Graduate Recruitment Goes Virtual
Participants in this year’s prospective graduate student recruitment visit experienced Michigan Chemical Engineering from an entirely new vantage point–online.
The 2020 recruitment team developed two parallel plans as they monitored the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan and beyond. One version of the recruitment visit closely resembled its predecessors, while the other repackaged the traditional in-person event into a one-day, virtual experience.
Less than two weeks before prospective graduates were scheduled to arrive in Ann Arbor, the team decided to move online. Ten days later, the department hosted its first all-virtual recruitment visit, as the outbreak halted in-person plans across the United States.
Meet the 2020 graduate student recruiting team who helped write the playbook for future virtual recruitment visits:
Raymond Asare (Jennifer Linderman Lab)
Misché Hubbard (Nick Kotov Lab)
Anna Kopp (Greg Thurber Lab)
Jordyn Polito (Mark Kushner Lab)
The Chemical Engineering Communication team sat down, virtually, with our four graduate student co-chairs to discuss all aspects of planning and hosting the department’s first all-virtual recruitment visit, from building two completely unique agendas to their team’s foray into filmmaking and one team member’s potential budding influencer career.
What was your first reaction when you learned that you would be taking our traditional in person visit completely virtual?
MISCHÉ HUBBARD: I think just, you know, accepting it was the first step. (Laughter.) And two, I think really deciding what was going to be important for the weekend that we could accomplish in a short amount of time.
RAYMOND ASARE: I remember feeling really kind of shocked and I don’t know why. Recruits had been emailing us from Korea and other places in the weeks prior, and they were like “I’m concerned that this whole coronavirus issue is going to prevent me specifically from coming to the recruitment weekend.” Then, once it became a full-blown thing and recruitment as we knew it was no longer, I was really just thrown back. It was a lot of shock.
ANNA KOPP: Leading up to it, I was very antsy. We had kind of braced ourselves for that decision [to go virtual]. That morning, before we got the official announcement, we met and hashed out “Here’s what we’re going to do if we’re still on” and “Here’s what we’re going to do if we have to go virtual.”
Having that plan in place when we got the news about going virtual helped, but I was definitely disappointed. I was really looking forward to interacting with the recruits, but at the same time, I felt like there was so much to do. I felt the focus immediately went to “OK, well, let’s get into it” instead of being upset about missing out on the in-person weekend.
What were the most challenging aspects of transitioning this entire weekend event into a one-day virtual visit?
JORDYN POLITO: The most challenging part of it was just trying to combine all of the things that you’ll need to make a decision [on which graduate school to attend]. What’s life like in the city you are going to be in? What’s the department culture like? What are the grad students like? What’s the faculty like? What kind of research is there? Just combining and condensing that down into one day, especially with the virtual format, was really probably the biggest challenge.
ANNA: I think if you ask a lot of current students here, they’ll say that the reason why they came to Michigan was the people that they met on their visit weekend and the community they felt within the department. Trying to portray that without actually being in person with recruits and having them have an opportunity to meet a wide range of graduate students is probably the hardest part.
RAYMOND: I just have to echo that, like, 100 percent. I remember we kept throwing around all these different ideas about how we could make the visit weekend more immersive, so that all the recruits could meet as many grad students as possible in this new, virtual format. We thought about having a virtual poster session or having individual lab hangout rooms — and it was because we wanted everybody to get a chance to meet the people that make this place as great as we think it is.
MISCHÉ: I’d have to say the same. Just thinking in terms of the prospective [students], we wanted to make sure they had all the resources they needed to make the best decision [for their situation]. So really going through and deciding how the prospectives were going to be able to talk to grad students and faculty, and really see them on the academic side but also more the social, the more human side of everyone in the department.
JORDYN: Going off of what Ray said, one of the challenges is, of course, you have all these great ideas, like virtual poster sessions, but another challenge is we had, like, a week to do this. (Laughter.)
And there are four of us. We were already dealing with 40 plus BlueJeans links and moderating all of those rooms for all the faculty, plus the department overview, plus organizing the grad student panel. At some point, you know, manpower is an issue. And also not wanting to overwhelm these recruits with more emails and links.
