Eureka College Admission Efforts Persist Despite COVID-19 Disruption
By Blake Baxter
This is the first of a three-part series that focuses on how Eureka College has responded and adapted to the unprecedented circumstances posed by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
EUREKA – Before this semester became a blur of rapid information consumption and unprecedented action, COVID-19 only occupied a small part of Mac Ingmire’s brain.
It started in January as a faraway threat that might have an inadvertent ripple effect at Eureka College. It escalated into a looming concern in February as the virus continued spreading throughout the United States.
And in March, it became the overwhelming force that prompted Eureka College to make drastic moves in order to protect the immediate health, safety and well-being of its campus community.
For Ingmire, EC’s Dean of Enrollment Management, that meant finding answers to questions he’d never had to consider before.
See, the admissions department has spent the entire school year fine-tuning best practices, making the most of the resources they had and crafting a strategy to expand Eureka’s appeal to prospective students.
Then everything changed, and they all had to determine a way to provide the same services in a radically different – and socially distant – format.
It was a tall order, but Ingmire says that he believed his team could pull it off, even though it would push them all into uncharted territory.
“I knew we could do it,” Ingmire said. “It was more of a personal ‘Oh, crud’ moment, because I never thought I’d have to experience something like this in my life.”
A month later, there’s still a lot of uncertainty in the air, but due to their proactive approach, the admissions department’s various efforts have continued strong.
Less than two weeks before the specter of COVID-19 fundamentally altered significant aspects of American life, members of the admissions team began planning to take every possible aspect of the admissions department online. Then, once EC announced that employees would be working remotely during the stay-at-home order, the meetings continued virtually via Zoom.
“Because we are a small admissions team and just a small campus in general, we’re nimble,” Ingmire said. “We can do things that other large institutions simply can’t because we have a small team.”
Assistant Director of Admissions Austin Blair says that getting prospective students on campus is “the most important way to build a connection” to the school and the people who populate the campus community. During this time, the admissions team was tasked with figuring out how to provide an enhanced on-campus visit experience without leaving their homes.
At Eureka, all visits are uniquely customized to the prospective students, but they share a few key components. A campus visit at Eureka College typically consists of one-on-one time with an admissions counselor, a campus tour with a student ambassador, and either a meeting with a professor or a chance to sit in on a class.
These days, prospective students can visit campus virtually. Fifteen minutes before the virtual visit begins, the student gets a Zoom call from EC Visit and Event Coordinator Susan Bressner for a quick preview of what the “visit” will entail, along with a brochure.
The student then connects with a professor in their field of interest, followed by a student ambassador who’s an expert on student life and concluding with an admissions counselor who can answer any questions they have about the application process.
Lastly, the admissions counselor sends the student a link to EC’s virtual tour, which allows them to explore a 360 degree photo map of the Eureka campus and learn about the various facilities and landmarks that reside ‘Neath The Elms.
When campus is open, student ambassadors lead tours and answer questions for visitors. Now, Bressner says, they’re offering guidance from afar.
“I think it’s cool that the students still, even though they’re not here, want to participate,” Bressner said. “They still want to be involved in helping get students here because they see the value of the school.
“It goes to show even more about the family atmosphere (of Eureka), and how much the school is loved.”
Admissions is also engaging students with “EC Now” sessions every Tuesday and Thursday, where prospective students can participate in a 15-minute information segment as well as question and answer segments on a wide variety of topics.
Among the sessions they’ve hosted thus far are general Q&A segments with admission counselors and members of the athletic department, and overviews of the science and education curriculums with environmental science professor Dr. Katy Everett and education professor Janelle Dies.
“Now that we’re recording it (EC Now),” Blair said, “we can start sharing this and using it in our day-to-day recruiting for students who aren’t able to actually be on campus.”
The admissions counselors found that prospective students were initially shell-shocked by the mass cancellation of senior proms and graduation ceremonies, all the milestones and traditions that mark the transition from high school to college. However temporary it ends up being, it has taken time for them to come to terms with the new paradigm.
The counselors’ role, Blair says, is to remind them that they’re still there, and that they can support them in working through the admissions process when they’re ready. They can also help take their minds off things and keep life in perspective.
“Some of the students that we’re recruiting are nervous; they’re scared, so they need some reassurance, and I understand that,” Blair said. “It’s okay to be up front and tell an 18-,17-year-old, ‘Hey, you’re not the only person in the world that’s nervous right now.'”
For example, there was recently a prospective student in Alabama who was in the midst of making his college decision when the pandemic happened. Admissions has made sure that he knows Eureka hasn’t forgotten about him.
“We’ve been one of the few schools that have been able to stay in touch with him, and we’re one of his last two schools,” Blair said. “That’s a huge testament to the ability to adjust within our office.”
Also, consider the case of Austin Hopkins, a senior from Arcola who recently deposited. An accomplished running back on the football team who plans to study environmental science and business, Hopkins already had solid connections to Eureka. His mother, Sheila Plank Dukeman, was an alum, and so was his football coach, EC Hall of Fame quarterback, Nick Lindsey.
However, Hopkins said what set Eureka apart from two larger state schools was the dedication and care admissions showed during the process, specifically citing a conversation he had with Blair.
“He was like, ‘Listen, I’m here for you, I want to know exactly what you want, even if it’s not Eureka, I just want to see you happy,’” Hopkins said. “And honestly, I think that conversation was when Eureka became my No. 1, just because that kind of thing isn’t something I’d seen from any of the other colleges.”
From Ingmire’s perspective, the crisis has challenged the admissions department to cross-train, adapt and reinvent itself in new and necessary ways while also highlighting what’s already made it such an effective team.
“One of the most challenging things about this pandemic for this industry, is that a lot of places have had to start out being reactive with how they recruit,” Ingmire said. “I think a history of being proactive will prove to be a key to success in the coming months.”