover which approach they prefer. Recognizing that some decisions may be out of our control, such as which technology platform our campus supports, there are still many opportunities to work with students to have a successful remainder of the year.

1. Get comfortable with technology options. Whether your team uses Zoom, Google Hangout, Microsoft Teams, or another platform to hold virtual meetings, help student leaders feel comfortable with the technology.

  • Share a tutorial about how to use the software – most platforms already provide them. 
  • Offer to host a practice meeting so you, the student who is leading/facilitating, and the voting members feel comfortable using the software’s features, engaging in debate, and casting their votes. It may be helpful to use a piece of past or fake legislation to practice how to introduce, second, debate and vote. 
  • Reviewgroup norms and expectations at the beginning of the meeting – everyone should have their camera on and microphones off, when possible, and have a designated member keep track of the speakers list to maintain order. Give students alternatives in the event that they’re having tech issues such as calling in via phone instead of webcam, asking questions or giving opinions via the chat feature, or having the meeting recorded with a 24-hour-delayed vote so that if tech issues arise, all members still have the opportunity to cast an informed vote.

2. Maintain transparency. Keep meetings as open as possible for students at large and the general public. Consider your governing documents, school policy and state laws. This may involve posting the link to the meeting 24 or 48 hours in advance via social media channels and website or recording the meeting and positing it in a publicly available realm, such as your website or digital repository. If recording the meeting, give a reminder at the beginning that it’s being recorded. You may want to confer with student leadership to discuss if there will be heightened expectations for minutes. Consider keeping more detailed minutes so members or the student body can have greater clarity on discussions/how decisions were made.

3. Discuss back-up plans. You want student leaders, and specifically the student leading the meeting, to be as engaged in the meeting’s discussions as possible, so it’s helpful to have someone else manage backend functions in case something goes wrong, such as losing a connection or if someone in attendance attempts to cause chaos. The person serving this function may be the advisor, parliamentarian, recording secretary, or pro tempore.

4. Document what you can. While we all hope to get back to “normal” by the beginning of the fall term, none of us are certain what normal will look like. Keep records as best you can for how your student government operated and what modifications you put into place during this online phase. This can help prepare your group in the event you need to go online again, such as for a seasonal weather-related school closure or another large-scale occurrence. Take special note of whether there are different patterns of parliamentary procedure, such as higher use of verbal votes or hand raising, using the chat feature to ask questions so the speaker can just read them and respond to be more efficient, and how to manage discussion of whole/committee caucuses in breakout rooms to promote open dialogue. During our in-person meetings, each member has a handout of commonly used motions in a meeting. We are looking to develop an even more abbreviated version of common motions for online meetings to further support productive debate.

Endings and Beginnings: Preparing to Adjourn and Transition to Your Next Team

Many of us are working with our current team of student government leaders while preparing for the 2020-21 team. My heart is heavy for students who’ve been anticipating end-of-year traditions. Whether your team has a running history of silly superlatives, a banquet with senior send-offs or some other ceremony to acknowledge accomplishments, it’s understandable for them to be disappointed that they may not occur. Here are a few ideas to celebrate your current team and prepare for the next.

1. Hold a virtual end-of-year ceremony. If you don’t have a designated student leader responsible for this, seek volunteers to help arrange or coordinate it. Superlatives awards could be presented via a screen-shared PowerPoint. Have students announce that you will be doing a flash-back photo collage and encourage everyone to submit their favorite childhood photo (or Halloween costume or favorite picture from the current school year) to participate in a lighthearted guessing game. If you give internal awards, consider how you want to collect nominations and votes, and include those in your virtual program. See if your dean of students, chancellor/president or other notable figure would be willing to offer opening remarks. Try to keep what was loved and cherished from past events to help students come to terms with the end of their school year.

2. Have a fall “reunion” with your 2019-2020 team. For the fall, plan a fun reunion event for any interested students to meet one last time to hang out as a team. This may be a great addition to a homecoming schedule, even if it’s a simple brunch, tailgate, or office open house. For schools without homecoming, what other fall traditions to which students look forward could you can add an event? My school does not have Homecoming, so we are considering holding a reunion during Family Weekend. While a 2020 reunion may be exclusive for your current 2019-20 team members, it could also be the beginning of a new tradition – and potential collaboration with your alumni office – to invite all your past members to celebrate and reminisce about their student government involvement. Current graduating students may find this a perfect excuse to return to campus, so try to set a date early so they can make arrangements.

As for transitioning and training for the next team when a campus return date is uncertain, consider which elements can be moved to an online format and which might be more challenging. Fall training typically includes team bonding and trust-building activities, which will be very different if attempted while physically separated. While it’s obviously impossible to make a digital trust fall work, there may be ways to help transition new leaders on a more individual level.

1. Encourage outgoing students to complete transition reports with as much detail as possible. In NACA’s ENCORE digital library, you will find numerous templates and checklists for transition reports, including one in a checklist format that can be used by both the outgoing officer to structure their transition guide and a tool to help you understand how prepared/informed incoming members feel about their new roles.

2. Encourage new members to conduct informational interviews. Recommend they meet with their corresponding outgoing member. You can also offer to facilitate meetings between your incoming student and a relevant professional staff member, i.e. faculty senate president for your senate president, marketing staff member for your social media director, wellness center director for a student who campaigned on student wellness priorities, etc. Not only will this help the student gain critical campus context and connections, it will also help them build personal confidence in their ability to engage in conversation – a skill many Generation Z students have expressed a desire to build.

3. Consider building training into your campus learning management system (LMS) (Blackboard, Canvas, etc.) with modules and learning checkpoints. Not only will this help you be prepared for an extended time away from campus, it will give you another tool to transition students who join your team later in the school year. While I plan to move training topics and materials into a shell, I hope I will be able to deliver the content in a face-to-face, interactive format and simply reference the materials for students who want to explore them again on their own. Also, if your training is already built into your LMS, newer students will be still able to access high-quality, intentional training rather than learning on the fly. This past year, our team had significant student turnover and I regret they may not all have been as supported in their roles as those who started at the beginning of the year. I hope that being mindful of how I develop and integrate training with our LMS will enable students to learn their jobs, duties, and expectations while also freeing them to focus on relationship and trust building with one another.

I hope these ideas have helped you feel more confident in supporting and transitioning student government leaders. Your student government may experience various issues right now, and that’s okay. Please remember to give yourself and your students grace during this challenging time.

Jaime Ingrisano is assistant director for Student Engagement in the Office of Student Life at the University of Colorado Denver. She is the primary advisor for the Student Government Association and also works with community engagement initiatives. She is Coordinator-Elect for the NACA® Student Government Institute-West and received NACA’s 2018 Frank Harris Outstanding Student Government Advisor award.

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