RAYMOND: Not just overwhelming the recruits, but us, the grad students, as well. We already had a whole volunteer list of people who signed up to help with the in-person weekend, but the virtual events needed their own set of volunteers too. Then, realizing shortly afterwards that [nearly] all the labs were shutting down simultaneously and everybody was going to be having all of their own personal, I don’t know, mini crises, we were doing our best to be understanding and still execute the recruitment events.
That was a real challenge to coordinate the manpower like Jordyn was saying.
ANNA: Just getting everyone on the same page and making sure that the recruits knew what to expect and anyone participating on behalf of the university knew what to expect also because this isn’t something we’ve done before.
MISCHÉ: It was hard to not be stressed about other [non-recruitment weekend related] things because, like everyone is saying, we had to shut down our labs. I had to figure out how I was going to be doing research continuously for the next four to eight weeks, which is also what everybody else is doing.
So in terms of getting volunteers, we tried to be mindful that, yeah, we understand you guys are having troubles, but also we need help to give our recruits the best understanding of Michigan an also show them that you guys are amazing people who are doing amazing research.
But also, yes, put that little fire out in the lab. (Laughter.)
RAYMOND: “Little fire.”
JORDYN: If everyone has their own little fire, then is it a big fire?
MISCHÉ: Yeah, it was a lot.
But the team made it! You’re here, virtually at least, with the event now in the past. What were the most rewarding aspects about making this transition?
JORDYN: [Laughs.] C’mon guys!
ANNA: Oh, it looked like Ray was about to say something, so I held off.
RAYMOND: Yeah, sorry, I was, but I wanted to frame it my mind before I said it.
ANNA: If you need more time I can speak, but if not, it’s all you.
RAYMOND: No, I’ll just go. We got a lot of really positive feedback from a lot of the recruits. They all had our email addresses, and a lot of them took the time to just reach out and say “Oh wow, this was a really great virtual visit.”
They were super empathetic to the struggles that we were going through, and how we had to turn everything around in such a short time frame. It seemed like they were all really appreciative of the work that we had put into it. That made me feel pretty good.
MISCHÉ: It was nice to have everything all work out more or less, you know, the way we planned it. Whatever improvisations we needed to make on the day were very easy to do. It was just nice to be able to put up on an event period.
ANNA: Also seeing how much support we got from the department, both from other grad students and from staff in the department. It’s such a crazy time for everyone. Everyone’s trying to shut down their labs and deal with all these other things. And we all had multiple people reaching out asking how they could help with the virtual recruitment. Which, all things considered, was really appreciated. People who did participate were really enthusiastic, so that was nice to see.
MISCHÉ: People kept congratulating us before the event even happened. (Laughter.)
JORDYN: (Laughs.) I forgot about that!
MISCHÉ: They were like, “Good job turning this into a virtual event. Let us know if you guys need anything. You guys are doing such a great job.” So it’s like, when you’re looking down thinking “Ugh”, wondering how this is going to happen or what’s going on, someone would say “No, you guys are doing a great job. It’s going to be OK.” That was nice.
You all mentioned some improvising happened on the day of the virtual visit. What were some of the most creative solutions you came up with?
JORDYN: One thing that we never really worked out was how we were going to virtualize the graduate student panel. We knew we were going to use the video feed from the room, which is what we did for the department overview. But other than that, we’re like “Hmmm.” It was just kind of a quick, five minute turnaround trial and error. Like, “Put [Professor] Lola [Eniola-Adefeso]’s laptop on the floor, use that microphone and it can pick up everybody!” That one was pretty creative.
Ray, and I think Anna too, did a pretty good job of being able to reschedule people [when someone was no longer to make a previously-scheduled virtual faculty-prospective student meeting]. I think in most cases, Ray was able to reschedule people so they could talk on the same day.
RAYMOND: Oh yeah, yeah. That was…that was stressful.
ANNA: That was mostly Ray.
RAYMOND: Going into this whole weekend, I was expecting the worst technologically and hoping for the best. But it was really nice to see how willing the faculty and the prospective students were to coordinate another time to meet if one had a mismatch with their schedule.
Until this year, hosting an all-virtual visit was uncharted territory for our department. What were you expecting and what were you most worried about? Did anything keep you up the night before the virtual visit?
ANNA: I feel like this kind of goes to what Ray said, but I was just worried about some sort of unforeseen technological issue that would really impact the quality of the visit. So, something glitching out that would take out all of our ability to communicate with recruits. That’s what I was most worried about.
