With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full swing, how can a program that focuses on community service and interacting with people welcome its new and returning cadre of students? Simple. By thinking inside the box.

Typically, the Bonner Leader Program, a four-year civic leadership and development program at the College of Charleston, holds a weekend retreat ahead of the academic year complete with campfires, parties and games. How can that experience be replicated on Zoom?

box with hot cocoa mix, cookies, a t-shirt and a water bottle

To recreate the retreat feel via Zoom, Stephanie Visser created packages for the new and returning Bonner Leaders, which included hot cocoa, cookies, a T-shirt and a tumbler. (Photos provided)

The first step for Stephanie Visser, director for the Center for Civic Engagement which oversees the Bonner Leader Program, along with three interns — Cyril Langston, Avery Wallace and Emma Burton — was to create boxes for the 14 incoming and 12 returning Bonner Leaders. They fitted the boxes with all the tools needed for the ideal Zoom retreat experience: a tote bag, a reusable straw, a journal for Bonner meetings, a fun writing implement, tea, hot cocoa, Emergen-C, a copy of the Bonner Leader zine, a tumbler, granola bars, candy, ingredients to make a mug cake and a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase Eat. Sleep. Volunteer. The team then either mailed the boxes or dropped them off at the students’ homes.

The Bonner Leaders had the right tools, but now the team had to keep them engaged for the three-day online retreat.

“We were very intentional about our programming,” explains Visser. “We held a convocation day just for new students. We wanted them to feel welcome, and we wanted to cover information that would be difficult for our returning Bonner Leaders to sit through on Zoom.”

When the new and returning Bonner Leaders came together, the first activity, even before introductions, was “speed dating.” The returning students had received a list of phone numbers to call, but had no idea who would pick up. Zoom was muted and phone calls were made, leading to students making faces and waving as they tried to connect with each other.

Other activities included Zoom Bingo, Go & Tell where the students grabbed something and shared how it was meaningful to them, and an intentional, self-reflective time for goal setting.

“I was really impressed by how the new students embraced the experience and made the most of it,” says Visser. “They used the chat feature to participate and have fun with each other. I think the new students definitely feel connected and understand that they are part of the Bonner family now.”