Like students and professors, Kenyon administrators have made significant adjustments to their daily lives because of the pandemic. Over the past few weeks, Sam Filkins, director of Student Engagement, has been finding creative ways to connect the Kenyon community.
Filkins’ job has always been student-driven. A self-described extrovert, Filkins deeply values collaboration and interaction with others, and in his seven-and-a-half years at Kenyon, has always relied on student input. While working from home, this has become more difficult for Filkins.
“When students are on campus, I really look at my position as one where I’m connecting students and empowering them to create a community that they are proud of,” he explained. Filkins said that he always strives to meet students’ needs in the hopes of them feeling connected to campus, and he is determined to maintain these values despite remote learning.
Although his job is challenging to do remotely, Filkins is adamant in his pursuit of maintaining the Kenyon community. “When we moved to remote learning, all of a sudden, the entire community—not just students—was spread across the globe,” he said.
Filkins’ focus, aimed at connecting the now widely spread community, has been to create opportunities for people to be present with one another. Recognizing that these unprecedented circumstances can easily spur feelings of loneliness, Filkins stressed the importance of having an outlet to “connect with folks and have an uplifting moment to recenter yourself” a few times a week. He sees his remote Student Engagement initiatives as “experiments,” and has been pleasantly surprised at how well they have been received by the community.
Filkins decided to imitate ideas that already worked well on campus. Bingo, an activity typically run by Social Board, was one of his first ideas. Filkins assumed that Bingo, as a low-stress activity, would be a good one to maintain remotely. Since remote learning began, Filkins has successfully hosted Bingo sessions every week and has been happy with the turnout. Not only is Filkins hosting remote Bingo for members of the Kenyon community, but he is also planning a session for all of Knox County, which is expected to occur in mid-to-late May. He has already reached out to local vendors for prizes, and has been communicating with several members of the community to ensure the activity is a success.
Filkins noted the positive impact that a weekly Bingo game has had not only on students’ well- being, but on his own mental health, as well. “It helps me re-center,” he explained. “This is important work. It’s silly work at times, but it is important work. And that’s been rewarding.”
Living so close to campus gives Filkins an advantage when it comes to keeping students in touch. Over the last few months, he has been posting videos and pictures of Kenyon for those of us who are far away from the Hill. Inspired by various museums that have resorted to filming their exhibits, Filkins has also been spending time creating virtual campus tours, which he films every week.
“Everyone’s looking at the same four walls pretty frequently,” Filkins said. “Having an escape is good.” With these tours, he hopes that members of the Kenyon community can remember walking down Middle Path and reflect on various parts of campus.
So far, Filkins’ experiments have been widely successful. Another new activity he launched was a landmark bracket tournament which was advertised to the entire Kenyon community. At first, he expected about 20 people to participate, but the numbers soon rose to over 100.
“It’s shown that there are students that are excited to remember Keyon and reconnect with one another,” Filkins observed.
Filkins’ challenges mainly revolve around not “having students to bounce ideas off of.” Because Filkins takes a student-driven approach to his programming, not having daily interactions with Kenyon students makes this process more difficult. Despite these challenges, however, Filkins works remotely with the Student Council and Social Board and says he appreciates their willingness to continue bolstering student engagement while off-campus.
Filkins has also noticed that several incoming Kenyon first-year students have been interacting with the Student Engagement Instagram accounts.
“Actually, we’ve had some current high school juniors start following the account, which is kind of interesting,” he said. He acknowledges that the incoming class hasn’t had a chance to tour the campus, so his weekly campus video tours have provided a sense of excitement for them. Because of how well the tours have been received, Filkins anticipates continuing them into the summer, and he encourages the Kenyon community to keep an eye out for upcoming remote engagement opportunities.
“I’ve been thinking about highlighting faculty, staff or even students’ hidden talents,” Filkins said. He has also entertained the idea of a cooking show where ingredients are announced a week before, so that students and faculty will have enough time to prepare and eventually cook together via Zoom. In addition to cooking, Filkins wants to implement art programs and karaoke nights. No matter the program, his focus on community remains the same.
“I think that we need to see the human side of each other during this time, and realize that we’re all going through this together,” he said. “This has been one of the most difficult semesters in my professional career, but also one of the most rewarding because of these types of engagements.”