Bridging the Distance W&L’s admissions office is replacing in-person events canceled due to COVID-19 with personalized online outreach.
“This is one of the most significant decisions a high school student makes, which is always hard and often stressful. You’re layering that on top of economic uncertainty and the rules changing. But these students are highly resilient.”
~Sally Stone Richmond, VP of Admissions and Financial Aid
Spring is one of the busiest times of the year for W&L’s Admissions Office, as admissions decisions go out and students decide whether to enroll. Normally, the school hosts hundreds of students for campus visits and Admitted Students Days, giving them the chance to experience the community and resources that make a W&L education so special. This year, students must navigate their college choices without the benefit of in-person visits, since campuses around the country are closed due to COVID-19.
That challenge is daunting, but Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid Sally Stone Richmond believes the Class of 2024 has adjusted admirably.
“Our hearts go out to them,” she said. “This is one of the most significant decisions a high school student makes, which is always hard and often stressful. You’re layering that on top of economic uncertainty and the rules changing. But these students are highly resilient. They’re thinking long-term about where they want to be.”
When campus closed due to COVID-19, Richmond and her team rapidly reworked their in-person programming into virtual events and personal outreach from admissions officers and student or alumni ambassadors.
“We’re losing the physical, not the relational,” said Admissions Counselor Elaina Prillaman ’17.
Over the last month, admissions has posted a video information session, launched a detailed virtual tour, begun weekly Live from Lex online Q&As, revamped its campus visit web page and begun hosting live information sessions on Zoom. Engagement is high, and the team is watching what works best and adjusting its strategy in response.
Signs of disruption to the admissions schedule emerged on the first weekend of March, when recipients of Johnson Scholarships were invited to campus. “I felt like we were landing the plane just before the storm,” Richmond said. “At the time, we only had one parent concerned about safety and travel. We are so grateful we were able to host a successful program before guidance began to change.”
Later that week, the epidemic elsewhere in the country worsened, and serious discussions about campus closures began. As Richmond and her team discussed scenarios for moving online, they identified three goals: provide access to high quality and insightful information about Washington and Lee, reassure students they could still connect with the school, and meet them where they were.
On March 13, the day after W&L’s closure to visitors was announced, Richmond’s team gathered at the Ruscio Center for Global Learning to finalize plans and assign responsibilities. “All the admissions and financial aid staff have been a part of this,” Richmond said. “There’s no person who isn’t taking appointments virtually, making calls and texting, engaging in Zoom conversations.”
Faculty and staff throughout the university have helped as well. “We have always had a community that steps up to engage, and we had a wonderful response when we asked for support,” Richmond said. Members of information technology services and communications assisted with website conversions and video creation, and the office’s Live from Lex series has wrapped in faculty, staff and students from across campus to explain student life, academics and the W&L experience.
Admissions also hopes to connect every admitted student with someone in the W&L community one-on-one. Tim Pierce ’20, president of the University Ambassadors Organization, says that’s helpful for those with questions. He recently had a long conversation with a student from Florida who wanted to know about life in Lexington.
“It’s about that personal connection,” he explained. “‘Hey, I’m from Florida too. I’ve been to your high school before.’ We’re replacing that opportunity for students to come to campus.”
The face-to-face interactions that must be replaced are enormously valuable. “Every year, I help with first-year move-in day,” Pierce said. “You’re helping students and they say, ‘You’re Tim! You were my tour guide. You’re one of the reasons I wanted to come to W&L!’ All of our ambassadors get that at some point. So do admissions officers.”
“W&L was my last college tour,” added Prillaman. “I visited at the end of September during my senior year, and I ended up applying early decision because I stepped on campus and fell in love.”
The physical realities of campus, like standing on the Colonnade, can’t be replaced, although the panoramic views of the online tour do their best. But every year, some students enroll without visiting, and admissions has asked what helped them most. “They all talk about a leap of faith,” Richmond said, one facilitated by interactions with the W&L community.
W&L’s alumni have stepped in to make more of those connections. “We have 600 active volunteers in our Alumni Admissions Program,” said Julia Littlefield, assistant director of admissions. Most years, they interview students and host regional receptions. But they also call and email admitted students to offer congratulations. With in-person events canceled, they’ve been especially active.
“One of W&L’s hallmarks is individual connection and personal support,” Littlefield noted. “To get a call from an alum saying, ‘I’m so incredibly thrilled for you, so happy that you have the option to join us,’ that means something. Our whole office feels so grateful for that support.”
Despite the challenges involved in going online, there may be silver linings. “A lot of times admitted students have questions,” Pierce said, “but they don’t have the financial or logistical means to get to campus. Or they’re afraid they’ll be annoying or come off as pestering if they ask. Now we’re saying, ‘Pester us! Ask us questions! These are our emails, this is my phone number.’ They can connect with us just as well as anyone else.”
New twice-weekly online information sessions have been showcasing that accessibility. “We’ve had international representation, which is not something we get for most of our on-campus visits,” said Admissions Counselor MacKenzye Leroy ’18. “Leveraging technologies like this could help us expand our reach.”
Admissions also has an eye on high school juniors and sophomores, who often spend the spring and summer beginning their college searches. For them, the virtual offerings are a bridge to in-person events next fall. “We’re always reminding them they can’t visit yet,” Richmond said, “and reassuring them that we will roll with the punches if, for instance, their high school changes their grading scale. We’re not going to put up additional barriers for them.”
Ultimately, she pointed out, as sweeping as this disruption is, it’s temporary. “W&L’s mission has not changed. Our campus has not changed. And our community is as welcoming and tightly knit as ever.”