Director of Admissions Kelly Miller apologized for the noise in the background.
She gave a warning and laughed as she said her window was open and her husband was mowing the lawn.
It was an interview conducted over the phone from home on a workday, something that typically happens in person but has now become a new norm.
And Miller, along with Josh Norman, the Associate Vice President for enrollment management, called the entire situation the world is dealing with “interesting.”
However, despite having to adapt to rapid change, Miller said the message that she and others working in admissions is trying to send to students is: “How are you?”
Adapting to change
Since the COVID-19 pandemic led Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to issue a stay-at-home order, Eastern and other universities have adapted to not having face-to-face interaction with current and prospective students.
Norman and Miller said admissions directors from all 12 public universities in Illinois have been in constant communication and collaborating ideas to help encourage students to apply to schools without receiving a huge piece of the college choice process: being physically on campus.
Norman said when everything first happened, the goal was to see how technology could be used to give prospective students the most personalized experience possible.
He said one way Eastern was able to mitigate the problem was by using virtual tours, something that was already in place before spring break.
“We really sat down and brainstormed and looked at our existing technology, and I’m so thankful that we re-did our virtual campus tour,” Norman said. “It’s just so much more relevant since it’s been revamped.”
The virtual tour takes students around campus from Old Main to Coleman Hall, and Norman said one thing that he hopes will gain popularity is tours being live and “led” by current student tour guides.
In other words, prospective students are able to schedule tours via Eastern’s website, and when they enter the portal for their scheduled tour, a current student tour guide will also be there to guide them through the video of everything on campus and answer any questions.
“We’re trying to virtually make it like (the students) haven’t missed a step,” Norman said. “There’s nothing like the real thing, but we’re taking every effort to make sure our prospective students and their families have access to the closest thing possible.”
In addition to the virtual tour guides, Norman said prospective students can also schedule on-demand appointments with admissions counselors via video chat and participate in virtual question and answer sessions or other virtual events related to admissions and orientation.
Norman said these are all efforts to give prospective students more personalized visits and hopefully bring them to campus.
“…the more personalized visits are the more impactful,” Norman said.
Effects on enrollment
In terms of enrollment numbers, Norman and Miller said students are still being admitted and the university is still receiving applications.
“Just last week, I was surprised at the number of applications we were getting in,” Norman said. “I really have been … it’s been interesting to see the applications coming in.”
But Miller said before spring break, they were on a roll.
“We were doing great, and on March 30 we were scheduled to have another Open House … we had 300 students registered, but (the Open House) came to a screeching halt,” Miller said.
She said the numbers at all state universities have been affected negatively — not because of anything Eastern did wrong, but because students have different priorities now.
Miller said prospective students, particularly those in Chicago, for example, where there are larger numbers of cases of COVID-19, are overwhelmed.
“Families are just frozen. They’re like, ‘What I’m focusing on now is not paying my deposit or signing up for orientation, it’s feeding my family, keeping everyone safe and trying to figure out what I can do because I’ve been laid off of work,’” Miller said. “So our message to students is just simply, ‘How are you, are you doing OK, is there anything we can do to help?’”
Even though students are still applying and committing to Eastern, Norman said the numbers have been fluctuating across the board and the circumstances are having an impact on enrollment.
But he said it is hard to tell what is going to be the total impact at the end of the enrollment cycle.
How are you?
Norman said students both current and prospective are at the center of all the planning.
“We have just done so much to allow for additional flexibility for our prospective and our current students in this situation and operate in their best interest,” he said.
This includes extending deadlines and reaching out to students to see where they can help.
Miller said they are there to help students in any way, and once they feel safe and ready to take care of the next steps in the admissions process, then they can help with that too.
“We can schedule ‘Zoom’ meetings and walk them through those processes, but we’re just here to help (prospective students),” Miller said.
Norman also said that right now, they are telling prospective students and their families that things will be “business as usual” come fall.
He said although there is contingency planning in the background, they want students to take part in PROWL and move in on Move-In Day, and until they are told otherwise, that is what the plan is.
Norman said the hardest thing in these circumstances is the unknown.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen between now and next week, and the circumstances do impact the enrollment cycle, and … I think students are going to take longer to make a decision when some of the things that are happening can be so impactful and distracting,” Norman said.
Analicia Haynes can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]