NACA BLOG - Centering Competency and Community In an Unprecedented Recognition Season - 4/10/2020
Amma Marfo

April 10, 2020
Amma Marfo  ​

We’ve reached an interesting point in this grand endeavor that is social distancing, and two things have stood out in particular.

One, I saw an uptick in friends and acquaintances posting series of photos of themselves in crowds, with friends, and generally in crowds. Between their montages, and a pair of Netflix Parties where groups of people elicited multiple calls of “REMEMBER CROWDS?”, it’s clear that these gatherings—be they personal or impersonal in nature—are sorely missed.

The second is a profound sense of loss, not just of the traditions that are typically filling this time of year, but also of a sense of individual loss of competency. Speaking for myself, last week’s blog post felt like it was being written through a thick fog. I could barely think, and even once I had words to the page it felt exhausting to read back through them. Does this make sense? Is any of this good? Has any of this, ever, been any good?

I think that last question is one that we need to monitor the progress of in students, but also in graduate students, faculty members, and administrators. And recognition festivities, typically held around this time each year, can help answer that question in concrete terms. This is why, for several years, I’ve advocated for the idea of competency-based recognition processes (such as those outlined in Dr. Corey Seemiller’s Student Leadership Competencies, or NACA’s College Student Leader Competencies).Why?

  • They make it easier for students and the professionals who work with them alike, to assess the progress they’ve made in key areas;
  • They provide the language that students frequently find themselves at a loss to create when it comes time to “sell themselves” for employment, graduate study, or other post-graduate opportunities; and
  • Crucially today: for the purposes of this post, it lets us provide both those concrete tools and metrics for students (or faculty or staff, if you have awards on your campus that honor them), and offer a sense of affirmation that will buoy them during a time where they, and many of us, have felt unmoored.

Below, you’ll find a set of recommendations adapted from my original post about competency-based recognition, along with how to make these recommendations more robust in a digital format.

For The Awards Themselves: Include competency language in award criteria.

Whether awards are named for who is eligible to receive them, or named for campus or organizational luminaries, consider adding core or desired competencies to the description of the award criteria. As an example, many schools or institutions have awards for Most Improved student or organization member. We often convey this point by thinking about changes in behavior or output, but we can also name development of competencies such as (per the Student Leadership Competencies Guidebook) receiving feedbackself-developmentappropriate interaction, and responsibility for personal behavior.

How can this principle take flight when demonstrated digitally?

  • Present the “opening” of nomination season with clear ties between award titles and the skills that nominees should have. This can manifest itself via infographic, slide deck/video, or even via departmental YouTube channel or podcast.
  • Pull diverse examples from pop culture to illustrate what the winner of each award might look like, and include GIFs or clips to make clear what you’re looking for.
  • If your nomination process isn’t already digital in a robust capacity, consider transferring the process to an interactive form that allows not just for input of text, but links to portfolios, uploads of supporting materials, and the like. This way, the language that you’re using to describe prospective nominees and eventual winners can be matched by how nominators present credentials.

Speaking of nominators…

For Nominators: Encourage Them to Frame Their Contributions in “Competency Speak”

Early in the form, nominators can be prompted to “check off” the competencies that they’ve seen the student/colleague/organization demonstrate over the course of their relationship. As awards are tied to specific competencies, a question can be added prompting nominators to “cite an example of how this student/colleague/organization demonstrates the competencies attributed to this award.” This not only clarifies the thinking that went into a nomination request, but it can make nominators think about the product they’ve seen folks createthe inner work it took to make it, and who they’ve become in the process.

How can this principle take flight when demonstrated digitally?

  • Instead of nomination letters, ask for voice memos/voice notes or videos as support for any application process. Snippets from these submissions can be edited into an eventual online ceremony (more on that toward the end), and can also be archived and preserved for later use.
  • As you do this, offer instructions or prompts on how to incorporate competency language into their submissions.
  • Encourage self-nomination and peer-nomination! While you may do this already, know that the perceived anonymity of online communication may make this easier to execute. Further, in a moment where students might be struggling, it could be instructive or even calmative for students to think back on where they truly have excelled, made progress, or made an impact on their now-physically distant campus community.

For Students/Colleagues/Organizations: Share These Nominations and Speeches

On the night of the award ceremonies, those in attendance often hear excerpts from the heartfelt (and, yes, time-consuming) nomination documents that earn these individuals their awards. However, hearing it amidst a swell of emotion is far from the only time that these words should matter. Moreover, those who are absent from these ceremonies may never hear these words again. I’m of the belief that all nominees, winners or not, should receive copies of their nominations. There are a few motivations behind this.

