The first year of college is a unique time where students, who are starting the next phase of their lives in a new environment, create connections that will carry them through four years and beyond. With the coronavirus pandemic leading universities to move most classes online, leadership at the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics decided to make sure that Blue Hens starting their college career virtually would be able to form connections and begin to build their own community online through the Lerner Nest program.
“When my son was a first-year student, he talked about spending a lot of time with the kids in his hall, group dinners every night, going together to campus events, etc.,” said Carolyn Levine, chair of the Lerner Department of Accounting and MIS. “I thought, ‘how can we replicate the feeling of a ‘hall’, a group of students to spend time with in the first few weeks? Wouldn’t it be even better if these students were in your classes, since it would be harder to meet classmates for study groups?’ Since we’re Blue Hens, the idea of the Nest came about.”
Over the summer, the Lerner College Dean’s Advisory Council discussed Levine’s idea and decided that each of the five departments would create their own unique Lerner Nests to fit the needs of their students. The Nests would be led by UD upperclassmen, who could share their personal experiences and answer questions from a student’s point of view, with faculty serving as additional advisors.
“Nests give students a place to meet friends, get advice from others in a similar situation and interact with faculty in small groups,” Levine shared.
“My experience in the Nest program has been great,” said Shana Hunter, a first-year student at UD with an honors economics and finance double major, who was very active in her Nest. “My Nest leaders, Tim and Ella, have been so helpful and fun to talk to. They give insights on what being at UD is really like and they do their best to answer any questions people have.”
Each Lerner Department approached creating their Nests a little differently in order to fit the specific needs and interests of their students. In the Department of Economics and Department of Finance, students were most active in their Nests at the beginning of the semester. They met other first-year students that they would then see in their Zoom lectures. They were also able to ask the upperclassmen Nest leaders questions about everything from professors to registered student organizations to which restaurant on Main Street has the best takeout pizza. The Finance Department also created a specific nest for first-year students who identify as female, which has continued to meet throughout the fall semester.
The Hospitality and Sport Management Department had approximately 90 students participate in their Nest program. Department Chair Sri Beldona noted that students in these Nests were able to, “Engage in activities as a group – and some of the Nest groups have also been meeting together, to further the engagement. Some of the activities include a variety of games online; Wellness Wednesday – providing positive focus on their wellness – including de-stressing exercises; reminding them to vote on election day; holding open hours if a student would just like to talk and more!”
In the Accounting and MIS Department, each of the six Nests planned their activities around what their students were looking to gain from the program. One Nest had senior student “office hours” where first-years and transfer students could ask a Lerner senior any questions they had about majors, careers, etc. Another had a session dedicated to learning how to set up and use LinkedIn to connect with potential employers and to search for internships. One team of upperclassmen Nest leaders shared their HTML/CSS skills by helping the first-year students build their own resume websites in “Online-MIS-Art-And-Crafts” sessions. Beyond academic and career preparation, the Nests also provided the students with fun, casual bonding experiences like virtual Jackbox parties, scavenger hunts and more.
The Department of Business Administration (BUAD) was tasked with creating Nests not only for students with BUAD majors, but also for the one-third of the incoming class joining Lerner as business undeclared students. Madisyn Steinberg, UD Class of 2020 and current UD MBA candidate, was hired as the Nest coordinator to lead the program within the BUAD Department.
The BUAD Department sent over 300 first-year students an interest survey and those who wanted to join the Nest program were put into one of 17 Nests with students who had common backgrounds, interests and locations. Steinberg was able to recruit upperclassmen looking for leadership and mentorship opportunities to serve as the Nest leaders. In addition to events within the individual Nests, the entire BUAD Nest program came together for a virtual trivia night in October.
The Fall 2020 semester was certainly unique, bringing both challenges and opportunities for community building for first-year college students in a virtual learning environment. When students at the Lerner College transition back to on-campus learning, they will be able to build on the virtual connections and community that they were able to create through the Lerner Nest program.
“My favorite part of the program has been the people I have gotten to spend time with,” Hunter continued. “It has definitely been difficult and weird to try and connect with my fellow students, so being in a Nest has definitely helped me. I think it will help me transition to being on campus because I already have a network of people I know.”