Unpacking Professionalism: A Discussion Following the Shift to Online New Student Orientation

By Ned Khatrichettri posted 05-18-2021 08:00

  

By Ned Khatrichettri and Cameron Vakilian

Ned Khatrichettri, M.A. is an internship coordinator in the College of Humanities at the University of Utah.

Cameron Vakilian, M.S.Ed is an academic advisor and an internship coordinator for the Department of Communication in the College of Humanities at the University of Utah.

May 18, 2021

The College of Humanities at the University of Utah has consistently received positive reviews from new students who attend our summer orientation. Student survey responses have included insights such as, “Assistance with creating my academic schedule made me a lot more comfortable,” “How to fulfill general education requirements was helpful, and I am a lot less scared of them now,” and “Discussing what professional options are available with a humanities degree was great.” During our shift from in-person orientation to exclusively online sessions in summer 2020, we made some observations that we feel warrant discussion. We believe these observations and the questions we pose, which are intended to initiate conversation, can benefit both academic and career advising circles to collectively engage and empower students during these challenging times.

Summer 2019: Reading the Room

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, our orientation programs were held on campus in meeting rooms and lecture halls in the Language and Communications Building. Throughout the presentations and discussions, the College of Humanities summer orientation team members monitored audiences of 15-20 participants for their level of engagement during each session, helping to ensure the students develop a successful first-semester schedule. The characteristics of each student cohort varied; some were willing and active participants while others were reserved. Students received enough new information to bring to mind the expression “drinking from a fire hose,” which undoubtedly contributed to their exhaustion.

The orientation facilitators were sensitive to this, and made adjustments to the presentations and, based on the energy level of the students, sometimes extending or shortening icebreakers or omitting general information about the college that could be found elsewhere. Additionally, while mindful not to overwhelm the students, we included a career component that incorporated a short video featuring a humanities alumnus discussing her professional trajectory, along with information about with whom to connect to explore opportunities.

Summer 2020: Reading the screen

The shift from in-person to virtual orientation sessions in summer 2020 posed a new set of challenges for facilitators and students alike. For instance, the necessity for one person to talk at a time in a virtual setting made rapport-building and spontaneous conversations cumbersome — if not impossible — during a two-hour session.

Team members were anxious about how things would unfold. We were transparent and vulnerable with students, letting them know it was okay to be nervous during these uncertain times; their ease was apparent through extended exhales and lowered shoulders visible on camera.

We also briefly discussed “Zoom etiquette”— for example, staying muted to prevent accidental interruption and writing inquiries in the chat box — shortly after everyone signed on, then proceeded to deliver our presentations in the most engaging ways that our virtual connections would allow. As before, the level of engagement varied from one group to the next, and we did our best to keep the energy up and the pace under control.

Discussion

Among the many changes brought about by the new normal of online engagements, we have noticed, by way of our college’s summer orientation programs, a shift in the way that professionalism, both as an abstract concept and a physical performance, plays out between students and the staff and faculty with whom they communicate. Attire, grooming practices, and visible physical characteristics have always influenced people’s perceptions about an individual’s aptitude for professionalism; in the virtual context, however, additional factors that used to be invisible are now on display. For example, uncontrollable background noise, interruptions from roommates, siblings, parents, or pets, unstable internet, and disorganized work and study spaces are now visible.

What is the impact of this shift on someone’s capacity for professionalism? Is it appropriate to make inferences or judgments based on these newly visible pieces of each other’s lives, or should we be more patient and understanding under these abnormal circumstances and remind ourselves that prepandemic values and approaches may be unrealistic during online engagements? Perhaps our unsteady professional footing is a call to action to reevaluate and rewrite what constitutes both online and in-person “professionalism.”

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