Peer connections improve the student experience, and can even improve academic outcomes. But getting new students on campus connected with the broader community of students can be challenging. And this challenge was made even more extraordinary due to the global pandemic that impacted courses, campuses, and social events.

New technology innovations can create effective means for students to find others like them in a sea of new faces. Amid the new challenges and barriers to creating authentic student connections, institutions are looking for innovative ways to get students connected on campus.

Every campus is unique, and there are many ways to help students connect. The College Innovation Network recently led an evaluation of a new tool, Nearpeer, to evaluate its impact on student connections at California University of Pennsylvania (Cal U) and Loyola University, New Orleans (Loyola).

The results of our research evaluating student engagement with Nearpeer and subsequent peer connections at Cal U and Loyola showed that Nearpeer helped students to make cross-campus connections with others who share similar interests and, importantly, that these connections migrate offline to “real life” friends.

This look into how Nearpeer positively impacted students at Cal U and Loyola suggest several strategies that other campuses can adopt when developing new ways to get their students connected with one another. So, what should higher education leaders keep in mind when fostering authentic peer connections on campus?

We spoke with several leaders across Cal U and Loyola who were involved in the implementation of the new product about their experiences connecting students on campus to gather advice that others in their position can apply when fostering peer engagement on their own campuses.

1 – Students are more than their academics

Although students on campus share the common goal of furthering their education, students have full lives beyond the classroom. They have ample opportunities to meet others in their courses, for example, but how can students find others who are interested in Anime, Minecraft, or Thrifting?

It’s vital to remember that students want to find others with similar interests that go beyond their academics. In our research, we found that students took the opportunity to share hundreds of unique interests, the majority of which were shared by at least one other student.

“There is a better sense of connectivity and empathy when students know one another on a level deeper than a classmate, floor buddy, or someone they’ve seen on campus,” shared Dale Hall, Assistant Director for Student Life at Loyola.

When implementing or designing new student engagement tools, or even organizing student events, remember that students crave connections beyond their classes or major. Find creative ways for students to share their hobbies and extracurricular interests with each other.

2 – Engage early and often with students

Our research showed that a key success factor in getting students to opt-in to social engagement opportunities was timing. The campuses we studied implemented Neerpeer before students’ first day, making it an embedded component of their academic experience and an integral part of the student journey.

Administrative leadership in fostering authentic connections starts from a students’ first engagement with the university, not their first day of class. Students should have clear opportunities and means of engagement with other students from the day they are admitted to your university – don’t wait!  “What is often overlooked in retention strategies is the need for students to remain connected and feel part of the campus community before they take their first course,” says Brenda Fredette, Dean of Eberly College of Science and Technology at Cal U.

Engaging students early and often requires cohesive and consistent communications strategies so that students are aware of the opportunities available to them, and can get engaged right away. This, however, requires alignment across university teams.

3 – Build alignment across campus departments and leaders

Every campus leader involved in the student engagement initiatives at Cal U and Loyola emphasized the importance of building alignment across university teams. Implementing new tools for students to connect is a true campus-wide effort.

Engaging students across their entire educational journey – from the point of admission, through enrollment and orientation, and across their first term – requires initiative leaders to get buy-in from other leaders across the relevant departments. By clearly emphasizing the importance of cross-department collaboration, and connecting your initiative to broader university strategic objectives, leaders can help gain buy-in and ensure that students can engage and start connecting right away.

4 – Stay exclusive to your campus community

When designing student engagement opportunities, it may be assumed that there are plenty of ways for students to connect with one another on traditional social media. But by remaining exclusive to your campus community, students see a clear value-add to opt-in to opportunities that can help them feel connected with others on campus specifically.

“I love the idea behind Neerpeer, it allows students to get to know the other members of the campus community they are about to join and who they are going to be starting their college journey with,” says Daniel Harris, Assistant Director of Student Life at Loyola.

If your goal is to build connections among students on your campus, then keep the initiative exclusive to your campus. As previous research has shown, peers with friends on campus are more likely to pass introductory courses and, for first generation students, are retained at higher rates.

The transition to college can be a challenging time for students. Students are tasked with choosing courses, navigating a new campus, and aligning their academic interests with relevant careers. Socially, students are interacting with hundreds or thousands of new peers. The research results shared in this report shows how an education technology product designed around connecting students across genuine shared interests can promote peer connectedness on campus and help foster real friendships.

Download the full report Making Peer Connections with Nearpeer at California University of Pennsylvania and Loyola University, New Orleans  to learn more about our research and how you can get your students connected.