JORDYN: I was mainly just worried about whether this was going to be useful. Was it going to be something that could actually help somebody make a decision? I think we did a really good job of trying to make it as personal as we could while sitting thousands of miles away from many of the students. I was really worried about just being able to grab aspects of the recruitment weekend that we normally have and put it in a virtual format.
RAYMOND: One thing I was worried about was how the recruits were going to contextualize this visit, because a lot of them had been on physical visits to other schools before [Michigan’s visit]. So I was worried that they were going to compare our virtual experience to this glorious on-campus visit that they would have otherwise had here, or that they did have somewhere else. That was a worry that kept me up.
MISCHÉ: I was really concerned about the Internet. At this point, this is when everything had just started shutting down and we had learned that you have weird issues if your Internet wasn’t working correctly. Being a college kid, I know how good that university Internet can be sometimes. (Laughter.) Other than that, I think that’s probably, like, the weirdest thing I was worried about.
So, how did it go from your perspective?
ANNA: I thought it exceeded my expectations. We did have a few hiccups throughout the day, but I think we were all anticipating that, so it didn’t throw us off that much. I thought it went really smoothly and the things I was worried about didn’t seem to be a problem. Like Ray said, I was worried that people would just scoff at what we did in comparison to their other visits. But we actually got a lot of positive feedback from recruits. I left the day feeling tired but very satisfied with how it went.
(Anna exits the screen.)
JORDYN: You better be getting a dog! (Laughter.)
ANNA (offscreen): I’m getting water! I can get a dog later. [Editor’s note: Anna joined the conversation live from her parent’s home, where her co-workers include two dogs.]
MISCHÉ: I thought everything went really well. Everything happened that we wanted to happen. Being able to sit there, meet the recruits and offer my insight and tell some of my stories was really rewarding.
What did you find the most surprising about the virtual visit?
MISCHÉ: How much I learned about my friends’ research! (Laughter.) I’m so serious. The whole time we were filming the faculty research lab virtual tour and people were explaining what they were doing. I mean, I knew in the grand scheme what they do. But when you have grad students explain to you, as a friend, like “Oh, we’re making peptides and doing a sequence.” It’s like, wow. My friends do amazing research. I’m really glad the recruits get to see amazing work my friends get to do.
JORDYN: You should have seen Misché walking through the labs. She’d say “Oh, what’s that? Oh, that’s shiny. What does it do?”
ANNA: I was surprised by the number of recruits who reached out to us to thank us. We just did what we’re supposed to do and put on a version of what we were going to do. People were very thankful and I wasn’t expecting that many recruits to personally reach out.
RAYMOND: I’m just surprised at how many how many curveballs there were during this entire experience. After all of our initial planning, we found out that maybe [the on-campus recruitment] wasn’t going to happen — so we started planning for a second visit weekend, knowing we would only get to execute one. Then we had the greenlight that we were going virtual, and I just, like, keep thinking about all of the little things that changed along the way.
Let’s talk about that virtual lab tour video. You all were fantastic. How did that idea come to be and how much time did you have to bring your idea to life?
ANNA: Well, let’s see. We had a few days to put it together and when we found out that recruitment was going virtual, it was just a natural thing. Like, “Of course, we’re going to do this.” We knew a lot of people would want to see the labs and missing out on that would possibly impact their decision on whether or not they wanted to go here. When we first started suggesting it, it seemed kind of easy. Like, “Oh, we’ll just have a virtual lab tour!” As we started looking into it and all of the things that we needed for that, we realized—or at least I realized—that it was more difficult than we had originally expected. And that is very much outside of my comfort zone. I have never really been on camera doing anything. I don’t have any of those skills, so that was really new. It ended up being a ton of fun once we went to go do it, but being on camera is really hard. I underestimated that.
MISCHÉ: You’re a natural, Anna. That was your debut.
ANNA: We had a lot of fun with it. Like Misché said earlier, it was really nice to get to see what our peers do in the lab every day.
JORDYN: As far as the idea of how to do it, it was just kind of like I had this idea of like we need a host to show us around but beyond that it was completely on the fly. So we went to the first lab and kind of figured out what we needed to do there and then it went a lot smoother. [Laughter.]
ANNA: It wasn’t totally on the fly. We had the labs ahead of time that we were going to film.
