With the first term of the 2020/21 academic year rapidly approaching and King’s going partially digital, current and incoming students alike are wondering how their King’s experience will be affected by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Roar sat down with King’s College London Student Union (KCLSU) President Salma Hussain, VP of Activities & Development Niall Berry, and Marketing Lead Lisa McCabe to discuss the SU’s Digital Welcome Fair, as well as its plans for aiding students in these difficult times.
Roar: Could you give me a general overview of your plans for the Welcome Fair?
Salma Hussain: Essentially we are having a digital-first approach. We have a great KCLSU Welcome app – you should download it if you haven’t already – where you can interact with societies and students. I honestly think it’s just great. It has some really great features; I’ve already had some messages which I’ve answered through private message, which is nice because I think it’s good not to have that medium of e-mail. I feel e-mail is quite formal, whereas you can interact with different students on the Welcome app, which is where we’ll be hosting our Welcome Fair. All the societies will be able to interact with those who “come up to them” in a way, virtually.
Niall Berry: Yeah, so obviously with the weird times we’ve got going on, with people at home and unable to take part in that physical fair that we normally have, essentially our Welcome app is giving everyone the chance to take part in that Welcome Fair regardless of where they are in the world. We’ve got 150-odd sessions and 70-odd sports, 50-odd volunteering and fundraising groups all involved – it’s just a great chance for all our students and Freshers to start getting that uni experience in regardless of where they are.
Lisa McCabe: All the live sessions are now up on the app as well, so you can either go to the app or the desktop version and see all the sessions across Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We have over 150 different sessions hosted by different groups, with 15-minute time slots for people to have a chat. Usually, the president of each society will come and say a few words about what the society does and give people a nice overview of how things are.
R: So you said all the live events are now up – does each society get one time slot registered to them?
LM: Essentially. We have, I believe, over 300 societies, so not every single society did apply for a live time slot. I think it’s something like 170 that we got, but pretty much 99% of societies are on the app, so even if they’re not hosting a session, you can search for and find them. If you want to look up, for instance, the Harry Potter Society, you type that in the search and their profile will come up. If you want to search for the president of a society, we’ve asked them to put it on their profile so you can have a one-on-one chat with them if you want to.
R: We’ve spoken with several societies at King’s, and it’s been interesting to see how some found communication from the KCLSU to be very clear, while others were confused as to how the app will be set up and how sessions will be presented. I believe there was a developer delay on the one-to-one video chat feature which held it back from the final release?
LM: Yes. So what’s happened there is, basically when you go into each session there will be a live video chat. Within each, there will be a link to something like a Zoom webinar. Up to around 1,000 people can attend at a time, which is great, and the lead from each society will be able to run a group video chat. Each session will be recorded, and then by Monday or Tuesday they will be uploaded to the KCLSU’s YouTube channel. That way, even is people miss certain societies, or just want to go back and review things, all the recordings, the presentations and chats, will go up on our channel.
R: I also wanted to ask about the rest of the app. I can see you’re presenting more general aspects of the university and the SU, such as other events and SU Venues like The Shack. As a second-year student, I’ve had almost an entire year to explore around campus and visit different SU venues. How are you planning on providing as regular of a university experience as possible for freshers, given the circumstances?
SH: When we say a “normal” student experience, what does that mean for this year? I think this year has been challenging, not least because of the pandemic, and although we’re trying to make the best student experience possible, it’s not going to be the same. Students are going to be wearing face coverings, which I appreciate with affect communication, but I think we are doing a lot of things around the Student Union to keep the best experience possible.
We have our opening hours on campus, and I’ve seen pictures of what campus looks like already – it looks like students are having fun. I also saw a competition on Instagram for freshers to guess where photos were taken on campus, and quite a lot of them were guessing correctly. I don’t think it’s about making a “normal” experience, but recognising the number of mitigations we have gone through as a Union. Niall has been doing some fantastic work with societies and sports team to make sure it will be a great experience for everyone.
NB: We’ve already seen that our students and freshers are adapting. We’ve had 400-500 people coming to online events and have seen great engagement on the Welcome App, with over 3,000 downloads since August. The main thing we want to do is continue to push that sort of King’s community experience that people get from sports, from societies, from their faculties, and it’s just about adapting that community feeling to what we are able to do under the guidelines we’re having to work within.
R: I think the general student population understands that King’s Administration, in particular, is having issues sorting out the usual administrative systems such as timetables given shifting government advice. Are there any systems the KCLSU is putting into place to help students dealing with this?
NB: While we can’t speak to the King’s Admin side of things directly, I know we’re working on guidance around activity groups and how sports and societies can function. We’re hopefully going to be releasing that soon, though I’m not sure of an exact date. One of my manifesto points I ran on was pushing for wellbeing on a society level, and I know that the King’s Wellbeing team are already doing great work supporting student Wellbeing Officers across societies. Initiatives like that, I think, are going to be key in supporting students how and where we can. Obviously, there’s going to be setbacks and things we need to work around, but it’s the sort of “do what we can, where we can” solution.
I would encourage everyone, returning students and Freshers, to engage with things like the Welcome app and our online events to keep that King’s community going. We need to all be pushed in and engaging with online or adapted activities we can take part in.
R: To make the best of a bad situation, essentially.
NB: Essentially. I mean, we’re doing a lot of good work to promote that student engagement and that student experience. Obviously, it’s a two-way street – both sides need to be engaged.
SH: I think we have pulled together as a community very admirably to make sure the student experience is the best it possibly can be this year. The Welcome app is just one way we are newly engaging students. I also think it’s something to look at in the future; we are using these new tools to better student engagement, especially to reach those students who wouldn’t normally engage with the KCLSU for whatever reason. I’m actually really excited to go to the Welcome Fair and see how it looks and feels online. I think this year will be a different welcome, but it will still be a great welcome.
LM: I think that’s it, yeah. Hopefully, everybody logs on to start meeting new people and picking up new interests. The app will continue to exist after the Welcome Fair. We are looking at how it could look to host other events down the line on the service. I think that’s a really nice, secure way for people to do that at King’s.
R: So potentially turning it into a sort-of KCLSU Hub app after the pandemic has, dare I say, concluded?
LM: Exactly. I think it’s nice, as we have a couple of thousand people on there already, for people to keep connecting with each other, so we’re definitely looking at what we can do long-term to ensure that still happens as best it can.
You can find more information about the KCLSU Digital Welcome Fair on the KCLSU website.