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Navigating the New Normal

Intentionally Rebuilding the University’s Vibrant Community and Reclaiming the SDSU Spirit and Campus Energy

By Aaron Burgin

After spending nearly 18 months away from San Diego State University at her family’s home in Corona during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ashley Tejada was eager to return to the busy campus life she’d grown accustomed to during her first years of college.

“Being away created a lot of uneasiness, given that I was very adjusted and appreciative of all that the SDSU community had to offer. …” said Tejada, a graduate student in postsecondary educational leadership.

“That sense of community – I felt it dissolved during that time,” said Tejada, who is the current Associated Students’ president at the San Diego campus.

Orlando Ochoa, a third-year kinesiology major, returned home to Yuma, Arizona, at the start of the pandemic and, like Tejada, was counting the days until the start of this fall’s semester.

“I missed it a lot, let me tell you,” said Ochoa, who is an SDSU Ambassador and a resident adviser. “Having to suddenly go back home during the second semester of my first year on campus was never something I thought would happen, especially due to a pandemic. I missed campus, I missed my friends and I missed being around SDSU and the San Diego community, which is a big part of what SDSU is all about.”

The return to in-person learning has raised a lot of questions: How do you rebuild the a once-vibrant campus community after 18 months of pandemic-induced exile? How do you integrate half of the student body who is setting foot on campus for their very first time? And how do you do it all safely, as COVID-19 continues to impact everyday life?

Three months into the transition, it appears the university community is adapting to a new normal, and there’s no doubt that the SDSU spirit is alive and well.

“Students are adjusting to all that comes with the SDSU experience, because there are really two classes that haven’t experienced the SDSU culture,” Tejada said. “But we are almost at a point where we can come together and appreciate the little things that make SDSU what it is. The energy I feel and the morale that never fails only continues to rise since the first day I stepped back on campus.”

Building Blocks of the SDSU Spirit

Rebuilding the SDSU experience didn’t happen overnight. Rather, months of planning and work from the highest levels of SDSU leadership went into preparing for students, staff and faculty – the majority of whom worked and studied remotely during the pandemic – to return to campus. And it was all hands on deck for Associated Students and every university division at both the San Diego and Imperial Valley campuses.

There was reimagining longstanding SDSU traditions to fit the current COVID-19 guidelines. Virtual new student and family orientations continued for a second year, but New Student and Family Convocation moved outside, masked up and became three ceremonies with safer distancing. Aztec Nights events expanded its schedule to cover the entire fall semester, with appropriate masking and distancing restrictions. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test is required at home football games.

In other cases, SDSU created new events to encourage networking and socializing. SDSU Go!, for one, offers free student field trips to well-known San Diego destinations. All the trips are fully booked for the entire semester.

The university also saw five cultural centers open their doors for the first time, giving students from historically underrepresented backgrounds safe spaces. Each of the nine cultural centers have reported major interest in their in-person events.

Another underrated aspect of the return to campus has been the desire to attend in-person classes and in-person professional events, students said.

“Students are excited to come back not only for social interaction but also for their own professional development opportunities,” said Jennifer Schenkenfelder, Associated Students vice president of University Affairs. She is from Waynesville, Missouri, and majors in cellular and molecular biology.

“Being able to go to career fairs and do research and collaborate with their peers in the academic space again is a vital part of the university experience that was missing over the past 18 months,” she said.

Austin Barber, a junior from Placentia double majoring in business administration finance and political science, said “tenets of the SDSU experience in years past” have reignited passion. “It’s driven the community rebuilding process,” said the A.S. vice president of Financial Affairs.

Students aren’t surprised by the quick adjustment.

“Students have longed for a sense of community over the course of the past year and are more than ready to jump back into it,” said Karina Esteban, the A.S. executive vice president. “Most students are searching for new leadership opportunities, networking events, and spaces to join to feel connected to campus.”

Overcoming Challenges

The success has come amid challenges, including many students lack of familiarity with their campus.

Residential Education and New Student and Parent Programs held a series of meetings and events during Welcome Weeks to create camaraderie and set ground rules. There was an All-Sophomore Welcome for sophomores — commuters and residential students — who didn’t have an in-person welcome in fall 2020.

Ochoa said that in the case of his residence hall in South Campus Plaza South Tower, it means starting small.

“First, we are trying to build a community on each floor,” Ochoa said. “Once you do that, then you build a strong community in the residence hall. It makes it easier for residents to get to know each other, and ultimately it pushes them to branch out into the campus at large.”

The residential floors host weekly bonding and networking events, and each residential hall has events. From these events and campus marketing, students have been able to learn about the other larger campus social events.

Another hurdle has been an area that was a strength during the virtual learning era: the pandemic made it easier for nontraditional students, such as those who commute, to attend events.

“Over Zoom, it was a lot more accessible for students to join clubs and organizations because they could do it from anywhere,” said Schenkenfelder. “However, now we have to revisit the obstacle of not being able to be in two places at once.”

Commuter Life has ramped up efforts to engage commuting students through mentoring and an expanded slate of events at the Commuter Resource Center.

And finally, students said, the biggest hurdle to overcome is how to bring the campus together safely as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

COVID-19 safety around campus is a priority. With measures including COVID-19 tests available in vending machines to testing wastewater and enhanced cleaning, SDSU has been able to sidestep any major outbreaks on campus this fall.

“It’s a balancing act,” Ochoa said. “Because you want to go out and socialize, but you also are mindful that you not only have to worry about your own health, but you also have to keep in mind the health of everyone around you.

“I don’t think we’ll go back to the normal we knew for some time, but the normal we’re in feels pretty good too,” he said.


Parents’ Guide to In-Person Learning

We asked SDSU Ambassadors – the university’s official student reps, tour guides and orientation leaders – for their thoughts on helping your student thrive in this new environment.

  • PICK UP THE PHONE: Yes, students want their independence, but they also want to hear from you. Call or set up a time for a family FaceTime call – let them hear your voice.
  • REASSURE YOU WILL ALWAYS BE THERE: Make sure that your student knows that they can call you anytime, regardless of the situation.
  • FOLLOW SDSU SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS: Look for events your student might be attending or might want to attend – and provide friendly reminders. There are a number of accounts, including the official SDSU Parent Facebook Group and @ExperienceSDSU on Instagram and Twitter.
  • ENCOURAGE THEM TO GET INVOLVED: Give your student a nudge in the direction of activities that will enhance their SDSU experience or help them find a place in the workforce or graduate school: recognized student urganizations, SDSU Ambassadors, Associated Students, volunteer and research opportunities or an on-campus job.
  • LET THEM FIGURE IT OUT: Sometimes it’s OK to let your student figure it out on campus. They don’t have to come home every weekend.
  • BE INTERESTED IN MORE THAN GRADES: Show a genuine interest in the other aspects of college. Try not to get too upset if your student isn’t doing great in class while transitioning to mainly in-person courses. Practice compassion.

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Published in News for Aztec Parents Fall 2021