April 06, 2022

Overcoming the Distance through Virtual Hangouts

How do you get to know your classmates in an online program that enrolls students from all over the world? 

Answering that question has always been a top priority at MCIT Online. Since the beginning, the program has successfully fostered a sense of community through tools such as Slack channels, mentoring opportunities, and group projects. 

Now, the Student Affairs team has introduced a new program to nurture even closer bonds among students. Launched in January, monthly admitted student coffee chats give students a chance to connect over Zoom for informal conversation about everything from classes to time management to non-academic subjects like sports and entertainment.

Jaclyn Weisser, Kristopher Elmer, and Adrienne Yoder

“We’ve always brought students together for large-group virtual events, but the coffee chats give them an opportunity to speak in smaller spaces,” says Kendall Johnson, Assistant Director of Student Affairs. “They love having this time where they can connect and talk about career networking, how classes are going, or common interests such as world events.”

The team hosts two coffee chats each month to accommodate the 23 time zones represented in the MCIT Online student body: one at 7:30 a.m. ET and another at 5 p.m ET. Each chat typically opens with introductions and an icebreaker to get the conversation rolling—questions like “What’s the best birthday gift you’ve ever received?”—and then the group splits into breakout rooms where they can get to know each other in small groups or even one on one. 

“The breakout rooms are kind of like speed dating,” says Adrienne Yoder, Student Success Manager, who runs the evening chats. “I randomly assign people to groups of four for 10-minute sessions and then switch them around. Students really like the format, because it gives them an opportunity to talk to everybody there.”

Kris Elmer, a Student Success Advisor who runs the morning chats, adds that the coffee chats provide the closest thing to face-to-face interaction that students can get in a fully online format.

“It allows them to interact on a more personal basis, I want them to form connections and friendships that will last throughout their lives.”

Kris Elmer, Student Success Advisor

The student response has been enthusiastic. Sometimes, the facilitators note, the conversation continues even after the official one-hour chat is over. 

“A lot of the opportunities we have for students to interact are based around webinars that are informational or career and networking events, which have a more professional feel to them,” says Yoder. “This is a time that’s set aside purely to socialize, to chat with each other informally.”

More broadly, the team hopes the coffee chats provide some of the serendipitous moments of connections that arise in a typical on-campus student experience. 

“When you think about school in a traditional sense, there are so many physical places for students to interact that are outside the classroom. Students run into each other at the cafeteria or while leaving the dorm, starting a conversation with someone who could be a friend or a new study partner. The coffee chats are a way to create those serendipitous ways for students to interact in an online format.”

Kendall Johnson, Assistant Director of Student Affairs

We’d love to tell you more about how MCIT Online fosters a strong sense of community. Check out our MCIT Online Community page, the Penn Engineering Online YouTube channel, or contact us. We look forward to hearing from you!

Tags: MCIT Online