Meet Jennifer Mallen
Director New Students & Family Programs
Five Years at Carolina
What is your role and how have your responsibilities changed since the switch to working remotely?
The role and purpose of the New Students & Family Programs (NSFP) team hasn’t changed, but our entire program delivery method had to turn on a dime back in March. All of our training and programs are traditionally in person, and we quickly realized that we would have to provide our programming virtually this summer and into fall. We walked ourselves through every aspect of our content/curriculum and made decisions with support from campus partners and senior leaders to best meet our learning objectives while meeting our commitment to providing a robust transition experience for our students and their families.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced when transitioning to remote work?
The biggest challenge initially was wrapping our heads around the new reality, working through the emotional aspect of losing the summer we thought we would have as a team and with our student leaders running programs. We were gratefully able to retain virtually all of our students, which was a hugely positive moment for our team morale.
The other big challenge was working through the technical aspects of the summer and fall programs and thinking honestly about what we could deliver, defining what content would be delivered in which ways, what we needed to let go and what new ways we could do things in the virtual environment.
Looking back, it is safe to say the shift to virtual programming has been both a challenge and a blessing of sorts, as our team has been trying to advance some programming improvements over the last several years, and the pandemic allowed us to accelerate these efforts once campus partners realized they would also need to think differently. For example, we were able to greatly advance our digital accessibility efforts this summer, which is a win for all participants.
What have you been doing to provide support for students during this period of remote learning? What are some of the biggest issues/concerns/questions you are hearing from students?
NSFP provides support to students and families on two levels. For all new students and families, we have provided the same slate of services and programs to help them transition to Carolina. We’ve also been trying to enhance our opportunities and conversations throughout the summer to help continue to build the excitement and really share the resources available since we know this is going to be very different fall, and our newest Tar Heels are really putting a lot of faith in us that we will all navigate this together.
For our continuing student leaders, Parents Council members and all families, we are trying to be attentive to smaller opportunities for training and community building and leveling up our communication plan and programming for the fall semester.
I often sound like a broken record, but I tell families (and students) all the time: “If you remember one thing about NSFP, remember we are here to make a big place feel smaller. We hope to be that first connection, first call, first email if you have a question about Carolina. Hopefully we will know the answer, but if we don’t, we will help you get connected to the right service that can support you or your student’s next step.” In a nutshell, that is the way we hope to support our undergraduates and their families.
How are you maintaining a sense of cohesiveness among New Students and Family Programs staff?
Our staff has a GroupMe that is “just for fun” and quick notes. We share daily motivational songs there to start and end our days, along with silly stories and random things of interest. We had a game night before Orientation really picked up and hope to do that again soon when our busy time settles just a little. We moved staff meetings to shorter weekly check-ins. We added a recipe tab to our Teams group since we have all been cooking more! Each of our student leader teams also have GroupMe threads that full-time staff drop into and provide encouragement.
And, we have been doing a lot of serious work as well, related to the pandemic, alongside deeper discussions of supporting each other and our students in discussions of injustice and identity and how we lean into the work as a team for each other, our student leader groups, and support this work through all of our programs. NSFP had been engaged in this work more deeply over the last academic year in particular, and during this summer has tried to continue these conversations at all levels of our organization.
How have you set up your workspace at home? Where are you working from and did you bring anything from your office to your home?
The corner of my bedroom is now my space and my partner is in the small office nook that we already had set up. We realized early that us both being in the tiny room on so many calls was not going to work! We “cleaned off” and organized the top of his dresser (which is now my background) so it looks like we have our act together. I actually started to go into the office twice a week beginning in June, which has been a nice hybrid for me. At first, I only had my laptop and keyboard/mouse hooked up to a monitor at home, but I caved and went and got my chair. I much prefer to be at the office, but this has been working, and I try to just be grateful each day that we have been able to mostly make work and family life manageable. The kids are happy, we are healthy and the NSFP team is AMAZING! Really, truly AMAZING. I have never been prouder to work with a group of professionals and students than I have been this summer!
How are you continuing to support Carolina’s mission?
I believe NSFP’s purpose is to provide students and families with a warm and inviting introduction to the institution’s mission and values and expectations of being a Carolina community member. Our programs are designed to do so, and our expectation of ourselves as a team is to give new students and their families the first connections and resources they need to build connections and really feel like they belong. If you talk to anyone on the NSFP team, I think they would say this is such a special part of what we get to do every day, and we take seriously our responsibility. Most of the time, I think we do a darn good job too!