First, it is truly an honor to be nominated- especially on larger campuses or within larger organizations. Second, those who are either absent or overcome in the moment may not hear the larger message presented in these remarks. Finally – and I’d argue, most importantly – these artifacts can provide encouragement during the often stressful time of year where these awards tend to fall, while also providing fodder for resumes, cover letters, and interview responses that also fall during this time of year.

How can this principle take flight when demonstrated digitally?

  • Have the ceremony. Whether it’s moderated by a host over Zoom, Instagram Live, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, or any other synchronous tool; or facilitated in parts across departmental social media channels, mimic the pageantry of the in-person experience online. Encourage nominees to dress up for the occasion, plan a menu, hire an emcee to hold the night together (which, brief plug, I do)…help them create an atmosphere that makes this day special.
  • The permanence of these speeches, ideally fortified by the voice memos or videos that nominators sent, can (a) live on online and (b) come to life through these supplemental pieces in a way that speeches given the night of simply don’t. If archived thoughtfully, these moments could eventually serve as artifacts for winners and nominees alike to use in online portfolios, tenure applications, or on LinkedIn profiles.
  • Customized links could be shared with nominees to keep the kind words spoken on their behalf private but available for their use.
  • For those who want to share the honor with their families (more on that in a moment), being able to close the distance that some students still have from their families – remember, not everyone who is distance learning had the opportunity to go home – becomes easier when these artifacts are shared online.

BONUS: Follow up with nominees and winners, where possible.

The idea of following up with award winners shortly after ceremonies or with nominees after they’ve received nominator remarks can help these programs provide additional value. Questions during these follow-ups can include:

  • What parts of the nomination pleased you? Were there competencies you knew you’d been working on, that were affirmed by what people noticed?
  • What parts of the nomination surprised you? Were there competencies you hadn’t realized you’d grown in, that were affirmed by what people noticed?
  • As you think about the competencies that are associated with the award, are there any you still want to work on?
  • Looking over the slate of awards and what they’re about, which ones do you want to work toward receiving? Which competencies do you know you have some room for growth in?
  • How do you plan to use this feedback and the nominator(s)’ words to inform some of your career tasks and/or goals?

This is a time-consuming conversation, without a doubt. […] Remember, however, that the time spent makes the work more robust; it helps us to reinforce that rewards and recognition are not synonymous with perfection. It helps to set an expectation that we’re all in line to grow, and we want to help you through that process.

How can this principle take flight when demonstrated digitally? I think about the key moments where it might be nice to have the memories of this honor at the ready:

  • When back on campus, as a means to remotivate folx and help them reacclimate after some time away from their “normal” routine;
  • At graduation/commencement time, even if the awards are being offered to graduating seniors but especially if they’re not; or
  • In moments where a past nominee or recipient seems to be struggling. It’s one thing to be able to say, “remember when you got that award?” and another to be able to show, in concrete digital bandwidth, precisely what makes them outstanding.

A Few Final Tips to Make This Season of Achievement and Appreciation Amazing

  • Whereas there are typically teams on campus for nominations and event planning, try to continue the same; in this instance, the team would be nominations and digital composition. Have someone who can help make the online experience memorable, seamless, and celebratory.
  • Related to that: should you choose to hold a synchronous event, do so on a platform where people outside the campus community can watch*, encourage students to share the link with friends and family – and ensure that your chosen platform can accommodate a high number of attendees. Yes, it’s not always easy or efficient, but it’s important to treat the digital edition with as many of the same comforts as an in-person edition…and that includes the support of friends and family in attendance.
    *Recognizing the incidents of Zoom-bombing and other insecure elements of online events, I of course encourage security measures like password or PIN protection or identity confirmation prior to “room” entry
  • If a synchronous ceremony feels outside the bandwidth of your department, consider making the “event” a multi-week social takeover. Display nominations early in the process, with highlights of nomination materials, in the weeks leading up to the event. Then, over the course of a five day week, winners could be revealed on those same channels.
  • No matter which you choose to do, consider mailing awards to winners in advance, so they have them the night of the ceremony and can make an appearance with their awards. Especially if you opt for the asynchronous edition of the process, solicit photos or video of winners getting their awards to extend the celebration.

Amma Marfo is a speaker and facilitator with SPEAK Educators, a division of FUN Enterprises. After a decade working on campus in student activities and student leadership, she now travels the country speaking on creativity, group dynamics, leadership and empowering introverted student leaders. She blogs regularly and shares resources on her website,

Need more inspiration from her about programming during this time? Head here for her full series.

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