JORDYN: We had the labs, but filming in the first lab we were just like, well we told them to prepare an experiment. Here we go! That’s why you probably noticed from the footage there’s more from that lab and it was filmed out of order. [Laughter.]
I did notice a lot of clips. I liked all of them!
JORDYN: Once we figured out what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it, it was a lot easier. We just had this loose on the fly thing we were said “OK, we have a camera and we have a microphone. Here we go!” It took an entire day to do.
Jordyn, I believe you said you scheduled 30-minutes in each lab. Did you stick to your timed agenda?
JORDYN: Yeah, we did. There also was a lunch break at some point.
I’m glad to hear you didn’t work through lunch. What was your favorite part about doing the video?
JORDYN: I think just seeing what everybody does. If you would’ve told me…well, still honestly, I don’t even know if I can get back to some of those labs in NCRC on my own. [Laughter.] But if you would’ve told me to go find the [Professor Sunitha] Nagrath lab? No idea. I had never been there. I didn’t know how big it was. I didn’t know they had this awesome, huge window. So seeing other parts of our department and, you know, for me, I don’t know what’s happening in a wet lab. I just see things and think “Oh, that looks like science. I’m just going to leave that alone.” It’s interesting to learn about some of the things that are happening and how they happen.
RAYMOND: Looking back at the video, I learned just as much as I think the prospectives will about what goes on day-to-day in the NCRC. We know it’s happening but we don’t really get to delve in and see our friends do the fun things that they do. I really liked seeing it all come together at the end.
MISCHÉ: Walking around and watching people work in their labs, but also learning like “Oh, why are you storing it that way? What are you doing with that?” [Laughter.] Learning what other people do on a daily basis is refreshing because I’m in [Professor Nick] Kotov’s Lab and I see what our people do, you know, for days on end, so sometimes it can feel a little bit redundant. But walking around, seeing your friends and being able to understand what they’re teaching you is really rewarding. And being able to convey that to prospectives and be like “These are my friends. They do really awesome, cool research and you get to see them!”
Now that it’s done, would you do it again?
JORDYN: [Laughter.] I had a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work. You usually don’t do it again once you’ve done it once. I’m more than happy to help next year, but I’ve done my time.
ANNA: I would do it again, but not during a pandemic, you know?
MISCHÉ: [Points affirmingly toward Anna.]
JORDYN: I’m disappointed we didn’t get to do an in-person recruitment because we were really looking forward to it.
ANNA: I was planning on being involved in recruitment next year as a volunteer, but I’m looking forward to it much more now because I really wanted to interact with recruits and share my experience at Michigan with them. While we got to do that in some capacity it really wasn’t the same. But I think we all learned a lot from it and I think we would still learn from doing it again, hypothetically, if we were to. I would do it.
MISCHÉ: Yes, but not during a pandemic. That would be great.
JORDYN: Not during a pandemic is the key there.
MISCHÉ: Oh, I don’t know if you know, but it only started off as Anna and Jordyn in the beginning and so they had brought Ray and I on to assist them with the weekend. I don’t know what they were doing prior to that, but it seems they were doing everything recruitment by themselves with Professor [Andrej] Lenert. These were the masterminds behind this.
RAYMOND: Definitely — props to them for starting this mission.
ANNA: We didn’t do that much before you guys got on board.
MISCHÉ: I would never know!
ANNA: We were just thinking [rubs hands together] “Please say yes!” We were really hoping that you guys would jump on board and we were lucky that you did.
JORDYN: I think our biggest task was finding more people. [Laughter.]
What final thoughts do you want to leave people with about the University of Michigan Chemical Engineering’s first virtual recruitment visit?
ANNA: [Holds up pencil] I would say I hope—I don’t know why I’m holding a pencil [Laughter]—I hope this is something future co-chairs can learn from and use to make recruitment weekend more accessible, especially because a lot of international students typically don’t get to come visit. If this can be incorporated in some way to make our department more accessible to a wider range of students, that would be a definite positive.
RAYMOND: Yeah, this virtual visit showed us a lot of the capabilities that we have and how we could be using them to make things more accessible for a wider audience. I think that’s definitely something we should be looking forward to in the future.
Will your influencer be involved in your future video plans?
MISCHÉ: Is that Anna?
ANNA: I don’t know if I’m ready for round two. Next year’s recruitment chairs can take it away!