Virtual Orientation: How to Virtually Build Connections with Incoming Students

By Speaker Brian Miller

I just can’t bear another Zoom call.

It’s not just me, right? Four months into the pandemic we are all pretty much Zoomed-out. And yet it remains one of our only and best options to get things done for the foreseeable future.

For most students, the best part of college isn’t the classes or the piece of paper at the end, but the people. Remember that giddy feeling walking across campus your freshman year? That around every corner was a chance to find a group of people who truly sees you for who you are, and who you might become.

If I could sum up college in one word, it would be: possibility.

Your randomly assigned roommate may become your best friend. The person standing in line next to you at the campus coffee shop might be your future spouse. College is, for many, the defining four years of their life.

And it all starts at orientation. 

Or at least, it did traditionally. This year, of course, things are different. Instead of thousands of students buzzing around campus getting their first taste of independence, randomly meeting new people and encountering new perspectives often for the first time, they get to sit in front of a box, the same box they sit in front of every day, within which is another box labeled “Zoom,” within which are a bunch of smaller boxes featuring grainy faces that all look pretty much the same: bored, worn out, and over it.

As orientation leader, it’s your job to give these students an incredible experience that gets them amped up and excited for their first year of college. It’s not the environment or conditions you’re used to, but it’s what you’re working with. These students are desperately looking for someone, anyone, to pick up their spirits and give them something to get excited about.

It’s your turn. 

It doesn’t matter how we got here. It only matters what you do with it. Here are three tips to connect and engage with students during virtual orientation sessions.

1. Ask Meaningful Questions

“How are you?” 

“Hanging in there!”

How many times have you had this exact exchange in the past four months? It’s flat, boring, and has basically become white noise. 

If there’s one thing the pandemic reminded us, it’s how much we need to feel heard and seen for our individual humanity. “Small talk” like the above is fine as a pleasantry or to get the ball rolling, but if you really want to make meaningful connections, you need to move beyond it.

It’s a technique I call “Start Small, Follow-Up Big.” Use pleasantries to break the ice and then immediately navigate into a real question. For example:

“Hi Adam. Where do you live?”

“South Dakota.”

“I’ve never been. What do you love most about South Dakota?”

Any answer to that question will necessarily contain preferences, beliefs, or something that reveals personality and character. That’s where true connection begins.

And if you ask someone, “How are you?” and they said, “Great,” try responding with, “Good to hear it. But how are you, really?” I’ve done it countless times in the past few months, and you wouldn’t believe how much people open up and share about their true selves when given the opportunity.

2. Create Space

What percent of the population do you think are introverts? Don’t Google it, just guess.

Did you guess?

Most folks think it’s 20-30%. But in reality, on nearly every self-reported national survey, it’s closer to 50%. That’s right, nearly half the population in America reports being introverted. 

If it doesn’t seem like that, it’s probably because us extroverts are louder. We dominate most conversations and, therefore, skew the perception in our favor. The problem is it means half of the folks in your orientation groups probably aren’t getting a chance to have a voice or share their perspective. This was true in the pre-pandemic world, and virtual is only exacerbating the problem.

Just so we’re clear, being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean someone is shy. It’s about energy. Extroverts gain energy in social situations and drain energy during alone time. Introverts are the opposite, gaining energy from alone time and draining in social situations. 

Ask an introvert if they enjoy socializing and they usually say ‘yes’, but after an hour or so they feel completely drained and need to spend hours alone to recharge. Meanwhile as an extrovert, after an hour of being alone I need to get out and socialize to recharge. 

Introverts generally want to form a thought in its entirety before voicing it, whereas extroverts are more likely to start talking and form the thought as they go. So by the time an introvert has decided they’d like to share, extroverts have moved the conversation on so fast the moment is gone, and the introverts just continue to be silent.

So, what does that mean for virtual orientations?

The introverts are completely burned out. Virtual socializing isn’t like the real-world. In the real-world if someone feels drained from socializing, they can sneak off to a corner or retreat into their own head for a bit. But on Zoom calls you need to be active 100% of the time. The camera is always on, so you don’t get a break. It’s mentally taxing and physically exhausting.

Therefore your introverts are even less likely to make themselves heard because they simply can’t compete with the active go-go-go nature of Zoom calls. As orientation leader it’s your job to deliberately create quiet moments, slow the pace, and give students who are extra quiet the opportunity to share their opinion, perspective, or experience.

You can’t wait for them to jump in. They’re not aggressive enough to overpower the extroverts and don’t have the energy to try.

But they’re voice is important. Their perspective is valid. And if you allow them to be silenced you’re robbing the entire group of their contribution. 

3. Leverage the Technology

Yes, we’re tired of Zoom calls, but that’s partly because we’re having the same experience over and over again. It’s not like most meetings in the real-world were fun, either. The key to virtual engagement is making the most of the tools available.

One of those tools inside Zoom is called “Breakout Rooms.” Without going too deep into the tech itself, Breakout Rooms allow the host (only the host) to split the group into a bunch of smaller groups or even pairs. You can choose who will be in each group or randomize them (the best option for orientation) and assign a time limit to the Breakout session after which everyone will be automatically returned to the main room.

This is the technology I leverage in all of my virtual communication workshops and it’s truly magnificent.

The worst part of Zoom, from the perspective of connection and engagement, is that only one person can talk at a time. That, combined with weird audio delays and blips, turns every meeting into a weird series of monologues, rather than a conversation.

“Breakout Rooms” allow a group of, say, 20 people to split off into small groups of only 3-4, making it much more likely that each individual will get to share their perspective, gaining the feeling of being truly seen and heard on a personal level.

One of the biggest things missing in virtual events is the “in-between” moments. The few minutes when folks first show up and chat a bit before the meeting starts, the conversations that take place as people pack up to leave, coffee and bio breaks, etc.

By leveraging Zoom’s awesome “Breakout Rooms” technology we can create moments for individual connection to take place, which will ripple through the larger group settings, and make it more likely students will follow-up with new friends in their own time, on their own platforms.

Leadership is a Choice

You’ve been given the opportunity of a lifetime. This is a chance to create the new rules and make a real difference in the lives of an entire class of students, during the single most defining year of their life.

Remember, human connection is not about agreement, but understanding. 

Using the techniques in this article combined with your unique set of experiences and intuitions, I believe you will powerfully shape these incoming students’ lives for the better. 

Don’t neglect yourself! Share your experiences, thoughts, and feelings with fellow orientation leaders, staff, and faculty. You’ll make mistakes, and that’s okay. The only true failure is failing to try. Give and receive generous advice and work to make things better for all. 

All of us are smarter than any of us.

The human connection revolution is here, and it’s up to you to lead the way.

Have A Question? Fill Out This Form & We Can Get Back to You..ASAP

Book A Virtual Program

  • Date Format: MM slash DD slash YYYY
  • To choose multiple Virtual Programs, hold control as you select your choices.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.