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July 27, 2023

How do we build community both intentionally and organically?

by Renata Opoczynski, assistant dean for Student Success Assessment and Strategic Initiatives

Portrait photo of Renata OpoczynskiI’m still reflecting on all the great learnings from the Student Success Summit in May, particularly how we can be in community with each other. Research tells us that students who feel a sense of community are more likely to stay enrolled and achieve greater academic success. When we engage in student success work, we often strive to build a sense of belonging by intentionally planning social gatherings, meticulously crafting agendas and icebreakers meant to connect folks, and working to build a space where everyone can come as their whole self.

As faculty and staff, we also work to build community across our unit, divisions or colleges. We do this in similar ways: planning retreats, sharing about our lives, getting logo branded jackets or water
 bottles, and sharing points of pride about the unit. While we often work hard and intentionally to craft this community, I’ve noticed recently that sometimes the strongest bonds and connections form organically in unplanned ways and experiences. It may be figuring out you all are huge “Ted Lasso” fans and quoting your favorite lines from the show; it may be a shared common experience like reflecting on the imposter syndrome you all feel, or it may be becoming obsessed with the MSU Falcon camera on campus, as I recently experienced.

This past year Undergrad Ed was fortunate enough to expand its Data Team and we opened the position up to fully remote hires. We have an amazing group of four folks now, only one of whom lives in the area. As we were onboarding the new hires, we were intentional about trying to create a shared identity and community across four states. While I would like to think the intentionally designed community building helped, the team formed exceptionally strong bonds largely through a completely random experience that all started with a snowy Michigan day. One of the team members noted they never knew if it was snowing in Michigan, so we talked about the Beaumont Tower camera and the team started to check it every day to see what the weather was like and to feel more connected to campus.

This moderately planned community building experience led to the discovery of several other cameras on campus including the MSU Falcon box created by the Fisheries and Wildlife club. We talked about the history and debated whether Freyja and Apollo would come back this year. As the falcons slowly made their comeback, we got excited and eagerly shared our sightings of them on our Teams chat. Then we watched and counted as the four eggs were laid. Our families became invested as we were on round the clock egg hatching watch, and once hatched, we commented daily on the babies as they grew and eventually left the nest. There were countless Teams chats, screenshots, weekend texts about the falcons, and even talk of a falcon themed team logo. No matter what work stressors were on the table, the falcons always united the team and raised the energy in a positive directio
Sugar cookies made to look like falcons with icingn.

When it came time to thank the team at the end of the year for all their work, I knew exactly what I needed to do and asked Crowded Table Cookies to design surprise falcon cookies to send to the team. While I would have never guessed that falcons were going to be what deeply bonded the team, I was glad to be able to lean into this organically created community bonding theme and support it through intentional community building and appreciation.

So why share all this for my blog this month? Because as we start to think about the upcoming Student Success Launch, I am reflecting on how we can build community in both intentional and organic ways. One of the goals of the Launch is to bring together faculty, staff and administrators focused on student success work and build community across often disparate parts of campus. We have always intentionally designed the layout, topics and activities to try to build community, but this year I also want to think about how do we let community organically build? Where do we already have these organic community spaces and what worked to build that? How can we incorporate that in our student success work?

I hope you all can join us as we work to build that community on Sept. 6 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Please save the date and time and note that registration information will be available soon. We are also always looking for folks to help with the planning, so if you are interested in joining the planning team, please email me!